If you’re staying in Russia for longer than a week, you’re probably going to want phone or mobile Internet service (or both). Setting these up in Russia has gotten a lot easier in the last few years, but there are still a few things to note about the way Russia does phone/Internet service.
Buying a phone
Your first task in the search for phone service is, of course, getting a phone! If you have a GSM 900/1800 American phone, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use it by just buying a Russian SIM card. Otherwise, you’ll have to get a phone in Russia.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want a fancy phone, visiting a tech market (such as Gorbushka in Moscow) is the best way to buy one. It also gives you a real chance to practice your Russian (this is the part where you haggle). Otherwise, your best bet is to buy a cheap-o dumb phone to use for the duration of your stay. Most phone service providers will have some basic phones/SIM cards in stock.
If you have a smart phone, especially a super nice iPhone, Android, etc., don’t keep it in a back pocket where it can get stolen, and DO NOT take it out on the metro/in the street/etc. Muggings can happen over expensive tech.
Getting phone service
Russia currently has three major phone service providers: MTS, Megafon, and Beeline. They have kiosks positioned throughout all the major cities, although service isn’t always great/available in more rural areas. Setting up a plan is as easy as choosing a tier you like, giving the phone to the shop assistant, and letting her do her thing… but this might not be the cheapest way, especially if you intend on making international calls.
A better way is to ask for a pre-paid plan (предоплата). For these plans, you have to periodically go to a kiosk or pay booth (which can be found in most shopping complexes) to charge up your phone, but it’s well worth it.
One unfortunate thing about using a cell phone in Russia is that if you buy your phone service in one city and then travel to another city and use it there, your roaming charges will be insanely high. In these situations, the cheapest way to make calls is just to use pre-paid phone cards rather than any sort of plan.
Getting mobile Internet service
MTS, Megafon, and Beeline all provide mobile Internet plans, usually through mobile hot-spots. Because this is Russia, their plans are not particularly fast, cheap, or reliable. If you don’t want to pay high fees for mediocre service, you could use a nearby Internet cafe or coffee shop. Кофе Хауз (Coffee House) is almost as ubiquitous as our Starbucks, and has free wi-fi (although it’s polite to buy something, and their coffee is expensive). If you don’t mind the noise, McDonald’s also has free wi-fi, and you can stay however long you want without buying anything.