Or How I Bumbled My Way Through the Turkish Bureaucracy in the Quest to Make a Foreign Phone Work in Turkey
I am sure I am not the first foreigner who, after attempting to follow the mysterious and complicated procedures of the Turkish government, recalls that the term “byzantine” emerged from this part of the world.
I tried to follow the directions given by the very useful expat site Yabangee.com to register my U.S. cellphone in Turkey. My quest went a little differently than the procedure they describe.
Side Note: why it’s called “Yabangee” is beyond me. The Turkish word for “foreigner” is “yabancı,” pronounced yah-bahn-JUH. Not yah-bahn-JEE.
For those interested in the actual procedure I followed, read the numbered list below. If you want to know the myriad intricate details of my adventure, skip ahead for the long and winding read.
- Register the phone at a tax office (Vergi Dairesi) at the cashier’s office. Price: 115 Turkish lira. You will need your passport, phone, and the phone’s IMEI number. They will ask you to call it up on your phone by dialing *#06#. After you pay the registration fee (115 Turkish Lira as of this writing) they will give you your proof of registration.
- Take the registration, phone, passport, and a photocopy of your passport (the page with your photo on it) and bring that to a Police Station. You’ll go to the Passport and Foreigner’s department (Pasaport ve Yabancılar Büro) where they’ll give you a form. You write your name, your address, and a phone number, then sign your name.
- Take the form they give you to another floor or department where it will get stamped. Then return back to the Pasaport ve Yabancılar department where someone, probably a Lieutenant, will sign it.
- Take the registration, phone, your passport, and the police form to a cell phone dealer. Keep in mind that not all cell phone dealers have the ability to register foreign phones. As of this writing, I can personally attest to the fact that the dealers at the Cevahir Mall do not.
- You’ll have to pay another registration fee and a fee for the SIM card. Then you’ll want to add money to your account.
I am not an expert when it comes to the Turkish government or expat living. As I write this, I’ve been in Turkey all of two weeks. I have no doubt the Turkish government will change the procedures and requirements. So don’t follow these procedure a month or two or more from now and tell me it’s wrong. I’m sure it’ll be wrong by 2:30pm next Wednesday when some bureaucrat returns from brooding over their tea and decides that the Yabancılar are catching on too quickly to the phone registration procedures, so let’s change things once again by basing the price of the registration fee at the Tax Office on the size of the phone or demanding a second stamp on the Police registration from the Çöp Department.
For those who want to see just how much of a glutton for bureaucratic punishment I can be, read on.
Why, you ask, am I registering my phone in Turkey. Because cell phones won’t just work in Turkey. You can put a SIM card from a cell phone service provider for awhile but then the government cuts off your phone from service if it’s not registered with the government. Also, cell phones are expensive here. The cheap phone my wife bought with a pay-as-you-go plan cost 170 lira + 45 for the SIM card. I get to use my Droid Razr M on Turkcell’s network for 160 lira + 45 for the SIM. I didn’t need another cheap phone to add to the landfills of Turkey. Besides, I really like my phone, even if I’m not going to have a data plan on it. And it still connects to wifi which we have here at our apartment.
My quest began by searching for a Tax Office. The nearest one I could find happens to be the one highlighted by Yabangee.com. In Turkey these are called “Vergi Dairesi.”
The Vergi Dairesi in Şişli is not next to the “Vergi Dairesi” bus stop in Şişli. The map provided by Yabangee.com shows where the bus stop is located, not the actual Vergi Dairesi. But when you’re in Istanbul, that’s usually the best you’re going to get. So you do what I did, you follow the map and go to that area, then you ask random people on the street where the Vergi Dairesi is located. I asked a local simit seller, who pointed me in the right direction. I found it, around a corner, down a street and around another corner from the bus stop.
I entered the building and went up a half-flight of stairs to the first floor. I figured I would just go up to someone and tell them in my badly broken Turkish that I want to register my cellphone.
