Turkmenistan can be a difficult Asian country to buy a SIM card and hence greylisted. Ruled by the Great Serdar Arkadag ("Chief the Protector"), the white-marble Asgabat is like a far oriental tale.
There is only one provider now:
- TM CELL by Altyn Asyr (state-owned)
while the other operator has been suspended and a third player has not started yet:
MTS Turkmenistan(Russian-owned) - suspended in September 2017
- [Ay Nazar by ASTU (state-owned - scheduled to launch later in 2019)]
2G GSM is on 900 and 1800 MHz, 3G up to DC-HSPA+ on 2100 MHz. 4G/LTE started on TM CELL on 2600 MHz (B7) in 2013.
In 2017 Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Communication is preparing for the launch of a new operator to offer services under the ‘Ay Nazar’ brand over infrastructure owned by TM-Cell (Altyn Asyr), which is a subsidiary of state-owned fixed line incumbent Turkmentelecom. Ay Nazar is being created within the structure of another state-owned telecoms provider Ashgabat Shaher Telefon Ulgamy (ASTU or Ashgabat Urban Telephone Network).
This development comes as the clock runs down on the licence belonging to the nation’s only other operator MTS Turkmenistan. With Russian telecoms group MTS most recently having had its Turkmen licence renewed in 2015 for the period to end-2017, this concession was terminated again in September 2017 leaving the country with only one mobile provider for now. Because of the many uncertainties about the 2nd provider and actual subscription regulations, this country is currently greylisted.
Strict registration policies for SIM cards are applied comparable to their strict visa requirements. Without some paperwork it's officially impossible to buy a SIM card. This prohibitve policy has obviously been somewhat loosened from 2017, as we are getting reports that foreign visitors were able to buy a local TM Cell SIM card in their shops.
The best place to try it is the Altyn Asyr central office in Asgabat at the Ministry of Communications. They were asked about visa and registration in Turkmenistan (proof of address) when buying. Don't get a MTS SIM, they are worthless as the provider has been shut down. Because it seems to be possible now in Turkmenistan to get a prepaid SIM as a regular visitor this country has been taken from the Blacklist.
TM-Cell (Altyn Asyr), Turkmenistan’s sole mobile network operator, is limiting the maximum number of SIM cards that can be issued to its customers, to 2. The cellco is now only allowing customers to have 2 active SIM cards and is checking the number of registered cards for each user against their passport number. It's understood that the restrictions have been in place since September 2017 - the date at which Altyn Asyr’s sole cellular rival MTS Turkmenistan suspended operations. Prior to that development, each customer was able to acquire up to 5 SIM cards for Altyn Asyr.
Some years ago all satellite TV reception was banned. That's why the internet remains the only accessible media from out of the country. Internet access in Turkmenistan is censored and heavily regulated available only to a small fraction of the population. Censorship is ubiquitous and extensive. Surveillance is significant, and the few citizens who benefit from access to the internet are closely monitored by state agencies.
While there is no 'firewall' like in China or 'blacklist' like in Russia, websites run by human rights organizations and news agencies are blocked. Moreover, ordinary citizens have no access to the WWW and instead are limited to the use of the Turkmenet, an online community in Turkmen language, but effectively a censored version of the internet. Social media and well-known western (and even Chinese) websites and services are blacked out, including LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, WeChat, Line etc. are not accessible through the Turkmenet. Note that attempts to get around this censorship by VPNs or proxys can lead to grave consequences.
In 2019 Turkmenistan has launched its own Biz Byarde (We Are Here) social network. All other social networks remain blocked in the country, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Оdnoklassniki and VKontakte. Also VPN applications have been blocked in Turkmenistan from January 2019. Internet services are switched off when the VPN applications are activated on smartphones by Turkmenistan users. Then it's necessary to replace the SIM in order to continue using services.
WiFi as an alternative can be rare too. Internet access is very slow and expensive, but it's not like in North Korea. Since 2013 more than 15 public internet access points have opened in Asgabat alone, but the same rigid rules for censorship apply.
Roaming with foreign SIM cards
Instead of getting a local SIM you may consider roaming with foreign SIM card like Russian Megafon who offers 80 MB in Turkmenistan for 400 RUB (around US$5.10), no additional activation needed besides enabling roaming in account management. For more details see Russia article. In contrary Ukrainian providers Kyivstar and Lifecell from Ukraine are extremely expensive (several US$ per MB) in Turkmenistan.
