Staying connected on the road is important for me. It lets me keep in contact with family and friends, I can continue to work on this blog, I can book hostels and flights as I need them without having to rush to find a WiFi connection or Internet cafe, and – most importantly – I have access to local information so I can better navigate the place I’m visiting.
While I wrote a more extensive guide to local SIM cards in Japan (because I’m a geek and I had lots of time on my hands to research it), from here on out my posts about using local mobile providers will be directly linked to the experiences I had while using the service.
In Malaysia, there are a wealth of mobile providers who have prepaid SIM cards available for visitors to purchase. Maxis Hotlink, Digi, Celcom XPAX, and UMobile all have strong presences at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and have made it dead simple for tourists to get connected within minutes.
For my month in Malaysia, I chose to use Maxis Hotlink as my cellular provider.
Maxis and Celcom both have shops directly facing the arrivals gate at KLIA2, so you don’t have to go far to get your SIM card after getting off the plane.
The signup procedure is pretty painless – although the Maxis shop was a little chaotic with about twice as many customers than staff who were there, making for a somewhat confusing scene. Once you get to a rep, however, you hand over your phone and passport, and tell the staff member which mobile internet plan you’d like to add to your phone.
Plans are always somewhat subject to revision, but being offered at the KLIA2 Hotlink outlet as of this writing were a number of prepaid data plans. Aside from a plan which offers 150MB of data for RM3 (C$1), all other plans offered run under a somewhat goofy system where half the data you get is for use during daytime hours (7am to 11:59pm), and the other half of the data is reserved for use overnight (midnight to 6:59am). The result is that while it looks like you’re getting a big bucket of data, the reality is that you’re really getting half of it during the the time of day where you want/need it most.
These plans look like this :
- RM6 (C$2) for 300MB (150MB daytime + 150MB overnight) – 1 week validity period
- RM10 (C$3.33) for 1GB (500MB daytime + 500MB overnight) – 1 week validity period
- RM20 (C$6.66) for 1GB (500MB daytime + 500MB overnight) – 1 month validity period
- RM30 (C$10) for 3GB (1.5GB daytime + 1.5GB overnight) – 1 month validity period
While not advertised at the KLIA2 outlet, there are other plans which fall under this system available from Hotlink :
- RM48 (C$16) for 6GB (3GB daytime + 3GB overnight) – 1 month validity period
- RM65 (C$22) for 9GB (4.5GB daytime + 4.5GB overnight) – 1 month validity period
Deciding to start conservatively, I signed up for the 3GB package. The Maxis rep changed out the SIM card, recorded my passport information for government registration purposes, and handed everything back to me when it was done.
The cost of the SIM card starter pack is RM10, which includes the SIM and a RM5 calling credit. Total bill – including my prepaid plan – RM40 (C$13.30). I was on my way and back online.
I had two distinctly different experiences with Hotlink while travelling through Malaysia.
First experience was not a positive one – primarily in large city areas like Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, and Johor Bahru. I found the speed and even usability of the Hotlink service to vary wildly. Sometimes, it felt like I was on a rapid connection right to the heartbeat of the Internet. Other times, it was like trying to suck an extra-thick durian milkshake through a paper straw. Connection speeds really suffer in downtown Kuala Lumpur where concrete buildings like the NU Sentral and Suria shopping centres seem impenetrable by Maxis’ mobile signal. There are more times than I’d like to admit where I’ve been tempted to throw my phone on the concrete and smash it with the heel of my shoe.
Further, because of these wildly fluctuating data speeds, services like Skype, LINE IP calling feature, and even Google Hangouts seem unusable at times. You’ll be in the thick of a conversation, and all of a sudden the other end of the phone will go dead. It’s really inconvenient.
The second experience I had was outside the major cities on the peninsula. In Kota Kinabalu, on Langkawi and in George Town, I was pleasantly surprised at how stable and consistent the Maxis signal was. Had these been the only places I’d visited, I would have never thought ill of the quality of the Maxis service – it was fantastic.
Despite erratic speed variations from location to location, I will say that I was very impressed with the coverage of Maxis. Even on Pulau Tiga – aka the island where they filmed the first season of the hit CBS reality show Survivor – there is 3G service with full bars. Maxis is everywhere (as is Celcom, from what I’ve read).
Because of how dodgy IP voice apps were on Maxis’ service (and I really do hope it’s not a result of Hotlink throttling that kind of app), I chose to make use of my calling credit which was pre-loaded on my phone.
Maxis offers a discount long-distance telephone service known as IDD132. By adding a special prefix in front of the phone number you’re dialling, you can call internationally for very little money. Common logic says that the audio quality of these discount long distance services is sometimes a little compromised, but in my experience with Hotlink’s service the quality was more than sufficient for calling home to my parents in Canada.
