Based on travel January 2013 – April 2014
Simplest option? Find an Entel store and buy a SIM card. Find a Kiosco or a Pharmacy to buy credit.
Varies: Some companies require personal information.
Providers and Networks:
Entel, Claro, Movistar
All providers GSM 850/900/1800/1900/2100
World Phone Compatible
If you were dropped in Providencia in Central Santiago you might be forgiven for thinking that you were in the downtown of a North American city. You’ll see glass towers, Starbucks and you might even hear some english being spoken. Step inside the base of the tallest tower in the city and you’ll find yourself in a 9 storey shopping mall. For the remainder of the country things start to feel a bit more South American, but Chile still, overall, feels decidedly modern.
As far as staying connected? Options here are similar to neighbouring Argentina with both Movistar and Claro operating in both countries. The third and largest option is Entel, originally ran by the Chilean government but now a fully private company.
Entel is our recommendation for two reasons. One, it appears to have the best coverage in the country. My test case was the Cochamo Valley area and Cochamo town. If you intend to visit this area, and you should, as it’s very beautiful and still a touch off the standard tourist path. The standard visit involves trying to find the single bus company that will get you to Cochamo Town, and then beginning a hike or horseback ride up into the beautiful La Junta valley and camping or staying at the Refugio at the top. On either end of this trip your bound to end up staying in the town at one of the cozy but spartan “Hostels” in the town. Guest houses would be a better description, most, if not all of these are rooms in the owners homes. And, as of early 2014 anyhow, you will find internet access in exactly none of these. However, you will get Entel cellphone service (and only Entel service), and with it data. To book the next stop on our trip the owner of the Hostel we stayed at was nice enough to hotspot his iPhone (connected to Entel) for me to use. We had just come in from Argentina, and I had yet to pick up my own SIM.
That actually paints a pretty accurate picture of rural Chile I think. Riding into Cochamo town requires a ride an a bus that was very near the end of it’s life. In our case it overheated several times, and we stopped so that water could be poured on the engine. The bus didn’t actually make it beyond Cochamo town to the remainder of it’s route. But, all the while, you could be surfing the internet on your iPhone 🙂
The second reason is that Entel does not require any personal information from you in order to activate a prepaid SIM card. I experimented with a Movistar sim, as the data rates appeared cheaper, but I was prompted for a Chilean tax payer number in order to activate it. Presumably there is a way to do this as a foreigner, but it likely involves bringing your passport to a central office, and a fairly in depth conversation in Spanish. Activating an Entel SIM card involved handing money to a very helpful Entel kiosk operator in a Santiago shopping mall (and another in Puerto Varas Entel Store) and a simple Spanish conversation. On both occasions the store/kiosk employee took care of the activation process (calling a number from the handset) and the phone was connected to a 3G data network before I left.
Minutes, Messaging and Data can be purchased at Kioscos (small convenience stores) similar to neighbouring Argentina (note that you cannot purchase SIM cards at Kioscos). The stores will generally display somewhere in their window or entrance the companies they sell credit for. Another very good, possibly better, option in Chile, is going to a Pharmacy. Many pharmacies will also sell credit for all the major cellphone companies. It was a bit of a strange experience asking a pharmacist to recharge my cellphone credit, but it worked just fine, and there’s actually a pretty decent chance a Chilean pharmacist will speak english. Though the process is simple enough to do in Spanish even for a true beginner.
The price for data in Chile is reasonably high by South American standards, but it is also quite easy to activate. Entel brings up a menu in your mobile browser when you are out of credit offering you several options. You just need to click to select, no sms or activation phone calls requried. You can purchase data in amounts, and time limits starting at 500 pesos (approximately 1USD) for 7mb for one day. You’re better off to select one of the weekly packages though. Current data package rates are summarized here. Packages for voice minutes and text messages can be purchased similarly.
Companies and Coverage:
As noted above Entel provides the widest coverage and the simplest activation process. Movistar when I visited appeared to have slightly better rates, so if you’re there for a long term, and staying in major centres, it may be worth investigating their activation process further. Otherwise, go with Entel. Current Entel data package rates are summarized here.