Bureaucracy, technology, and language barriers: the perfect storm

If I had to pick my favorite word in Spanish, it would be “claro”. It is a word that I hear more than almost any other, and it is incredibly versatile. From my perspective, it is similar to “OK” and can be thrown into many places in a conversation or just stand by itself. Lacking anything else to say, “claro” seems like a great choice…

Therefore, when I tried to settle on a local company to purchase a prepaid phone for my wife and super high-tech “nano SIM” card for my iPhone 5, the choice was easy. I searched around the internet and found three choices for a prepaid plan that would fit our needs: Movistar, Personal, and Claro. Rather than get bogged down in the the technical subtleties, I immediately felt an urge to go with my favorite word (which must be the best choice I can imagine for a cell phone company).

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I can be a bit of a technophile, and I was one of the first in line to sign up for an iPhone 5. I could easily justify it because I needed one to develop a new design for a case (which is still very nice after a weeks of using it!).

Well, the iPhone 5 sports the latest and fanciest SIM card, a nano-SIM. It is the latest and greatest and seems to be available almost nowhere in the world. My story actually starts about a month ago, shortly after getting my phone. I looked up companies in the USA that sold international SIM cards, with the hope that I could just get one and take it with me. Nobody had these cards, but they told me that I could cut an old-fashioned “micro-SIM” card to fit the nano-SIM slot. There are youtube videos demonstrating this technique, which makes me really wonder at the time that people seem to have available…

I made the decision to try to find a SIM card when I arrived in Buenos Aires. It started yesterday with a stop in a local store with 2 very nice clerks. They were happy to help; one spoke good English and the other was about as bad with English as I am with Spanish. He and I worked together to cut the edges off a standard SIM card, and when it clearly wasn’t ever going to fit, he brought out the big clippers to go right through the metal. 15 pecos poorer, I decided to do a bit more investigation.

That was when I decided that Claro was my phone company. How could you go wrong?? I started the day by explaining to our nice hotel clerks that we wanted to find a tall Claro store. When they explained that I really wanted a big Claro store, they gave us a few choices in downtown Buenos Aires on Florida Ave, which is a lot like Time’s Square with people constantly asking if you need money changed. We found the first Claro store, and after my attempt at broken Spanish explaining what I wanted, the clerk said in perfect English that his store was only for business customers and that I would need to go to the Claro store 3 blocks away. We found the personal Claro store, along with many people and long lines, and fairly quickly got my wife a new inexpensive phone with a prepaid SIM card. So far, so good…

For my iPhone 5 nano-SIM card, it wasn’t so easy. First I was told that they had them and that it would be no problem. Then, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I was sent to yet another Claro store that was another 2 blocks away. We paid for my wife’s new phone, left the store and found the next one. When I asked in an unintelligible combination of Spanish and English for a nano-SIM card, they told me they didn’t have it, but that the store about 3 blocks away did (these are all different stores, which are about as frequent as dog poop on the sidewalk). We got to the 4th Claro store, a bit sweaty and tired, and asked for the nano-SIM card. They assured me that they had no such card but that the Central Claro store, only 3 blocks away, would have them for sure. The Central Claro store was big, required a number at the start, and I figured that it was a sure bet. When I got to a clerk, he didn’t speak English (by this time I was not even asking if they spoke English but rather just grunted that I wanted a nano-SIM card…). The young woman who did speak English was not interested in my problems and told me that they didn’t have them. I must have looked either pitiful or dangerous, because she got the English speaking technical support person to tell me that no Claro stores had them in Argentina but that they might be in tomorrow or next week.

Frustrated, I stopped in a Personal store to try there, but the first thing I found out was that a store just up the street had them but they didn’t. Before I chased that lead down, I went back to the Claro store that started the whole thing and got the same clerk who sold us my wife’s phone. He was apologetic and checked back with the technical support people, who told him that they did have nano-SIM cards but that they could not sell me one without having an existing Claro number. The clerk said that the only solution would be for me to purchase a normal SIM card, get a Claro number, and then turn that in for a nano-SIM card. Never one to complain, I pulled out my wallet, ready to buy the first SIM card and then exchange it for the nano-SIM. For reasons I still don’t understand, he could not sell it to me but said that I could walk 2 blocks to the other Claro store (number 3 above), buy it, and come back for my nano-SIM. I walked into store 3, and remembering me from an hour ago, immediately told me that they had no SIM cards. I told them that I now wanted a SIM normal (wanting to still communicate in Spanish), and they said they had no SIM cards and that I should go down the street to Claro store #4. That store looked but told me that they had no SIM cards (normal or nano) but that I could go to yet another Claro store that was about 1 block in a completely new direction (store number #6 if you are still counting). Well, store 6 had a normal SIM card (I didn’t even bother to ask about nano-SIM), and after about 10 minutes and 30 pesos, I had my SIM normal.

We were clearly over the hump on this one, and after about 15-20 minutes and two trips back to technical support, my first clerk came out with my “famous nano-SIM” card. It slipped right in, and when we turned on my iPhone 5, it said “Claro” on the top! Wow, what a victory!!

Here was the final step in our quest for a cell phone in Buenos Aires.

Next, I asked the nice Claro clerk how we can put money onto our new phone and nano-SIM card. He told us that it was easy and that there were “kiosks” almost everywhere that could add time. I asked if I could just buy time there in the big Claro office, and he told me no. So, Katherine and I walked out of the Claro store with a new phone, a new nano-SIM in my iPhone 5, and couldn’t make a call. I decided I wasn’t leaving the area without finding a “kiosk” so that at the very least I could at least return to the big Claro store to yell at them in Spanglish. After about 1-2 miles of walking, through busy stores everywhere, we finally stopped into a place that had no Claro sign at all and just a non-descript “Locutorio Internet” sign. We asked the clerk, who spoke very little English, if we could add minutes to our Claro cell phones (try that with 20 words in Spanish and see how well you do!). He spoke in Spanish to his Spanish-speaking assistant, and they decided that they could help us and asked for our money. With a long line of Spanish speaking people behind us, we tried to figure out 1) if this was legit, 2) if any of us know what the other was saying, and 3) how many minutes do we want to buy? We just handed them 50 pesos for Katherine and 100 for me, because I have data needs too. I said something stupid like “¿por seis semanas?, he nodded in agreement, and they sold us our minutes.

To our surprise, the phones worked! We still have no idea how to find out how many minutes we have, since every bit on instruction that I’ve found is in Spanish. However, we have had a major victory and will soak in our new communication capabilities for a long time. Claro!

Author: edisonleatherworks

I'm a biochemistry professor and leatherworker who likes bicycles, travel, art, education, and music. Walking is my favorite form of transportation, and I regularly practice Tai Chi.

4 thoughts

  1. Nice article! Been in Argentina for two years on/off but learned only a few Spanish word (been sailing) and this is very very similar to my story. Also picked Claro, but later learn there are only small differences between them three. Cutting the sim is not so hard after all. Now I try to figure out if the normal card (cut) is possible to use in my new iPad Mini 4G . Guess that will be even worse…

    Take care

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