With the advent of eSIMs, the connectivity landscape is changing. No more need to buy a new sim card in every country you go to, you just get an eSIM.
There are valid reasons not to get an eSIM (mainly that your phone does not support it). For physical sim cards, the best resource for any of the ‘Stans is the SIM card wiki – just click through to the relevant country to learn more about mobile operators and plans.
Usually it is not difficult to find a sim card soon after arriving in a new country. At busy border crossings and airports there will be sellers. At more quiet borders, you just need to get to the first town to find a mobile operator shop.
A word on hotspots
If you plan on sharing your mobile data with a travelling partner using a personal hotspot, be aware that some packages do not allow for this, in various Stans.
Just double-check when you are buying a sim card if hotspots are enabled. If not, you might have to spend a little bit more for the next tier, where you can get a hotspot.
In general, it’s pretty good, especially seeing how many remote places you tend to find yourself in while traveling Central Asia.
Pamir is probably the place where getting a signal is most challenging. Right now, Megafon is recommended for Eastern Pamir, with T-Cell better in the Wakhan Valley. We have a forum topic with the latest on mobile internet on the Pamir Highway.
Phone and sim card registration
That does get confusing. The rules have changed frequently on
- who gets to buy a sim card and what documents you need to show
- how long you can have a working sim card as a foreigner
- what happens if you enter a second time with the same phone
- et cetera
Questions and reports are gathered in the following forum threads:
- Mobile phone and sim card registration in Kazakhstan
- Registration for sim cards in Tajikistan
- Mobile phone and sim card registration in Uzbekistan
- SIM cards and internet in Turkmenistan
All governments in Central Asia block parts of the internet they don’t like. A VPN is useful.
When authorities sense unrest, they turn off the internet completely for a few hours, a few days or a few weeks. In that case, even a VPN won’t help you.
Using the internet in Turkmenistan is particularly difficult. Internet speed is kept very low, most useful apps and websites are blocked, and finding a VPN that works is not easy (also, you have to swear on the Koran that you won’t use one). Caravanistan is not blocked anywhere by the way.
Be aware that your internet traffic is monitored.
Telegram is the most popular messaging app in Central Asia, although Whatsapp is also frequently used.
There is plenty of wifi to be found in the big cities of Central Asia: hotels and hostels should be good. In coffee shops, you often need a local phone number to sign in to the wifi these days.
In smaller towns and villages, don’t count on it.
Generally, there’s no wifi in hotels or restaurants. There seems to be 1 internet cafe per city.
There are a few good places for wifi in Ashgabat. Fast free wifi is available at the coffee bar in the Sofitel Ashgabat Oguzkent Hotel, or get a coffee at the Grand Turkmen Hotel. Even better is the Public Affairs section of the US Embassy (3rd floor, Business Center, Andalyp street, 70) Open Mo-Fri 9-13 and 14-20, Sat 09-12 and 13-18.
Everywhere else, it will be highly frustrating. A few high-end hotels in Ashgabat, Balkanabat, Mary and Turkmenbashi have internet, but it’s very expensive (5$/hour is normal), very slow and unreliable.