*** I recieved an e-mail from a reader asking for clarifaction on cellphones in Russia. Below I have copy-pasted what I wrote in response to the reader. I hope that it can be of use.
I just read your latest blog on technology. I've got a question for you regarding cell phones. A friend will loan me a cellphone to use while I'm in Russia. I know it has to be a GSM tri-band and unlocked. Since I've never used a cell phone internationally, my question is about SIM cards and plans. Do you get a telephone number with the SIM card? I will want a plan that allows me to make and receive international (to and from the US), as well as local calls. Do you know how much these things cost? Are they sold by the number of minutes? Any information you can share will be appreciated.
The cell phone that you described should work... But I am far from being an expert on the subject.
When you buy a SIM card, you are also buying "minutes" for the phone. SIM cards typically run 150 roubles ($6). Though in Russia, unlike in the US, you don't have "150 mins of talk time", rather you have "150 roubles of usage". That means that if you make an inter city call, it will deduct around 7 roubles from your SIM card. Or, if say you bought the SIM card in St Petersburg, and you were to call Moscow, it would be a steeper rate of deduction.
If you buy the SIM card in a cellphone store in St Petersburg, the number should be local to St Petersburg. When you get to Moscow, it might pay to buy another SIM card in order that all of your calls in Moscow are local.
There is a problem that you will likely encounter. Because the Russian government is paranoid, all SIM cards must be registered. So when you buy a SIM card they make you fill out a form of identity questions (i.e. Name, registration address, etc). You will probably be able to use you tourist registration info. Though when I bought my first cellphone/SIM card, they were registered in my tutor's name. The store (incorrectly) stated that non-permit residents could not buy SIM cards. The cellphone store employees don't look down on this practice... They just need something on the paper.
So you can just as easily ask a Russian tour guide to do you the favor of helping you to buy the SIM card, and to see if they will register it in their name.
Your phone should be able to make/recieve international calls. If you got your SIM card in St Pete, and you get an international call from there, it costs nothing. Though if you have a SIM from St Pete, and you get an international call in Moscow, it costs (not too much (I think), but be aware that your time is diminishing as you talk).
Also, if you call (without a phone card) I heard that it cost about $2 a minute.
After your initial 150 roubles run-out, you can buy refill minutes at nearly any kiosk. They look like phone cards and have an explanation of what to do on the back. Essentially, you buy the card (in increments of 100, 250, 500 roubles +) and dial the number in the back. Then you scratch off, then dial the secret pin code (also on the card).
I hope that this gives you atleast an idea of how it all works. It isn't so bad. The ACTR gave us a packet (written by one of the Residential Directors) on how the cell phones work. You might want to see if you can get a copy of it. Thanks for reading my blog!