TM CELL (by Altyn Asyr)
Altyn Asyr is the biggest operator in Turkmenistan. It's state-owned and works under the TM CELL trademark. Its 2G/3G coverage is pretty good and reliable all over the country,
4G/LTE started in Ashgabat and Türkmenbaşy in 2013 on band 7 (2600 MHz), is in active development nowadays, already available for all users including prepaid without any surcharges.
All TM CELL mobile numbers look like +993 6x xxxxxx.
SIM cards are not widely sold - you should visit their office in order to become a subscriber. They usually require passport, visa and address confirmation (registration) in Turkmenistan. (List of offices where a SIM card can be purchased).
New prepaid starter packs cost 10 TMT (Turkmen Manats), with 5 TMT cost of the package and 5 TMT as pre-loaded credit. When ordering, you will need to fill an application form with your personal data details, passport and visa details. Only one SIM card can be registered to one passport...
Usually normal (standard) size cards are available only. You can ask the clerk to cut it down to micro or nano size using a special device.
You can choose any available prepaid plan, for example:
- Sada: is a plan without any monthly or daily fee, data rate 0.15 TMT per MB
- 3G Internet (it allows 4G/LTE too): a special data-only plan with lower basic data rate, but it has a daily fee of 0.07 TMT and a data default rate of 0.07 TMT per MB.
Please note, that incoming calls in Turkmenistan are usually charged too.
Basic data price for almost all prepaid plans is between 0.07 and 0.20 TMT per MB depending on plan. A nightly discount is active from 2am - 9am when the basic rate is reduced to 0.03 TMT per MB.
If the account balance is lower than 3 TMT, internet access will be blocked until you recharge the account. To reduce the data price, you should add a monthly data pack. All of these data packs are valid for 30 days:
|Internet-3||50 MB||3 TMT||*0850*3#|
|Internet-55||1 GB||55 TMT||*0850*55#|
|Internet-160||4 GB||160 TMT||*0850*160#|
|Internet-350||10 GB||350 TMT||*0850*350#|
To check the remaining traffic of the purchased bundle, send a blank SMS to 0805.
Unused traffic from the bundle expires after 30 days. Bundles are not self-recurring. You need to activate another bundle for next month by yourself. Bundles are valid for all prepaid plans. After using all of the bundle or after expiration of the bundle, default basic data rate is applied.
There is no way to recharge online. You can pay by cash in TM CELL offices, buy a recharge voucher (refill card) in many shops in Turkmenistan or try to use Turkmen ATMs with your credit card, but it's not guaranteed.
To recharge with the voucher: Dial *0808 and press "call" button. Now you can choose the language: press "1" for Turkmen, "3" for Russian. It was also "2" for English, but it's not working now. After the greetings message, dial the voucher code and press "#" then "1" to finish.
To check your account balance dial *0800# or send an empty SMS to 0800.
- APN: gprs.tmcell.
- Online dashboard (self-service system): https://hyzmat.tmcell.tm/ (English, Russian and Turkmen languages). To get a password, send a blank text message (SMS) to 0831.
- Website in Russian, Turkmen and some English: http://tmcell.tm/
MTS Turkmenistan (MTS TM) - suspended in September 2017
MTS Turkmenistan (MTS TM) was historically the first mobile operator of Turkmenistan. It was fully owned and controlled by Russian MTS. It has been previously shut down in 2010 by the government after a dispute and re-opened again in 2012. In 2017 it served nearly 2 million subscribers, before it was shut down again in September 2017...
Mobile operator MTS announced that its MTS Turkmenistan subsidiary was forced to suspend its services on 29 September 2017. The previous day, a 5-year agreement between the Turkmenistan government and the MTS Group on sharing profits from MTS Turkmenistan expired. The state telco company Turkmentelekom suspended the provision of COT-MTS-Turkmenistan services for international and long-distance zonal communication and internet access services on September 29th from 00.00, therefore, MTS-Turkmenistan had no technical capability to provide mobile services to subscribers of the network and to subscribers who are roaming.
MTS Turkmenistan said customers can get money back from their handset balances, as well as for unused prepaid scratch-cards. The option is available at operator shops in Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenabat, Dashoguz, Balkanabat and Turkmenbashi.
For an undefined period they are off and there is no way to tell whether they will be re-established or not. Right now it seems that they will be replaced rather by another state-owned provider under the Ay Nazar brand.
In 2019 Russia-based MTS is said to have begun the process of dismantling its equipment in Turkmenistan with a view to withdrawing from the country once and for all. The decision follows the Russian group’s latest dispute with the government. With MTS Turkmenistan having been inactive since the enforced suspension, MTS Turkmenistan began dismantling its equipment and sending it back to Russia. Such action comes amid claims from sources close to MTS that the Turkmen authorities have not responded to requests for negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute.