Residency & Law / Shopping Cell Phone Service In Merida

Shopping Cell Phone Service In Merida

Shopping Cell Phone Service In Merida

13 January 2015 Residency & Law 65

Even in Mexico, it is hard to imagine life without a cell phone. Well, maybe especially in Mexico. Mexico is the poster child for how so-called third-world countries leap-frog over technologies and adapt new technologies faster than the their first-world neighbors. It is not uncommon anymore to see a Mayan woman in a huipile on her cell phone. Every teenager certainly has one. And Carlos Slim, the owner of both Telmex (land lines and Internet) and Telcel (cellular phones) is not only the richest man in Mexico, but last time we looked, is also the richest man in the world. Think about that!

One day, we set out to upgrade our cellular phone service (which by the way, in Spanish, is called celular (sell-oo-LAR) or just plain cel). For the previous three years, we had been using a Telcel pay-as-you go system called Amigo. With the Amigo system (and others like it, though Amigo is by far the most popular), anyone can walk into almost any tendejon in Mexico and buy a ficha or card. Scratch the back of this card like a lottery ticket to reveal the hidden code, then marca (dial) star-33 on your cell phone, enter the code, and your account is credited with the face value of the card. Easy! Even easier, just walk into your local Oxxo or other store that sells the cards, and give them your money and your phone number. They will automatically credit your account with the minutes you paid for. Amigo cards come in denominations between $30 and $500 pesos, but you can put any amount on your card electronically. Telcel sometimes has a sale on these cards where you can buy a $500 peso card that credits your account with $900 pesos. But in general, the Amigo system will set you back about $4 pesos (about 26 U.S. cents) per minute for calls within your region.

There are advantages to the Amigo system. You can buy a phone and a card the moment you get off the plane or drive over the border. No credit necessary, no address, nada. On the flip side, the cards are rather unforgiving. If you run out of time when you are in the middle of a call, the call is over and you need to buy another card. With no money on your phone, you can't place a call, although you can receive calls and instant messages. On a recent cross-country roadtrip, we found out that the cards are coded by date and location. So if you buy a card in Yucatan, you can use it in Tabasco, maybe, but maybe not in Nayarit. And whatever time you buy with a card has an expiration date built into it. Also, if you have a business in Mexico, you can't write off the cost for tax purposes unless you buy from a store willing to give you an official serial-numbered receipt, a factura. Tendejons and street vendors don't provide facturas. After awhile, if you live here, the Amigo system becomes either inconvenient or expensive or both, so moving up to a "normal" cellular phone account makes sense.

There are five major cellular phone companies here in the Yucatan right now: Telcel, Nextel, IUSAcel, Axtel and Telefonica Movistar. Our first decision was which of these to choose. We chose to look into Nextel and Telcel, making sure that which ever company we chose, we could keep our Amigo phone number.

A very nice gentleman from Nextel came to our office and gave us a thorough and intelligent sales presentation in English about Nextel services. Once upon a time, Nextel phones acted more like normal phones and a Nextel cell phone number looks like a land-line number to other phones. The Nextel phones themselves had a walkie-talkie service that was available between Nextel customers. Nowadays, Nextel has become more like other cellular phone services, offering contracts or pre-paid plans. Nextel once had a very limited phone selection, but they now offer Blackberry phones and many other cel phones. And if they don't have a phone you like, you can even buy a chip with a Nextel number and plan, and install it on any phone you bought elsewhere. Now they have plans where you can call numbers from other cell phone companies using your minutes (but once your minutes are up, those calls cost more than Nextel numbers). With the Nextel prepaid service, you can buy credit for your phone in stores (like OXXO, Extra, etc.). Nextel advertises now that "all your calls are local". They have no national roaming charges and claim that there are no extra charges for calling to the USA. (We have not investigated this detail yet, but we plan to look into it).

