Best SIM Cards for Backpacking in Laos

Tad Si Kuang Waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos  

Laos is a country with a fraught history. During the Vietnam War, it gained the unwanted label of the most bombed country in the world which left millions of tons of unexploded ordnance that litters this otherwise pristine country, even today. 

Buying a SIM card in Laos is cheap and easy but don’t expect good internet speeds or reliability. 

The main challenge you will come across when choosing the best SIM card in Laos is deciding which one to go for. This is not down to pricing or which company offers the best data packages, they are all similar thanks to the fact the government owns at least a part of each carrier. The problem is that different parts of the country are covered by different companies. 

Just like in Cambodia, it is not uncommon to see people with multiple SIM cards, so they always have a connection no matter where they are. Thanks to the low price of SIM cards in Laos, it is perfectly reasonable for travellers to do the same as locals and carry multiple SIMs depending on how many provinces they plan on visiting. 

You can use the coverage maps on each network providers website (these sites do not always work) to see who will give the best signal in the areas you are planning to visit but be warned, these are often the best case scenarios and do not always prove to be that accurate. Your best bet is to see which SIM is most commonly available when you arrive at your destination and pick up one of those. After all, if the locals are buying them then they must work in that area!

There are booths in the major airports, Luang Prabang and Wattay, selling SIM cards to travellers at slightly inflated prices. If you need one in a hurry, these are a good idea and aren’t a total rip off but if you can wait, save yourself a few KIP and pick one up from any street vendor or shop when you arrive closer to the centre of town. 

Whilst SIM cards are cheap across the nation, data packages are generally more expensive than we are used to paying at home, around $13USD for 4GB. This can make streaming expensive but to be honest, the internet speeds are often too poor to stream video anyway. 

The SIM card we recommend for backpackers visiting Laos is Unitel. For more information on what you can expect from a Unitel SIM and also for alternative providers, see below!

Best SIM Cards for Backpacking Laos

Unitel 

  • Where to get a SIM: Official stores, small shops or street vendors.
  • Where to top up: Anywhere displaying the Unitel logo.
  • Cell network: 2G/3G/4G
  • ID Required: Not always but better deals become available if you register using ID. 
  • Bands/Frequencies: 900Mhz & 1800MHz (2G), 2100MHz (3G), Bands 3 & 8 (4G).

A joint venture between the Vietnamese Vietell and the Laotian government, Unitel has the largest coverage and these days covers most of the country. Sadly, the network is prone to congestion, so even in places like Vientiane where the signal should be strongest, the speeds are often very low. 

To combat the high price of data, Unitel has created their data-only SIMs, called Net SIMs. These are exactly what they sound like and provide the user with access to the internet but no texts or calls. You can expect to get 3-4 times the amount of data for your money, which make these a great option for travellers. Realistically, how many of us use texts or minutes when abroad anyway? To pick up one of these Net SIMs, you will need to visit an official Unitel store and unlike the normal SIM cards, you will need to have it registered before it will work. 

It is also worth noting that data plans automatically roll over on the first of each month so if you do not cancel the plan before the first of each month, the amount will be deducted from your credit balance. If you will not be using the SIM for a whole month, you should get bundles with a shorter validity and making sure you cancel them the day before they expire to stop them auto-renewing. 

TPlus (Formerly Beeline) 

  • Where to get a SIM: Official stores, most shops and street vendors. 
  • Where to top up: Anywhere displaying the TPlus logo.
  • Cell network: 3G
  • ID Required: No
  • Bands/Frequencies: 2100MHz (3G)

Due to a smaller customer base and less congestion, the speed and reliability offered by Tplus’ 3G network rival that of the 4G networks in Laos. I think that says more about the poor network speeds throughout the country than about how great TPlus are. Outside of major towns, the signal is all but non-existent so do not rely on TPlus if you are planning on getting off the beaten track. 

Since 2013, TPlus or Beeline as they were known then, have been talking up their big improved 4G infrastructure, which should finally be ready for their customers in April 2020.

Just as with Unitel, TPlus offer a Net SIM package for data only users. It is simpler to sort out than its competitors though, as any normal SIM can be converted by adding the correct package. All you have to do is text the correct activation code to 234. These codes are changing often, so be sure to have a good look at the bundles available when buying your SIM. 

Laotel

  • Where to get a SIM: Official stores, most shops or vendors.
  • Where to top up: Anywhere displaying the Laotel logo.
  • Cell network: 2G/3G/4G
  • ID Required: Not legally but you may be asked in official stores. 
  • Bands/Frequencies: 900Mhz & 1800MHz (2G), 2100MHz (3G), Bands 3 & 8 (4G).

Although Laotel has a 4G presence in major population centres, outside of these areas, you will be relying on 3G. Their extensive 3G network covers most of the country but users report issues in the northern provinces.

Just as with the other two companies we have discussed, Laotel offers a data-only SIM, which is the best way to get cheap access to the internet. Some travellers have reported it being a challenge to purchase the correct SIM, so it is advised to head to one of the official stores in Vientiane where there will be at least one member of English speaking staff who can help you out. 

If you get confused with topping up or buying bundles, there is a handy app called “M Services” which is available on both the play and app stores. This app has an English language setting and makes the whole process much smoother!

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