Russia Cellphone Guide
If you are visiting Russia then I highly recommend taking a mobile phone/cellphone. Cellphones can be useful for emergencies, such as if you fall on the ice and break your leg, if you are lost or need help with translation, problems with police, calls to your embassy/consulate in Russia and also for calling back home to your family and friends.
If you are a businessman and can reply on lavish corporate expenses then you might consider using your existing sim card, but be warned it will cost a lot. UK phone companies for instance charge up to 5 pounds a minute to call back to the UK. It is much better to buy a local sim that will only cost a few roubles a minute to local landlines/mobiles, and also offers the opportunity to call home in an emergency.
Russian Phone Companies
There are three companies that offer Russia wide cellphone coverage. MTC, Beeline and Megafone. There are also a number of regional and small operators that have more limited coverage, such as a couple of cities or regions.
Beeline and MTC are the oldest Russian cellphone companies and as such, probably have the best coverage. I personally prefer MTC for coverage although I’m sure that Beeline is just as good. Megafone is the newest of the big three companies so I cant comment on their performance. You can always ask the locals in your Russian city which company has the best coverage in their particular area.
Sim cards only cost around 100-200 roubles each and usually come loaded with a small amount of credit, so you may want to buy a couple of cards from different companies to ensure that you get the best possible coverage. I would suggest buying an MTC and Beeline SIM card as then you have the best chance of comprehensive coverage. These two operators SIM cards will work in numerous cities across Russia.
Take care though, on long train rides across Russia you will find that there is no signal whatsoever once you get out of the major cities and into the countryside. Why? There are simply no people living there, so that companies aren’t going to erect cell towers/phone masts that will only get limited use. Like most things in Russia, cell phone coverage isn’t always guaranteed.
How to call a Russian cellphone from abroad
Your Russian sim will have a number such as 8 (9xx xxxxxxxxx). To call your mobile from outside russia, drop the 8 and put +7 instead. For example to call a Russian cell number - 8 912 123456 you would ring +7 912 123456.
Calling abroad from Russia
To call abroad from inside Russia you need to call 8 (to get a line out of the city), then 10 ( for international calls) then your country code, then your local number minus the leading zero.
For instance, if my English phone number is (+44 ) 020 323 4567, from Russia you would call – 8, 10, 44 20 323 4567.
If you are calling from a Russian land line you need to wait a few seconds after dialing 8, until you hear a new dial tone, before dialing the rest of the number.
If calling abroad from a Russian mobile its sometimes possible to just use standard international dialing, eg +44 121 123 4567. Other times you will need to use 8 10 44 121 123 4567. Russian mobile networks vary and don’t always allow international calling by default.
Calling inside Russia
To call another Russian city from within Russia you need to dial 8, then wait for the new dial tone before dialing the city code, then the local number.
Using a mobile you can just put 8, then the city code, then the local number.
Choosing A Russian cell tariff.
The variety of mobile phone tariffs available in Russia is bewildering, and unless you speak perfect Russian will be almost incomprehensible.
As a foreigner it won’t make much difference whichever tariff you choose. You will still be saving a lot of money compared to using a UK, European or US roaming phone tariff.
Just ask for a simple classic tariff, and you will usually only pay a few roubles a minute to local numbers, and also just a few roubles to any phone within Russia. Compare this with the £1.50-5 pounds a minute charged by UK mobile companies for any calls made in Russia on your UK SIM.
Internet access on your Russian cellphone.
One thing that has greatly improved over the last few years in Russia is mobile internet.
On my smartphone I use MTS and an internet add-on which costs only 299 roubles (about $9.50) a month.
This gives 100mb of data a day, enough for casual browsing, twitter, Facebook, skype and most other things. Surprisingly, most internet services work well. I can use skype video calling, VOIP with Voipcheap to call back home to the UK and get access to Google maps and Yandex navigator.
How to active mobile internet on your MTS sim?
Just press *111*628# and hit send.
You can’t go wrong.
How to Buy
The major drawback with buying mobile phones or sim cards in Russia is that in the past you needed to show a Russian passport, British or other foreign passports are usually not accepted. This has changed now and many places will sell you a sim card without any document checks at all.
The easiest places to buy sims without a passport might be the local market or the underground passageways that link major roads in large cities and are usually full of small kiosks. Most Russian sims cards cost around 100-150 roubles. If you are visiting Russia from the USA and don’t have a compatible or unlocked GSM phone then don’t worry.
You can buy a simple but still useful phone, such as a basic Nokia or Samsung complete with Russian sim card and a small amount of credit for around 1000 roubles ( £21 / 25 euros / $32 US dollars). These simple phone usually have amazing battery life and only require charging about once a week, so are perfect for travel.
Topping up Credit
Russian Sim cards are pay as you go, and should last for at least 6 months without topping up.
In the past you needed to buy vouchers to topup, which meant speaking Russian! Now almost every decent supermarket in Russia has a couple of electronic payment terminals.
These resemble ATM’s and have a large touch screen display. You can topup a large variety of bills there, ie internet, cable tv, home utilities, and of course mobile phones.
To topup simply find your operators logo on the touchscreen, touch it to select, enter your mobile number, then insert some rouble notes and keep pressing next or yes. You can usually print a receipt at the end to confirm your topup. Beware! It’s not usually possible to get any change from these machines, so only put your 500 or 1000 rouble note if you really want to top up by this amount.