Of Argentine cell phones

Take head, oh ye foreigners who dare to enter into the strange world of mobile telecommunication in Buenos Aires!

A few days after my arrival here I went about getting myself a functional cell phone. With the aid of a lovely young Colombian woman and her lovely young American boyfriend we went from Claro to Movistar and then, finally, ended up at Personal. (These are the three most aggressively present carriers in these parts). I purchased, for the ridiculously high price of 60 American bucks, a little LG  phone. My own U.S. cell phone didn’t have the bandwidth to work this far South of the equator, apparently, and the folks you can normally pay to hack in and change this couldn’t fix the problem. Price paid and journey over I ran my fingers over the soft white plastic of my new mobile and thought, this will be my connection to the vast social networks whose links crisscross Buenos Aires, my dear port city.

Well, yes and no: First off, it is entirely unclear to me what prefixes to use when calling on said cell phone. I’ve heard different numbers to try from different people. There is apparently no hard and fast rule. “It’s sometimes 15,” people say, or “Try 11 first.” Some say to input the prefix in your contact list with the rest of the number, others say it’s unnecessary.

I have a whopping five contacts in my phone right now, only two of which I have been able to successfully call or send text messages to.

In addition, if one were to dial the Argentine prefix from a U.S. phone and then key in what I believe is my number (this was more difficult to figure out than you’d imagine because I received three text messages from Personal after setting up my phone, all of which claimed that I had a different phone number) you would be roundly informed by an operator–more likely a recording of an operator than an actual, live, human operator–that the number does not exist. Go figure.

I have successfully placed and received calls about as often as my attempts at communication via voice or SMS have failed, inexplicably and entirely. I also have received several voice messages which I cannot access because this bitchy recorded lady keeps telling me to put in my pass code–a code I have never known and that will forever remain shrouded in an impenetrable mystery to me. A friend of mine who has been living in the city for over two years still doesn’t know how to get his messages. TWO YEARS: this is a man with many local friends, mind you, and a reasonable amount of technological know-how.

So, for now, I remain only partially linked in. But I swear there must be a secret because Argentine’s love to talk on their cell phones as much as anybody. Although they do really seem to prefer the walkie-talkie function. Even when they aren’t using it, they treat their phones thusly, moving them from ear to mouth and back again, somewhat haphazardly, throughout their often very loud and animated conversations.

One great perk, which may or may not be specific to Argentine cell phones: each button on my phone, when pressed, sounds like a different key on an old casio keyboard.

One Comment on “Of Argentine cell phones”

  1. Damian says:


    A brief history: back in the day, the owner of the cell phone used to pay for incoming calls as well as outgoing. At some point this changed (I think in the beginning carriers charged you a monthly fee for the service of having the caller pay), so they had to introduce a prefix for those who were calling from a landline – I assume they can’t charge you more if you don’t know in advance that you’re calling a number with a different pricing scheme. Anyway, this was the famous 15 prepended to all mobile numbers.

    However, when you call from another cell phone this is unnecessary – probably because you’re paying the same price for any call you make, either to a landline or to a mobile.

    Then there’s the 11 — that’s the area code for Buenos Aires. If you’re calling from Buenos Aires to a Buenos Aires-based number, this shouldn’t be necessary either.

    I myself have a Personal and I only enter the eight-digit number without prefixes. I do, however, store contacts with 11 so that I can call and text whenever I’m away from the city, and it works from within BA too.

    When you call a mobile from abroad, you need to prefix a 9 and avoid the 15 – they have the same purpose, which is to alert about the more expensive call. This is extremely confusing because the 9 is prepended after the country code and before the area code. If that weren’t enough, this doesn’t work for SMS – you simply type the whole number, country + area + number, no 9 or 15. 😦

    Continuing with the usability and security best practices, it’s very likely that the pass code for your voicemail is the same as the last 4 digits of your phone number. 🙂

    Oh, and the walkie-talkie is called Nextel. It’s another carrier, one that allows you to talk freely to other Nextel customers using the annoying walkie-talkie function. So it became very popular among small business owners, couriers, people in the building trade, etc. It also allows you to talk for free on roaming mode from the States, so the typical Argentine who travels to Miami for leisure or to smuggle stuff into the country very likely has a Nextel, too 🙂

    Loving your blog!

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