Having a cell phone that works in México is key to be able to make plans with new friends that you’ll make here, but to also keep in touch with your friends and family from home whenever and wherever you want! A working cell phone is also helpful to communicate with your host family if your plans change or if you have a question as well. There are two options to do this: bring your US phone and use your U.S. plan in México, or use a Mexican service.
Bringing your U.S. phone and plan to México
To be sure that your phone will work in México, you should call your provider to confirm. Here are a few guidelines concerning U.S. carriers’ policies about service in Mexico as of March 2017:
- If you have AT&T, it is free to use your family’s plan if you pay for more than 10 GB per month or if you have the AT&T unlimited plan. If you do not have either of these, then you could sign up for AT&T Passport (U.S. $40 per month) which gives you unlimited texting and 200 MB of data and pay-by-the-minute calling.
- If you have Sprint, you will need to sign up for Sprint Open World (free, but you need to sign up) which gives you unlimited talk and text with 1 GB of data. Any additional data costs U.S. $30 per GB. You will have to make sure that your phone has a SIM card to be able to use it in México.
- If you have the T-Mobile One unlimited plan, México is included at no cost with no limits.
- If you have Verizon, it costs U.S. $2/day (U.S. $60/month) extra to be able to use your family’s existing plan while in México. If your family’s plan is greater than 12 GB, then the cost is waived. You will have to make sure that your phone has a SIM card to be able to use it in México.
It’s possible that you are eligible for service in Mexico, but your phone will not be able to function, so calling ahead is highly recommended. You may also want to consider unlocking your phone before arriving in México to keep your options open as well.
Using a Mexican cell provider
Using a Mexican cell provider is cheaper than your U.S. provider if you have an unlocked phone that can be used in Mexico. Since you will not be a permanent resident in Merida, you can only sign up for prepaid plans. The most popular provider with the largest coverage area is TelCel. You can buy a SIM card for U.S. $7.50 to put into either your unlocked phone (means that you can put any SIM card into it and it will work – check with your U.S. carrier to see if yours is already or can be unlocked) or a cheap smartphone for U.S. $40. You pay for “paquetes” which include unlimited talk & text and the amount of data varies by the price. For example, U.S. $10 can get you 1 GB for a month. You need to buy a paquete every month or your service will stop. You can buy paquetes by going to TelCel stores (they’re everywhere) or set up a Mi TelCel account online and pay with your credit card. The prices listed above are from March 2017.
Verdict: Which is more popular?
Of the 10 students in the Spring 2017, two of them use their phones and plans from the U.S. Three brought their U.S. phones and use TelCel chips. The other five use basic phones on TelCel and use their U.S. phones on Wi-Fi only. Many wished that they had known that unlocking their phones was possible so that they would have access to WhatsApp/Facebook Messenger wherever. Also since students in Mérida live with different families, having access to apps like WhatsApp is easier to keep in touch on the go to meet in places like the Centro, a café, or the bus station, for example.
Nine Useful Apps for Studying Abroad in Mérida and México
- WhatsApp is the most common way that you will communicate with other IFSA-Butler students and local Mexican students. You can call, text, send voice messages, and video call using Wi-Fi or cellular data. It’s free to use.
- Facebook Messenger is another common way to communicate, and is more common for group projects or very large groups.
- GoBus Rutas Mérida gives you all the bus routes in Mérida and tells you where the closest stop to your current location and will tell you where a specific bus goes.
- Uber & Cabify are alternatives to taxis and are generally much cheaper than paying for a taxi. However, there are some places (Playa del Carmen, for example) where the only option is a taxi.
- SpanishDict is a great English-Spanish dictionary on-the-go because it can be used without cellular service (although it is a large application)
- Mi TelCel is an app where you can pay for your paquetes for TelCel and check how much data you have used.
- ADO (the first-class bus company) has an app where you can check fares and schedules for buses that go to Cancún, Tulum, etc. but does not allow transactions from non-Mexican credit cards so you need to buy tickets in person.
- Airbnb is a great alternative to hotels and is more secure than hostels, but is expensive unless you are a part of a larger group.
- Google Maps can be used to create an “offline map” in which you can save a map of Mérida to your phone and then save your data later.
Joe Tulip is a Public Health major at Bates College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the Mérida Universities Program in Mexico for Winter 2017. He is a Health & Safety Advisor Intern for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.