Years ago, despite the great Nextel salesman, we went with Telcel. We may have been influenced by our past experiences with the Amigo service, which has wide coverage and exceptional reception. We may also have been influenced by years of watching those ubiquitous Telcel commercials with the big, blue hot air balloons imblazoned with the Telcel logo floating dreamily over various gorgeous landscapes of Mexico. In the end, we wanted to make sure that next time we went ballooning, we weren't going to miss an important call. We can't help ourselves... we want to Vive Libre con Telcel (Live Free with Telcel). Anyway, we do appreciate a good advertising campaign.

We visited the Telcel website to see what it would take to sign up for a normal account and made a list of the documents they required to establish our credit. Knowing the process would be a challenge, we prepared as much as possible ahead of time. Then we marched into one of the large Telcel offices with the following paperwork:

  • Copy of our company constitution (our cell phone is a company phone)
  • Comprabante (utility bill) for our company
  • Copy of our individual passport (just one for one phone)
  • Copy of a comprabante from our residence in our name
  • Copy of our business RFC (Mexican Tax ID)
  • Copy of the predial (receipt for property taxes paid by our company)

It used to be more difficult to get credit in Mexico as an expatriate, but it has become a lot easier now. Since we had all the paperwork, the process went very smoothly. When we entered the Telcel office on Avenida Itzaes (just north of the Bodega Aurera), there were two lines. The line to the right was for telling someone why you were there and receiving a ticket with a number. Once you had your ticket, you were to stand in the line on the left. On this day, both lines went smoothly and before we knew it, we were in front of a very competent young lady who answered all our questions, with the help of Beatriz (our silver-tongued assistant). She told us the costs of the service and the phones, took our datos (information), our documentos (paperwork) and told us to come back the next day to sign our contract and pick up our phone.

Let's take a minute to talk about the structure of cellular phone charges here. These used to be more straightforward than the convoluted financial puzzles offered in the States. At Telcel, with which we are now most familiar, there are different billing levels depending on how many minutes you want included "free" with your service each month. There are no rollover charges, no free nights and weekends, no time differences. Just a set number of "free" minutes per month for an eighteen month contract. The minutes over your allotted minutes are charged the same on all accounts: $1.10 pesos (ten U.S. cents) per minute for anywhere in Mexico. Roaming charges are a thing of the past. There are separate charges for downloading emails from the internet, for getting a detailed bill with each phone number on it and for various other special services, none of which we felt we needed. We selected the National Plan with 160 minutes for $516 pesos per month, which includes administrative charges you don't pay when using Amigo cards, but definitely saves money if you use your phone very much.

One day later, Working Gringa went back at 10 AM to sign the contract, following the hard-learned lesson that if you want to accomplish something official in Mexico, you start in the morning. Well, not so fast, gringita! Just when you thought you had it all figured out! No, the contract no esta lista (isn't ready). Come back tomorrow. Upon hearing this, Working Gringa forgot everything she has learned in the past five years and lost her composure. Why did they tell her to come today? Don't they realize she is a busy woman and doesn't have time for this?

Lady, you want your phone? Then come back later.


On the way to the Telcel office the next day, Working Gringa took a deep breath, remembering what her good friend Georgia Charuhas told her. After living in Mexico for 30 years, Georgia says that the two most important things she has learned are patience and diplomacy. Patience and diplomacy. Patience and diplomacy. Reciting her new mantra, Working Gringa stepped into the Telcel office for the third time, hoping not to emerge without her new cell phone.

First the line on the right. A long line this time, with no one behind the podium. Determined to go with the Mexican flow, Working Gringa stood there, munching on a delicious coconut candy she had bought from the man just outside the front door. She looked around, enjoyed the photos on the wall. Tapped her foot to the music. Finally, a woman showed up behind the podium and the line began to move. When Working Gringa arrived at the front of the line, the woman took one look at her name and walked into the back to find something. More foot tapping. Humming to the music. Ah yes, 50's music... How Sweet It is To Be Loved By You. La la la.... the woman came back, Working Gringa got her little ticket and went to the second line.