On the other side of a long, low wall that was topped with glass sat an older man. With the perfunctory skill of someone who is in no mood for surprises, he was managing and servicing queries from many people who were holding slips of white paper in their hands. Behind him, two women sat at a table sipping their tea. It was the middle of the afternoon on Tuesday. I used the Turkish-English translator on my phone to translate the sign above him: Cashier’s Office, or something to that effect.
After awhile, I managed to move up in the loosely-formed line. “Line” isn’t the right word. It’s more like a small crowd in which “dibs” have been declared. Less formal than US and UK custom of lining up but more orderly than the Chinese patented push-and-shove-your-way-to-the-front method.
One of the women who had been drinking tea, said something which was interpreted as being that she would help who was next, again with all the perfunctory skill of someone who was in no mood for surprises.
I turned on the phone and went to the “About” section and opened it to the page which displayed various information about the phone, including, most importantly, the IMEI number. I knew this number is required, because it’s the phone’s unique identifier. She looked at my phone then handed it back to me and told me a bunch of things. I could only make out *06. So I dialed that and nothing happened.
I showed her the phone and she barked at me.
In the US, my ears are trained to hear “blah, blah, blah” when I don’t understand something. Here in Turkey, my ears are fast training themselves to here “blahsh, blahsh, blahsh.” So her request come out as: “STAR-BLAHSH-ZERO-SIX-BLAHSH!” I couldn’t understand. She said it louder a few more times.
Finally, she said something to the guy who had dibs in line behind me and he touched the hash mark on my phone and the IMEI number appeared. She could have been saying “hash” but it didn’t sound like it, dumb foreigner that I am.
Apparently, showing them the IMEI number is not enough. It has to be found by hitting those symbols on the keypad.
Then she sent me down the line where I paid 115 Turkish Lira to the older man and was handed my registration. I thought, great, now I’ll just head over to a cellphone dealer to get my phone working here.
I couldn’t go right away because I needed to go back to our apartment to be there when the kids came home from school. So after dinner I went up to Cevahir Mall and that’s how I found out that not all cell phone dealers register phones bought in other countries. A worker at a Vodaphone explained in English that the mistaken word had been given out that the cellphone dealers at the Cevahir Mall register foreign phones. (I myself had heard it from a guy from the UK who was in line behind me at the Tax Office trying to do what I had just done. He’d been sent from floor-to-floor and was hoping to finally find someone who could at least tell him where to go to register his phone.) He told me that not all cell phone dealers have the ability to register foreign phones.
The next day, Wednesday, I headed down to Istiklal Street in the morning, figuring that the heavily trafficked shopping area ought to have cell phone dealers who can deal with foreign phones. I was right. I went into a Turkcell, waited for the guy who knew how to register foreign phones, gave him my phone and registration, and explained I wanted to register and use my phone. He explained in Turkish that I needed something from the police department. Then he vaguely pointed me in the direction of the local police department.
I walked down Istiklal street for awhile, trying to remember if I’d even seen a police station. Finally, I saw another Turkcell and explained to the worker standing at the entrance what I needed, showing my phone and registration. He told me the police station was over on a Tarlabaşı Street and then another 200 meters up.
I walked some more and there it was on Tarlabaşı Street: the Beyoğlu police station.
At the entrance I had to pass through security, stating my business. I showed the man my phone and the registration, he pointed me up to the first floor. Up on the first floor there were two offices. I chose the Pasaport ve Yabancılar department. I figured any department that deals with passports and foreigners ought to be able to help me.
Inside, I again showed my phone and the registration and one of the men told me I needed a photocopy of my passport. Which I of course didn’t have because I didn’t know I needed a photocopy of the picture page of my passport, let alone that I needed something from the local police in order to use my phone in Turkey. Okay.
