India's handset market is seeing a meteoric rise thanks to a wave of affordable devices and wide availability of 4G data, and with the country becoming a mobile-first market, having a local SIM card is mandatory for accessing the plethora of digital services available.
A local number comes in handy not just for staying connected, but also for undertaking basic tasks like payments and money transfers. The Indian government ran an initiative last year where it offered a SIM card from state-run BSNL for free for tourists entering the country with an e-visa, but that program was halted last December.
The best recourse for tourists visiting is to purchase a SIM card directly from a retailer in the city. But before we get to that, a primer on LTE bands in India.
LTE bands in India
If you're looking to use LTE in India, you'll need to make sure your phone has the following LTE bands: Band 3 (1800MHz), Band 40 (2300MHz), and Band 5 (850MHz). Band 5 is predominantly used by Jio, a recent entrant in the segment that has amassed over 65 million customers in the space of eight months.
Even if you don't have Band 5 support, you will be able to access LTE from Airtel, Vodafone, and others. BSNL — the service provider with the free SIM card on arrival — delivers LTE on Band 40 (2300MHz). Coverage varies wildly across states, so if you're looking for a detailed breakdown of the state of LTE in India, you should take a look at our detailed guide:
Picking up a SIM card from a retailer
Airtel is the leading carrier in the country, with a userbase of over 300 million subscribers. The carrier also has the most robust network for LTE, 3G, and calls. To pick up an Airtel SIM, you'll need to head to a retail store near your location with a copy of your passport, visa, and a photograph. You'll be able to walk out with a SIM card in under 10 minutes, and the number will be activated in an hour or two.
The carrier has very affordable tariffs, but not all plans are available in all regions. That said, you'll be able to select a plan that gives you 3GB of LTE data and unlimited calls within the country for as low as ₹300 ($6), with a validity of 28 days from the time of purchase.
Airtel is your only viable option for a local SIM card, as other carriers have fairly stringent requirements. Jio, for instance, requires you to submit details of a local reference as well as your residence details within the country. You won't be able to get a SIM card unless you submit these details.
Then there's Vodafone and Idea, which aren't worth your time. Neither carrier offers nationwide LTE coverage, so if you're looking to travel from one state to another, there will be times when you'll switch over to 2G.
Got any questions or queries? Let us know in the comments below.
Updated in April 2018 with information on Airtel's documentation requirements.