It is absolutely possible to get a pre-paid SIM card in Brazil, but it’s not possible to get one from every carrier. Only one carrier, TIM, will allow a foreigner to get a SIM chip. With Oi and Vivo you need to have a CPF (which is similar to a US social security card), but with TIM you can use a passport.
The major Brazil mobile carriers
There are three major players in the Brazil market: Oi, Vivo, and TIM. Most Baianos (people from Bahia) will have either Oi or Vivo because they are less expensive than TIM. But, it’s not about the cost of the chip, it’s the cost-per-minute to call.
Here is one area where Brazil shows its idiosyncrasies. You will pay different rates per minute based upon the carrier you use and the carrier the person you are calling uses. Intra-carrier (Oi to Oi, Vivo to Vivo, or TIM to TIM) is the least expensive. And no one likes calling TIM because that is the most expensive to call. I used to have a TIM chip, and whenever someone asked me who my carrier was, I’d get a “mmmmmm, yeah…..” You could tell they clearly weren’t happy about that.
Brazilians, if nothing else, are a resourceful bunch, and I know many Brazilians who have multiple chips. They are sometimes lucky enough to have a multi-chip phone, or they will carry around the second chip for their one phone. One night I was out with friends having a beer or three, I even took out an earring out for a friend who needed to change his chip to make a call.
This malandragem (trickery) with the SIM chips is also why Brazil has nearly a 100% WhatsApp penetration rate among internet users. Wi-fi is hardly ubiquitous down there, but they absolutely rely on WhatsApp. You can put a little bit of data on your phone and be good to go. You may be able to get by down there without a local SIM, but don’t even bother to get on the plane until you’ve installed WhatsApp.
How to get a SIM card
TIM has their act together, and has made a point of catering to the tourist market. They even have English-language pages on their site and they promote the “TIM Visitor Pre-Paid SIM card”
On their site they explain how to get the card, how top it up, how to check your minutes, and they talk about rates. As I write this, they are promoting $R25 (about $8USD) for 7 days and 1.5GB of data. That is more than enough to send a lot of WhatsApp messages, carefully check Facebook, call and Uber, and spot-check yourself on Google maps. Just remember to switch over to wi-fi whenever you can.
To get a card, you need to go to the TIM store. In Salvador there are a handful of store locations. Assuming you will be in Barra, Rio Vermelho, the Pelourinho, Santo Antonio, or other nearby neighborhoods, your best option is to go to the TIM store in Shopping Barra (the Barra mall). There is one located on the first floor.
Like much of Salvador you probably aren’t going to find a fluent English speaker, but I’ve been consistently impressed by how willing people are there to work through my poor Portuguese, awful pronunciation, and miming to help me get what I want. In Portuguese, what you are looking for is a “chip pre-pago”.
All you will need is your passport and the money to pay for the card, and the chip is yours!
How to recharge a SIM card
Recharging your card is much simpler than getting it to start with. You can recharge your chip at a number of the local pharmacies — I’ve always had good luck at Pague Menos (literally, “pay less”). Newspaper stands and other small kiosks will also recharge chips — look for a sign that says “Recarga” with a photo of the TIM icon. Just keep your eyes out for the signs — they are everywhere.
To recharge your SIM card, you tell them what carrier you are with (portador). Then, they will do some magic and then give you a machine to enter your phone number (usually twice). You don’t need to enter the “55” for the country code, but do need the “71” for Bahia and then the rest of your number (nine more digits starting with a “9”). After that, they will ask you for payment — you can usually pay with cash or a credit/debit card. Moments later you will have a topped-up phone.
The first time I had to put money on my phone I dragged a friend of mine into the store for moral support and went up to the register. I completely botched my Portuguese, but holding out my phone with some money and mumbling something about “recarga”. Happily, they figured out what I wanted to do and helped me make it happen. If you are attempting this with basic Portuguese and have TIM as your carrier, the carrier name is pronounced like “cheen”.