Using your phone and laptop in Sri Lanka

Let’s say you’re visiting Sri Lanka for the first time: You want to be able to keep talking to your family and friends several times a day, you want to be able to get online whenever you feel like it, and you don’t want to pay hefty overseas roaming charges.

There’s a simple solution to the mobile phone problem: Bring an unlocked GSM phone to Sri Lanka. An old Apple iPhone 3G is perfect for the job. If you don’t have one lying around your place, you can probably get a refurbished one from Amazon.

One of the advantages of the GSM standard is that it uses Subscriber Identity Modules (also known as SIMs) which are embedded into SIM cards (these are swappable smart cards that hold your subscriber information, address book and who knows what else). I got my old iPhone 3G unlocked by Mobile Kangaroo in San Jose, California (unfortunately, you can’t do this anymore because unlocking—also known as jailbreaking—smartphones has since been made illegal in the U.S.). When I arrived in Colombo, I put a Sri Lankan SIM card into the iPhone, and a few seconds later the phone was primed to make local and international calls.

If you live in Europe, you probably already have a GSM phone. Things are a bit more complicated in the U.S., where mobile phone carriers operate under a hodgepodge of gloriously different standards (hey, it’s the free enterprise system at work). AT&T Mobility and T-Mobile are the two major U.S. carriers with GSM networks that I know of, so if you’re a subscriber with either company, chances are you already have the handset you need.

You could buy an unlocked Apple iPhone from an Apple Store near you, but the new iPhone’s SIM card slot is smaller than the industry-standard sized Sri Lankan SIM card. That means you’d have to get your Sri Lankan SIM card trimmed to fit (this doesn’t happen with the iPhone 3G, since it has a standard-sized SIM card slot).

Fortunately, there are people who make a very nice living doing just such technical workarounds. I use Blue Grass Mobile at the Liberty Plaza shopping center in Colombo (you can call them at 0602070322, 0114741828 or 0777550592; and by the way, check out the end of this post to see simple instructions for making calls to and from Colombo without it costing you an arm and a leg).

Talk is cheap

I first tried using a GSM phone in Sri Lanka in 2009, when I bought an AT&T Sony Ericsson W518a phone (now available practically for peanuts on eBay) expressly for this purpose. The Sony Ericsson W518a was a tough little flip phone, and it worked fine for making local and overseas calls. The only downside was that I couldn’t use it to send and receive email. I switched to using an old iPhone 3G to be able to do that.

Sri Lanka’s main carriers are Airtel, Hutch, Mobitel, Etisalat and Dialog, and they all offer SIM cards (essentially your own phone line) for about $1.50 (yes, a buck fifty) with prepaid calling plans. Sri Lanka Telecom, Lanka Bell, Suntel and Tritel are landline operators (called fixed-line operators in this part of the world) that offer voice and data connectivity. International calls from Colombo to the U.S. cost around 14¢ a minute, so a prepaid plan for (say) $20 will buy you about 140 minutes’ worth of talk time.

Getting online with your laptop

Lots of hotels and restaurants in Sri Lanka promise free wi-fi, but you can’t always find a strong enough signal to get online from your room. So my brother Tyrone and I bought USB mobile broadband modems for about $30 each and signed up for the no-strings-attached prepaid data plan, paying $20 upfront—more than enough for downloading and uploading several gigabytes worth of data. (If you use it all up, you can simply buy more online using a service like EzeTop.)

Go ahead and ask me why they call this a dongle: My bro got this Huawei USB mobile broadband modem from a Sri Lankan carrier for about $30; a free SIM card came with it. Prepaid data plans start at less than $5 per gigabyte.

Walk into any Sri Lankan phone carrier’s branch office and ask for a mobile broadband modem and you’re liable to get blank looks. That’s because Sri Lankans call a wireless modem a dongle. (According to my half-brother Naren, who is a genius at figuring things out, this could be because broadband modems come under the Wireless/Bluetooth/Dongle classification in the Sri Lanka Customs HS Code Tariff Guide. Or it could be that Sri Lankans, who are commendably practical people, would rather say a single word like “dongle” instead of a mouthful like “USB mobile broadband modem.”)

At any rate, you can get a mobile broadband modem (ahem, a dongle) from a Sri Lankan carrier for about $30; you’ll get a free SIM card with it. Prepaid data plans start at less than $5 per gigabyte. If you can restrain yourself from watching videos of piano-playing cats, that should be plenty for surfing the web and sending and receiving email for a week or so.

A note on using your phone in Sri Lanka: When you’re calling a number in Sri Lanka from anywhere else in Sri Lanka (even if you’re standing three feet away from the person you’re calling), you need to first dial 0 (zero), just like you need to first dial 1 (one) when dialing a number in a different area code in the U.S.

So if you’re in Colombo and you’re calling me when I’m in Colombo, you’d dial 0722871185 (but please, only if you’re a cute unattached female). But if you’re calling that same number from, say, Santa Cruz, California, you’ll need to add the two digits for international direct dialing plus the two digits for the Sri Lanka country code (94) and dial 01194722871185 instead. In other words, you’ll need to insert four digits (1194) between the zero and the rest of the number.

And if you’re using your phone to call someone in the U.S., you simply dial two zeros and a one before dialing the area code and number. So if you’re in Colombo and you’re trying to reach me in Santa Cruz, you’d dial 0014084725967. Simple, huh?

Copyright © David Graham