There was a Diario de Yucatan newspaper on the table next to the line. Working Gringa read all four sections, understanding what she read better than ever before. Plenty of time to parse each word.

Someone came to change the music. Now it was show tunes. "Oh, what a beautiful mooooooor-ning!" The line crept forward. Finally Working Gringa was the next in line. Four different representatives in the row of cajas went on breaks before finally one of them called Pase! and Working Gringa stepped forward.

Ten signatures. Three copies. Show the passport. Wait while they find the phone. Patience and diplomacy.

While she was waiting, Working Gringa thought that maybe they had switched the music to American Show Tunes just for her, the only gringa in the building! Oh, that would be too embarassing, especially because they were playing particularly obscure and awful showtunes from the Seventies. Finally it was even too much for them, and someone flipped the station to Mexican pop music, much better and much more foot tapping all around. Finally, the phone arrived. The woman in the caja put in the new chip, gave Working Gringa a copy of her contract, and she was fuera de alli (outta' there)!

In retrospect, the whole process was quite efficient and ultimately successful. The people involved were not only incredibly knowledgeable and smart, but terribly patient and diplomatic. Patient and diplomatic. Patient and diplomatic. Once Working Gringa remembered to be that way too, a foot-tapping time was had by all!

March 2009 Update: Working Gringa made the unfortunate mistake of washing her cell phone in the washing machine, necessitating a new phone. Much to her surprise, the Apple iPhone turned out to be affordable ($1800 pesos after applying "points" earned for paying her bill on time for the last eighteen months). The two year contract gave her monthly phone service and unlimited internet for less than $75 USD per month. Sold!

Confused about how to dial a number in Mexico? Check out our explanation article, How To Dial a Phone Number in Mexico.


  • Brigitte in NJ 10 years ago

    There is a new plan offered by ATT to its American customers called Viva Mexico. It expends the calling territory to Mexico, meaning it considers the non-roming territory to include Mexico. So the US parties can called you on your American number and reach you in Mexico, with no additional digits to dial or extra charges. And you can call your American parties dialing with no extra digits (just the area code and number). The plan is a little more expansive than a regular US plan, but it works. I have been using it for two weeks from Chelem.

    Under that plan you can also call all the Mexican numbers (cells and landlines in any Mexican states).

    Warning: The plan is not widely advertized by ATT, so you have to ask for it by name and be patient until the clerck finds it in the system. It is called Viva Mexico and has several levels of free minutes available. ALSO, text and data are very expensive on that plan. Make sure the clerk BLOCKS the data and text features on your plan. Otherwise, those two words text from your kids are going to cost you a fortune.

  • Wes 10 years ago

    I live out of the city near Komchen and do not have a land line phone or cable service. - how can I get internet service???
    IUSA used to have a microwave service but I understand they have discontinued it (atleast to new customers) - any ideas/suggestions???

  • Brenda Thornton 11 years ago

    I just read Cathy's post regarding having a number registered to an individual. There is legislation before the Congress in the United States to require registration for prepaid cell phones because they are often used by individuals who are involved in trying to hide their identities or for illegal purposes. However, here in the States, if that means that the businesses fear they will lose a little business by requiring that, I can see it being difficult to get through Congress.

  • Cathy 11 years ago

    If my experience is accurate, the prepaid phones are a little more complicated now, because each mobile phone number has to be registered to a particular person. If you're an official Mexican resident, you can register your phone using a text message or on the Telcel site, both of which look easy. If you're a tourist, you have to register your phone in person at a Telcel office.

    Here's how I got mine:
    1. I bought the phone at an OXXO. The cashier installed the SIM and did everything but register the number to my name.
    2. On the advice of a Telcel call center rep who tried to register me and couldn't, I brought my phone and passport to the Telcel Centro de Atención al Cliente in the Gran Plaza mall. The office is across from Santander bank.
    3. The staff there used my passport to register the phone number in my name.