Hotlink’s IDD132 service deducts RM0.65 (C$0.22) for every 4 minutes during your phone call. By comparison, the premium IDD service costs RM4.80 (C$1.60) for the same amount of time. What this ultimately means is that you can call home using your Malaysian phone number for very little money, without having to worry about trying to fight with VoIP services on a somewhat unstable (at times) Internet connection.
Managing Your Account
Maxis offers an app for download in the App Store and Google Play Store titled Hotlink RED. RED lets you do a number of things, including checking in on your data usage and the ability to purchase additional buckets of data using “top ups” of money added to the phone’s account (explained below).
I know that I’m a fairly voracious user of mobile data – on average, I was using up 3-4GB of data month in Canada. But I was surprised how fast I burned through my first bucket of 1.5GB of daytime data on Maxis.
A little more than a week after being in Malaysia, I was in search of a Maxis company store or dealer in an effort to get my account reloaded with money so I could add another bucket of data. I was actually kind of shocked at how fast it was eaten up.
Topping up (or adding more credits to your prepaid account) is a very common thing for Malaysians. There’s a high saturation of prepaid mobile services in this market, and so it seems like everyone offers top-up service. From supermarkets to corner stores – even mobile phone dealers who primarily sell service for one company will diversify and offer top-ups for pretty much everyone.
For my first top up, I ducked in to a small mobile shop across the street from my hostel in Johor Bahru. Having eaten up 1.5GB of data in no time, I didn’t feel like having to top up again for a long while, so I decided I wanted to get the RM48 plan which would give me 3GB of daytime data.
I handed the woman a RM50 note and she took my phone number and worked some magic with an old school Nokia handset behind the counter. When all was said and done, I had a top up – which was just 15 sen shy of what I needed for the 3GB plan. That’s when I realized there are two things that happen with top-ups : non-company stores often take a commission (this is why so many different kinds of businesses offer top-up services – it requires no overhead and a guaranteed revenue stream for a few seconds of work), and top-ups are subject to Malaysia’s goods and services tax (6% as of this writing).
Because I had been using my calling credit to talk back home to Canada, my account was low enough that despite the RM50 top-up, after the commission and tax were deducted it wasn’t enough to get the plan I wanted.
Upon leaving Kota Kinabalu and needing a new top-up, I learned my lesson and had the lady behind the Maxis company counter break out the calculator to help me figure out how much money I needed to add to get the 3GB plan. I was happy with the result!
More often than not, Maxis Hotlink worked – especially for the key tasks of using Google Maps and calling home (although that had to be done using IDD service and not VoIP apps like Skype or Google Hangouts).
The network congestion in larger cities can be frustrating at times, but wasn’t enough of a factor for me to seek out a new SIM card and switch providers. If I lived here, I don’t believe I’d tolerate it.
Plans are fairly priced, although the use of overnight data to bolster the appearance in size of the packages offered feels a little goofy (although, I did alter my habits to set a number of podcasts to download at night so I’d have something to listen to on bus rides and flights, effectively making some use of the data allotment).
Too Long, Didn’t Read
For the short notes on my experience Maxis Hotlink, here they are :
- Total cost to get started – RM40 (or about C$14). This includes 1.5GB of daytime data and a RM5 calling credit.
- Data packages advertise a total data amount (ie: 3GB) but this is split between daytime data (7:00am to 11:59pm) and overnight data (12:00am to 6:59am).
- Connection speeds suffered somewhat in high-use, large-population areas with large concrete buildings, but were excellent in lower-populated areas and on the islands of Borneo, Langkawi and Penang.
- VoIP applications seem unreliable at times over the network, but inexpensive IDD calling to Canada and the United States makes fighting with VoIP apps to be not worth the battle.
- New buckets of data can easily be purchased from Hotlink’s RED app.
- Purchasing more account credit is easy to do with convenience stores, supermarkets, mobile phone dealers, even restaurants offering the option to “top up.”
- Be aware that top-ups are not for the full amount you pay (unlike with gift cards in Canada and the United States) due to goods and service tax and commission fees for the top-up agent. A RM50 top up with net you somewhere below RM47 in actual credit for use with Hotlink.
- Lasting impression is that Hotlink worked as advertised most of the time, but suffers from network congestion in larger cities. For a short-term visit, the connection difficulties are liveable, but would not be something I’d tolerate as a resident subscriber.
Have you used Maxis Hotlink? What about Celcom’s XPAX, Digi or UMobile? What are your experiences with mobile providers in Malaysia? Let me know in the comments below, or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.