Best Option to get Mobile Internet in Chile
As you may know, we are travelling in our own overland camper, and thus not relying on accommodation in hostels or hotels. Since we have our own kitchen, and specific nutrition needs, we also cook most days, hence we don’t frequent up-market coffee shops or restaurants. This means we hardly ever encounter any free WiFi. To run our website and social media activities, plus to keep in touch with family and friends, requires that we get online at least every other day. So how do we do it?
The short answer: the situation and conditions differ in every country!In Chile we are very happy with our Entel Mobile Data USB stick. Overall coverage quite often surprised us, and we can compare this with the Claro network. We often prefer to camp away from settlements, close to nature, the more isolated the better. On several occasions I was surprised to get 4 or 5 bar reception with our Entel stick, where our smart phone on the Claro network had either no reception at all, reception with no data, or ‘Edge’ reception if we were lucky!
How to buy an Entel Mobile Data Sim or Chip
Since early 2014 all mobile phone shops throughout Chile deal exclusively with contract customers – no prepaid options at all. This is a bit of a bummer as it takes longer to find a small kiosk or shop which will sell a prepaid device. If you’re lucky an Entel shop might point you in the right direction, but in most cases they seem to be totally uninterested. So you’ll have to ask around at small shops selling electronics and cellphone accessories.
How much does it cost to buy the Entel ‘Banda Ancha’ stick
($= all prices in Chilean Pesos) The USB retails regularly for $13,490 , which includes $10,000 credit towards data. This will give you up to 1 week’s access to the network. Entel now also sells a data SIM, but that was not available at our time our purchase.
Bonus: the first recharge gives you double your credit! Take advantage of this (it had slipped my mind). Attention: keep in mind that all credit expires after 90 days!
The tricky bit: to register your Entel Mobile Data Account
Every Chilean has a so-called RUT number, which is a personal identification number. To register the stick or card online (to start using it) you need a RUT. There are basically three options:
1. you go to the tax department and apply for your own personal RUT as a tourist. This is possible, even if some might tell you differently, but rather time consuming;
2. you use the RUT of a Chilean friend;
3. ask the person selling the stick/card, if you could use his/her RUT number. You could possibly make this a condition of purchase; there shouldn’t be any negative consequences to the person providing their RUT number (unless you break the law online).
You will face a similar problem with any other purchase of a mobile number, e.g. a data SIM for your smart phone.
The registration itself is fairly easy and doesn’t require much knowledge of the Spanish language. You just fill in a few fields in an online form (catch: you need another device to get online).
Recharging your Entel ‘Banda Ancha’ is easy
We never had any problems recharging our chip; even the smallest tienda (shop) in the most remote village could have a machine, which looks like a credit card processor, to recharge your account. To recharge you need your Entel phone number (yes, even the stick has one) which is printed on your initially purchased package. One condition is that a minimum unused credit of $7 always remains on the chip.
To decide which ‘bolsa’ (data package) is the most economical can sometimes be tricky when you’re travelling, because you never know what’s ahead. We’ve been caught, in an out-of-the-way National Park , where almost half of our prepaid 15 days expired without being in range of mobile reception, or we recharged in installments of 2 days when we ended up spending over a week in the same location (e.g. when we were stranded near Vicuña ). Once I had just bought a package for 3 hours, and within 15 minutes somebody knocked on the door and asked for my help to rescue a bogged vehicle – by the time I got back the 3 hours had expired…
Update 30th June 2015: we returned to Chile, from Argentina, in late June 2015 and to our surprise the prices of the 1-week and 2-week bolsas had dropped considerably. This coincided with a sharp drop in download allowances. We have to watch how it will work out for us; with the previous volume restrictions we never even came close to using up our download limits. The short usage (1 & 3 hours and 1 & 2 days) prices didn’t change but now have also much lower limits (to compare I left the old table up).
Update 12th November 2016: we are back in Chile for a short period. So far we have been unable to locate (in Iquique) a shop which sells the ENTEL USB data stick. Hence we bought a phone SIM with a data allowance. Prices for data on Entel’s prepaid phone cards is much more expensive: the largest package you can buy is $7,500 for 1GB of data (compared to $9,990 for 3GB data on the stick)!
Speed and other technical tips
The maximum download speed for the Entel ‘Banda Ancha’ is 1 Mbit/s, but more often we had speeds averaging between 300 and 600 Kbit/s, and in dismal locations sometimes as low as 20-40 Kbit/s.
This is not amazingly fast, but most of the time it allows you to do almost everything, except watching streaming video or downloading large files. We succeeded in doing almost all of our website updates, including photo uploads, through our device.
I believe you’d be hard pressed to ever reach the overall data volume limit of any purchased package; in comparison, on our broadband connection at home, we hardly ever used more than 10-12 Gigabytes per month (I know avid video watchers or online game players can exceed this 4- or 5-fold).
Update 10th August 2015: after a few weeks with the updated price and bandwidth packages, we have to report that for our usage the new pricing is not any cheaper! For us it’s possibly more expensive as we regularly exceed our bandwidth allocation before the time has expired. I guess we’ve always been very close to the old limits. Once, after only 5 days on a 15-day-package, we received the dreaded message “Has utilizado la cuota de trafico”. It could be a different situation for those who don’t maintain a website and a number of social media accounts; they may find the new data volumes sufficient for their needs.
If you are inside your overland camper, you may try a few tricks to boost your speed. First buy a short USB extension cord of around 3-4 meters, then plug the stick into this (the other end of course into your USB port on your computer). Move around, hang the stick out one window, then the opposite, and watch how the reception changes. We once hung ours from a roof vent in the bathroom, another time we wrapped it into a plastic bag (to protect it from ocean mist) and tied it to a small camera tripod which we stood on our roof (this added 3 bars to our reception)…
Usually we use our Entel connection on up to four devices (our two computers, our Nexus 4 smart phone and our Nexus 7 navigation tablet – on the latter only for updates and occasional browsing). Since our laptops are running Windows 7 (not 8 or 10) setting up a local ‘hotspot’ isn’t a straight forward exercise. Until we discovered Connectify, a small application which makes the entire set-up a breeze. On occasions we’ve even shared our internet access with other travellers (and never exceeded our data limit).
Disclaimer: some links are affiliate links where we receive a small commission – but you don’t pay a Cent more. Personally I would not order a USB cable at Amazon, unless I had more to order and there wouldn’t be any charges for freight. Our link is meant to give you a price indication for local comparison. We are NOT affiliated with ENTEL or receive any reward for this review – this post reflects our unbiased experience!