Buying a Russian SIM-card In Moscow

Updated: Feb 2, 2019

Today pretty much everything requires internet connection. And buying a local SIM is one the most important things you have to do upon arrival. Staying in touch with your friends, your guides, your taxi drivers, your hotel having the latest updated maps everywhere you go. Those things will save and a ton of time and nerves. So 1000 RUB that you pay for your SIM will certainly justify its price more than several times over.

IT industry is one of the few growing segments of Russian economy where there's always a chance for young people and companies to show initiative and step into the game. Specifically, the competition on the market of internet and mobile services providers in Moscow is beyond fierce. And everyone is dropping prices below reasonable all the time to lure you.

Internet in Russia in general is among the most affordable in the world, yet has one of the highest average access speeds and overall quality. Whether it's a dedicated landline to your apartment or mobile internet connection, it costs you about 1/10th of what you would normally pay in a western country or even less.

A SIM with 10-15 GB of internet and a couple of hundred call minutes to local numbers will cost you around 500 RUB per month.

Now, unfortunately, over the last decade the government has been trying to tighten the laws concerning sales of SIM-cards. And now everyone is required to show a passport or any other identification document with your name and a photo to get one.

Officially, the law so far doesn't set any special requirements for foreign citizens at all. And it should be so for you as well that the passport is all you need. However, some websites of mobile carriers say that your migration card (the white sheet you'll get in the airport upon arrival) might be required as well.

Having it with you certainly wouldn't hurt the case. But most likely, no one would care about it even if it were more strictly required. So having just your passport with a valid visa (if you're supposed to have one) should get you through it 99,99% of the time. If they start asking for something else you don't have with you, don't even listen. Walk 50 meters to another store or office and buy it there.

Just look for one of these three logos anywhere around you wherever you happened to be at the moment:

Those are three Moscow's major mobile carriers in the order of how big and cool they are from most to less so: MTS (МТС), Beeline (Билайн), Megafon (Мегафон).

All of them have their own shops, offices, mini stalls and desks in all major shopping malls, train stations and airports. In the city center could be just on any random corner as well as sold right on the streets from makeshift tents.

As an alternative, you can also look for those three logos:

Evroset', Svyaznoy and Know-How.

Those are three major chains of retail stores specializing on mobile phones and everything related. So all of them will have at least two of the three major mobile provider's SIMs on sale at any moment. Similarly, can be found everywhere in the city center, all shopping malls, train stations and airports.

Which operator should you choose?

There isn't really that much difference to recommend one over the other. The maximum price difference between similar packages will be barely 100 RUB. And all have pretty good coverage anywhere in the city and its suburbs. (Megafon might have marginally worse reception underground, inside the metro though).

Which one is used most by tourist?

Also, not much of a general trend there. Except for Chinese tourists that for some reason have Beeline as the most recommended carrier in all the major Chinese guidebooks and travel blogs. So if you want to go with the majority, go with Beeline. 1,4 billion people can't be wrong.

What if you don't want to show anyone your passport in any scenario?

Well, Russia has an answer for you in that case as well.

First, there were special tourist SIM-cards by all three major operators created for the time of the World Cup 2018. They were supposed to be temporary, but as of January 2019 some spots still sell them. Those are a bit more expensive than an average local SIM but don't require any identification whatsoever. Sort of, if you want to use it to post 'Allah Akbar' on Russian Internet, they want to know who you are and be able send you to Siberia. But if you're ready to pay more than average for it - 'Good luck with your posting, sir'.

That kind of SIM would cost you about 700-1200 RUB and would likely have absolutely unlimited everything (except international calls) for 7-14 days. You can put more money on it to extend the period. But even 7 days will likely suffice for most tourists.

Second way is to buy a regular SIM with one of the regular super cheap Russian tariffs but not in an official store or office, but from a shady-looking Tajikistani dude on the street.

Here's an example picture with one partiiicularly shady-looking specimen:

That guy doesn't want to see your passport, know your name or what you're going to use that card for. All he wants is 100-200 RUB, and you get the same kind of sealed package and fully functioning SIM right away without any paperwork.

As of June 2018 those SIMs can only work for 14 days without registration. After which they'll be automatically blocked if you don't confirm your identity online or in one of the offices. But 14 days is sill plenty of time for a tourist.

Those guys cannot be found in malls, train stations or airports, but are usually right outside of them.

One limitation there is that it most likely won't have any money or only 50 RUB on it. So you'll have to find a way to top it up after purchasing to make it work.

Here's an article about how to do it, by the way.

So how do I actually buy them?

Just go to any of the aforementioned stores and say that you want a Russian SIM for calls and internet or just for internet. If you have any preferred operator based on what's written above, tell them. If you don't want to show your passport and want, specifically, a tourist SIM, tell that too.

If the conversation doesn't go too smooth, just use google translate app on your phone. You only need to say 1-3 sentences to get what you need, so it's not going to be much of a hassle in this case to type it all there.

Since there is't much of difference in tariffs, just go with the first option they'll suggest. It'll normally be the most used tariff at the moment of the operator of their choice.

If it's a major airport or train station where they are likely to deal with many foreigners on a daily basis, you most likely wouldn't even need to say much. As they would likely have some smooth, streamlined approach to tourists to reduce unnecessary tension and conversations. Something like, 'Alright, here's another foreigner. Need a SIM? Great. Pay this much, take this, get out'. Which will be the most perfect scenario for you. At least better than you being the first foreigner ever visiting their store.

Most importantly, tell them that you want it to work right away (give them the phone in case there's any additional text you need to send before it starts working, rarely but happens). And don't leave the store until it actually works.

Tell them that you want it to have enough money on the balance to work for that many days. And if there isn't that much by default, tell them to put more. They can do that.

If you've decided to opt for a shady dude instead of an official store. Then put on a hood, your hands in the pockets, try to constantly look around and to appear as shady as possible yourself just to complete the overall picture. Approach him and don't say anything, point at the card in his hands you want. Then quickly give him well-crumpled 200 RUB, take the card, make a quick nod of confirmation and walk away like nothing ever happened.

And this will be all you need to know about buying SIMs in Moscow. Thanks for reading to the end. Please share the article anywhere online if it was helpful and read more of the blog for more tips.

Enjoy your Internet!