Mobile operators, networks and cell phone coverage in Russia

Author: Dimitry Paranyushkin (on 02 Oct 2019)
Using your own sim card in Russia is not an option: you'll be ripped off on roaming charges (unless you get a travel sim). Most European and American operators charge about €10 per Mb, that means just turning your phone on by accident might already cost you €40 (just loading a map to get a taxi is already about 4 Mb, scrolling the Instagram feed is another 10).
It's much better to get a Russian SIM card as soon as you arrive to the airport. It's very easy to do it and the charges are super low: for €10 you can get a pay-as-you-go SIM card with virtually unlimited internet, calls and SMS.
Moreover, the cool thing about Russian mobile networks is that they have great roaming tariffs for abroad. Name any other company from EU or US that offers world-wide unlimited 4G / LTE roaming for €5 per day. But almost all Russian operators do. So this is your chance to get a neat Russian 007 number (the Russian phone code), which you can use on your other trips (once you figure out how the settings work :)

How and Where to Get a Russian SIM Card

There are four major mobile network providers in Russia: MTS, BeeLine, Megafon and Tele2. They all have about the same prices, but the coverage, quality and service they offer varies. In general it's better to get the SIM card in the region you'll spend most of your time in. If you're traveling around the whole country, get your SIM card from a mobile operator in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but make sure you tell the person who sells you the cell phone card that you'll be traveling around the whole country and you want to at least use the internet without a limit anywhere you go.
Beeline (yellow), Megafon (green), MTS (red), Tele2 (black) have about 80% of the Russian mobile market
The easiest place to get the SIM card is when you arrive — directly at the airport. All major mobile operators in Russia have their pop-up stalls at the arrival zones, so choose the color you like and get the SIM right there as the staff at the counter will also speak English and can adjust your cell phone for you according to your requirements. The standard start-up pack is about €10 and you usually get about 16Gb internet included plus free phone calls in Russia and lots of text messages included. These are usually pay-as-you-go contracts, so you won't get locked into a contract. You will need your passport and Russian visa (if required) to buy a SIM card.
Things you should look out for:
• Make sure your phone is unlocked by your operator to use with other SIM cards (if not, get a cheap Android smartphone);
• Get at least 8Gb or 16Gb internet that will work around the whole country;
• Check how to change the settings (via the operators's App or special numbers to dial);
• Ask if your card will work in other regions of Russia;
• Make sure you know how to top up or just put 1500 R / €20 straight;

If you are traveling to remote regions, countryside, or the Trans-Siberian, we recommend you to get at least two SIMs, so you can always be connected in case one of your networks doesn't work. The best ones we like are Megafon and Beeline — if you get those two you'll probably be covered. If you really want to be sure, get a SIM from MTS and Tele2 — their plans start as low as €5 and in this case you're really safe.

Get the SIM cards of at least 2 operators if you're traveling to remote regions
If you don't manage to get your card at the airport, you can get it in any of the many shops that operators have in every major city in Russia. Just type in the operator's name into Google Maps and find the nearest one (Beeline, Megafon, MTS, Tele2).



Which Mobile Operator to Use in Russia

If you're staying within big cities for only a few days you can use color as the criteria to choose the operator. However, an important factor is the coverage and whether your operator speaks English. Among the main 4 operators only BeeLine (the yellow one) has an English-language website where you can order a SIM and top up online. They also have pretty good 4G / fast-speed internet coverage at remote countryside regions (especially south of Moscow), Trans-Siberian and Baikal. On the other hand, Megafon (the green one) has English-language telephone support and better coverage in the Northern regions and wherever BeeLine fails, so get their SIM as a backup one (or in case you run out of your traffic for any reason and can't top up).  
Another thing you should watch out for is that all the Russian cell phone operators love to send spam text messages asking you to subscribe for the stuff that you don't need. You won't lose all your money, but if you don't have much credit, you might run out of it quicker than you expected. MTS (the red one) is known to do this sort of thing the least of all, so that's something in their favor. 

Mobile Networks Coverage Maps in Russia

If you're going camping or traveling to the countryside, you can check the coverage for each operator on their respective mobile network coverage maps.
MTS has the worst coverage — only in big cities — but the quality of their network is good where it works. 
BeeLine has 3G fast-speed internet almost everywhere in Russia, including the countryside area between Moscow and St. Petersburg and Baikal lake + Olkhon island — so perfect for traveling to remote areas and train rides.
Megafon has better coverage than MTS and slightly worse than BeeLine, but it's good if you get their SIM to compensate for where BeeLine doesn't work.
Tele2 has even slightly worse coverage than MTS, but they deliver 4G fast-speed internet in remote areas where others only offer 3G. For example, at Olkhon island at Baikal Lake you can do 4G fast browsing only with Tele2 as well as in remote areas of Novgorod region and Valdai National Park.  
Beeline mobile network coverage map in Russia


Lifehack: Using a Roaming SIM in Russia

If you want to make sure that you always have coverage, you either have to get the SIM cards of the 3 major operators or you can get a roaming SIM. The advantage is that it will always choose the fastest network and you'll always have the connection. One that we particularly like is Drimsim, which offers pretty good tariffs in Russia comparing to their competitors (€10 for 1 Gig, which is not too bad). It is sitll much more expensive than the local operators, but it may work as a backup option and you can use it in any country in the world.


Mobile Standards in Russia

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Russian mobile companies use two standards GSM 900/1800 (European standard — a more popular one) and CDMA (American standard — less popular). A single cell phone can’t be used in both standards. So, check your phone instruction to find out which standard it's operating in. Most smartphones, like iPhone and Samsungs, can do both.

GSM is far more popular in Russia and all the leading national operators use it in their networks, CDMA is used only by several local providers (in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Irkutsk), so the biggest problem with CDMA is that you won't be able to use the same telephone in several cities.

How to Dial Phone Numbers in Russia

Russian phone numbers start with +7 (or 00 7), followed by your number. However, back in the days they used to start from 8 (wait for a dial tone) and then the rest of the digits. That's why when a Russian gives you their nunber they might say, for instance, 8 905 382 9238 instead of +7 905 382 9238. We recommend you to write down numbers and to give your own numbers using the +7, as in this case you ensure it's going to work even when you're abroad, on WhatsApp etc.

What are The Smartphone Apps I'll Need?

We highly recommend you to get WhatsApp as virtually everyone uses it in Russia. Also Viber (online calling and messaging) is pretty popular, especially in the province. Telegram is popular but you might need a VPN for that. 
Among other apps Maps.Me is great because you can download the map to your phone and use it without the internet (great for camping and traveling). Also get the local Yandex Maps and Yandex Navi for maps and navigation — sometimes they have much more precise data and English-language versions are available for both. 
You'll also use Uber for taxi rides, but the local Russian Uber is owned by Yandex Taxi so get their app as well (also has an English version and very good coverage in almost every city in Russia).
For car sharing in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major cities get YouDrive and Delimobil apps — these will have your traveling needs covered.
If you've got any other recommendations, please, leave your comments below!

Some Russian Mobile Network Statistics

You might be interested to know that there are about 250 million active SIM cards in Russia (for 140 million of the population). The most popular operator is MTS with 31% of subscribers, Megafon has 29%, BeeLine has 23%, and Tele2 has 16% (data as of 2017). 



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