    If I understand it correctly, the plan I bought recharges my air time for three months. When those 3 months are up, if I don't buy more credit ("saldo"), I'll lose the phone number and will have to buy a new SIM and register a new number. Since it was a pain to register, I'll try using to buy a little time each month while I'm in the US so when I return in 5 months I'll still have the number.

  • Tamara 11 years ago

    I will be in Progreso for a month in June. Is it still possible a Mexico Sim card and if so where?

    My other question, I will be returning in September for a longer period of time, while waiting for an FM3. With the new laws what kind of cell phone will I be able to purchase while waiting for my papers.

  • Alan 11 years ago

    For a fixed line, WiFi-based service, I went with the Axtel plan that provides unlimited local (Mérida) calls, a total of 200 minutes/mo. for USA/Canada/national, and 30 min/mo included for calling cellphones, all for 405 pesos (plus taxes), with an additional 100 pesos/min for really quick Internet service. Axtel offers add-ons for extra bundles of service. Call quality, very good.
    For years I was, in the U.S., on the receiving end of Skype calls from Merida and elsewhere. I don't want to inflict that on anybody! Yes, there's Vonage and MagicJack also, but all have drawbacks...
    Haven't decided on a cellphone provider yet. Outrageous charges, thanks to Salinas de Gotari y his pal Carlos Slim.

  • james 11 years ago

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks so much. Our house will have Wifi and I have a Skype account but most of our clients cannot be reached that way. I guess we will buy an Amigo phone when we get there.

    Thanks again,


  • CasiYucateco 11 years ago


  • Steve 11 years ago


    We bought a home in Centro this year, and are just finishing a complete renovation. Like you, I have a business in the US and cannot be out of touch for long. For all of our local communications, we have an Amigo phone, which works fine. I have not tried to use it to call the US. For long calls to the US, I use Skype and a USB headset (our house has WiFi). It works pretty well...yes, there are occasional dropouts and it's sensitive to both your position relative to the wireless antenna, and other traffic on the network, but it's the best thing I've tried so far. I also have an iPhone and the AT&T international plan at 59 cents per minute, which I use for short or really important US calls. Hope that helps!


    BTW, if anyone has more advice about calling to the US, I'd love to hear it too!

  • James 11 years ago


    We will be renting a house in Merida for the month of February 2010. Our house will have WiFi so we will be able to continue to work. We will be making phone calls back to the USA to clients and business associates during this period. We currently have iphones and don't wish to upgrade to the expensive AT&T International calling plan. We wondered what would be the best solution (least expensive and least complicated) for these calls? Would it be best to buy a cheap cell phone in Merida and buy a Mexican SIM card? If so, would you have any idea what the cost per minute would be, Merida to US?

    Thank you for your time and for any suggestions.


  • CasiYucateco 11 years ago

    Monica, if you are still looking for an answer, the best advice is what the WG's just gave to Jack: buy a cell phone for around $400 or so pesos and a $200 peso card for minutes.

    If you want your family to have a nice phone, send them the money for the phone, and let them buy it in Mexico.

    Now, if you want to dig into all the technicalities of it, to buy a phone in the USA, you need to insure that you buy an "unlocked" phone. (unlocked from any specific carrier) You cannot do that at the phone stores of any of the major carriers. And then, you must insure that the unlocked phone you buy matches the frequencies and technology likely to be used by the company your family signs up with in Mexico. (GSM, TDMA, CDMA, etc; 800, 950, 1800, 1900, etc)

    For example, GSM Quad-band phones will work both in the USA (but only on AT&T and T-mobile) and in Mexico on TelCel. Unlocked quad band phones are relatively expensive.

    But there are other carriers in Mexico: MoviStar and iUsa on different frequencies and technologies. They are sometimes preferred for various reasons - different data plans, free texting, etc.

    Long story short, there is only one 'good' way to do it: Send your family the money (or visit them) and then buy the phone in Mexico from the carrier that your family would like to use.

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