There are hundreds of places in Istanbul that provide copying services. They just don’t ever happen to be nearby when you need them. I walked a bit down Tarlabaşı but didn’t find any. I passed a simit seller and bought a simit because I was getting hungry from all the walking. I ate while I walked down a side street and then another off Istiklal and found a place that made copies. The man spoke English and asked me “color or black and white?” I thought for a moment and said “color.” I didn’t want to take the chance that black and white wasn’t good enough. At this point, I had no idea what new requirements would be thrown at me.
Photocopy in hand, I returned to the police station, went through security, and up to the office. I handed the man my phone, the registration, my passport, and the photocopy of the passport. He looked everything over and handed me a form and a pen.
I had to write my name and address, sign my name, and then provide a phone number. I paused at this last one. I mean, if I had a phone number I wouldn’t be trying to register my phone IN THE FIRST PLACE….Thankfully, my wife bought a cheap basic phone with a pay-as-you-go SIM card from Turkcell a few days after we arrived in Istanbul. So I used her number.
The man looked everything over. He stapled the photocopy of my passport to the sheet I had just filled out and said I had to go up to the second floor to get the papers stamped. Riiii-iight.
Up to the second floor I went. In an office there, a man took my papers, typed a few things on his computer, stamped the papers, typed some more things on his computer, then handed me my papers and said I could go.
Back downstairs I handed in my stamped papers. That’s when they told me that it needed to be signed by their lieutenant. He wouldn’t be in the office until the afternoon, so I should return around 2 o’clock.
I went back to our apartment.
“Any luck?” asked my wife. I said, “Yes and no.” And I explained what I’d spent my morning doing.
“At least they told you when to come back.”
I ate lunch, read a little (Orlando by Virginia Woolf), and started to work on this blog post. At 2 o’clock I left the apartment and returned to the police station, going through security, etc.
The lieutenant, who was the only person there in the Pasaport ve Yabancılar office wearing a uniform, was expecting me. He said everything was fine but that he had some questions for me. I’m thinking they must be questions about my purpose in Turkey or something related to my phone. No. He wanted to know if the word “saw” meant a tool for cutting and what the word “hummingbirds” meant. I guess he was checking on some new English words he’d come across. I wasn’t about to explain how “saw” is also a conjugation for the verb “to see.”
Then the lieutenant gave me a sheet of paper with the police department’s okay on it. I took that, the registration, and my phone back to the original Turkcell I had visited earlier that day. By then it was 3 o’clock and it was Rush Hour in there. I waited for awhile, but there were so many other people in front of me, and I was tired. Between all the walking around and the fact I’d been up well before dawn thanks to a bout of diarrhea, I thought it best to call it a day.
This morning, I walked down our street and into the first Turkcell I saw, I went inside and showed the registration, the police form, and my phone. One woman spoke some English and explained to another woman what was needed and explained to me how much it would all cost.
I had a minor panic when the young woman who was setting up my phone couldn’t get the SIM card in my phone. I tried and I couldn’t get it to go in either. Oh, this is great, I thought, I’ve spent the better part of the previous two days, walking around Istanbul chasing down documents and paying a lot of lira to use a phone in a country that has SIM cards that don’t fit.
The woman who spoke some English came over, flipped the SIM card around, and pushed it in. Voila!
I paid 90 Turkish Lira to Turkcell (45 for the SIM card and 45 for their registration fee). For those keeping count, that’s three forms of registration as far as I can tell: Tax Office, Police Station, and Cell Phone provider.
But my phone now works in Turkey. So my wife and friends here can actually call me and vice versa.
What did I learn from this experience?
That I could increase my patience and my tolerance for absurdity. Not once did I lose my temper. Normally, I think of myself as an impatient, hot-headed bastard when things don’t go the way I expect them to go. Quite honestly, what the hell would a shit-fit have done for me? Nothing. I’m in a country with rules I don’t understand, whose people speak a language I don’t yet understand. Given my position, which is a complete lack of control over things, it was best for me to just roll with it and bumble along.
Final Note: You know what my wife and I needed to use our several years-old, cheap, GSM T-Mobile phones in China last summer? SIM cards from a Chinese phone company. That’s it.