FAQ: Cell Phones

Will my US/Canadian (or other foreign) cell phone work in Mexico?

Generally speaking, most cell phones that work on GSM networks will work in Mexico. But, roaming charges are dependent on your home provider and can be excessive. Coverage can vary depending on availability of cell phone towers, just as it can in other countries that have large rural areas. Coverage rated by carrier in order of best to worst is Telcel, Movistar, AT&T. For comparative coverage maps and much more detailed information, we recommend this site.

How is xxx (Sprint, ATT, Telus, Rogers, etc) service in Mexico?

First off, understand that most NOB (North of Border) cell phone companies have no equipment of their own in Mexico. They provide you with roaming services by contracting with an existing provider in Mexico, like Telcel, to use their towers and services. Charges are determined and billed by your home provider. But the quality and availability of signal is beyond their control and is determined entirely by the roaming provider. If you have doubts about availability you should find out who your home provider contracts with and consult coverage maps for that company. Generally speaking, Telcel is the largest provider in Mexico and has the best overall coverage and quality of signal.

How can I avoid roaming charges?

Roaming charges are billed by your home carrier, not by the Mexican carrier on whose network you are roaming. If you have an unlocked cell phone you can avoid roaming by purchasing a Mexican SIM card from Telcel, AT&T or Movistar and you will receive a Mexican phone number. SIM cards can be found easily in any Oxxo store (like 7-Eleven) or Telcel outlet for as little as 100 pesos and they usually include a small amount of starter time. Additional time can be purchased the same way or online. If your phone is locked to your present carrier there are many places that can unlock it for a reasonable fee, making it usable with any carrier anywhere.

Are cell phones cheaper in Mexico?

If you’re thinking of buying a new phone it’s worth checking here. Most phones are unlocked and can be used with any carrier. Model numbers may be slightly different but features are the same and prices are often much better. Your new phone will by default be using the Spanish language but most new phones when first powered up, will prompt you to select an alternate language (idioma), so it’s easy to change. If it’s a Telcel phone it will come preloaded with a few Telcel apps, including Claro Video and Claro Musica for free. And remember, all prices in Mexico include any applicable taxes.

I’m worried about my cell phone being stolen. What can I do?

For starters, use the same common sense that you would anywhere in the world. Most modern cell phones include some form of ‘find my phone’ function that may or may not be enabled by default, so make sure it’s enabled if you have it. But also there are third-party tracking apps available that can be used to recover a lost or stolen phone, as well as lock or wipe it remotely. One such app is called Prey Anti-Theft and it is available for Android, Apple and Windows products. If you are really paranoid you can always buy a cheap ‘burner’ phone in the local Walmart or Telcel store and use it as your Mexican phone while keeping your other phone only for use in your home or hotel.

How do I call a cell phone in Mexico?

[Edit: this all changed in 2019 and it’s no longer necessary to distinguish cell phone calls from others]

Phone calling in Mexico is a bit of a separate discussion as it can become rather complex. For starters, you have to know if you are calling to a land line or a cell phone. One difference that exists when calling from US/Canada to a cell phone (vs a land line) in Mexico, is that you have to add an extra ‘1’ between the country code and the area code. For a complete discussion of phone dialing we recommend reading this article.

Who pays for calls?

In US/Canada both parties often get charged for ‘airtime’ whenever calls are made, regardless if the call is outgoing or incoming. But in Mexico, typically only the caller pays. So if you are using a pay-as-you-go SIM card in your phone and you run out of time, you can still receive calls; you just can’t make outgoing calls. This can be a huge advantage when you’re using prepaid services.

How can I check my airtime balance?

Telcel customers can register on the website and keep track of their balance, recharge airtime, and perform other services. You can also use the Telcel app on your phone. Alternatively, dialing *133# on your cell phone will open a USSD app that displays your remaining balance (or Saldo) along with a couple of optional actions. When you buy prepaid time on Telcel your balance is called the Saldo and there is an additional amount given to you as a bonus gift, or Regalo. You also get included free WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter usage. The amount of the Regalo and the period of validity, depends on the amount of your purchase. For more details please consult the chart here.

What’s up with this WhatsApp?

WhatsApp is a cross-platform peer-to-peer chat application. It was purchased by the makers of Facebook but was not created by them, so it differs significantly from their Facebook Messenger app. Everyone in Mexico uses WhatsApp! If you wonder why, you only need to look at the perks offered by the carriers. Telcel for example, offers free WhatsApp (and Facebook & Twitter) usage with their plans and even with the prepaid offerings. Although WhatsApp uses data, it does not impact the data usage counter because it is a separate offer and is separately metered from your data. You can recharge your phone with 100 pesos of airtime and if you use WhatsApp for most of your communications, you will still have nearly the full 100 pesos left over when the time period expires. It also works over WiFi, so it’s possible to still use it even if you have no prepaid time left on your phone, provided you are within range and connected to a WiFi access point. In addition to the financial benefits, WhatsApp provides fully encrypted communications and can be used for voice calls, texting, video calls, sending photos or files, and even as a group chat application. Mexicans are not only thrifty, they’re smart!

Why doesn’t my WhatsApp (or other calling) work with foreign numbers?

WhatsApp accesses your built in contacts list for phone numbers. If you are experiencing problems making calls to other countries, first check your contact list. International calls require you to first dial the international access code, followed by the country code for the country you are calling, and then the 10-digit telephone number. From a land line these codes might be 001 or 011 or 52 or whatever, depending on the country being called and on where you are at the time. Cell phones make this easier than land lines. The best way to store international numbers in your cell phone is to make use of the + code instead of dialing 001 or 011 or whatever the international access code might be. So for every contact who’s phone number is in the US or Canada, simply precede their 10-digit number with +1 in your contact list. And for every contact in Mexico, precede the number with +52. By doing this, your phone looks at what country you are currently in and will “figure out” the correct way to dial, regardless which country you are calling from. This makes international travel and calling very seamless.