updated to include information about MegaFon and throttling on MTC. see end of each section below.
let me start off by giving a warning based on my experience: DO NOT USE the MegaFon (МегаФон) kiosk at the airport. he charged me руб.450 ($13.87) for a SIM card with supposedly 3 GB of data on it. the card activated ok from what i could tell, but i never managed to get a data connection.
i found a MegaFon store a couple blocks from the hotel i’m staying at but it was closed undergoing renovations. the people at the front desk pointed me to a generic cell phone store where i showed an employee my phone and the messages from MegaFon above, but she couldn’t determine anything wrong. she suggested i go to a MegaFon store directly — basically the (closed) one that i went to just before.
luckily there was an MTC store right next door. and what a better deal it turned out to be anyways.
update: i popped the MegaFon card in just now (about 20 hours after i first picked it up) and my 3G works! well, good to know i have two working SIM cards in case i reach the daily data limit on one of them.
where: across the street from the Чернышевская (Chernyshevskaya) metro station, at the corner, but according to wiki it’s the largest provider in Russia so there should be stores all over. one of the employees spoke pretty good English, lucky for me.
what you need: passport. no forms, no nothing, i don’t even think i signed anything?
price: at first she offered a SIM with unlimited internet for руб.300 but then she asked how long i was staying. i told her just one week and i didn’t care about making voice calls and she said she could get me a SIM card with unlimited data for a month for руб.150. it ended up ringing up as руб.200 ($6.16). this prepaid plan comes with in-network calls but i think that’s about it (don’t quote me on that, though — i only care about the unlimited data).
the 0 ruble line item was the SIM card itself. the 200 ruble tariff is, according to Google Translate, “Rate MTC ‘Business Communication'” (тариф MTC ‘Бизнес общение’).
they, like many other places i’ve seen so far, do not take American Express but take Visa and Mastercard (i paid by cash).
activation: immediate. she did everything required to set up the SIM without having to touch my phone. i’m not sure exactly what went on but she gave me an unopened starter kit containing a SIM card and my phone number but told me to use a second SIM card that she gave me separately. whatever — i’m not complaining because it works! ohhhh wait, i see. i opened the kit and the SIM card in there is a full-size one; she gave me a micro for my 4S.
watch out: i don’t know how unlimited unlimited is — there is a report of an unlimited MTC rate plan on prepaidwithdata that throttles you for the rest of the day once you reach 100 megabytes. i don’t know if i’ll hit that (likely, but i dunno) — i will report back if i notice speeds crawling after a certain point.
also, the SIM card automatically set the APN information, but in case you need it for MTC:
lesson learned: just hold your horses and go to a full-on retail store. no kiosks at the airport!!! like texting and driving, it can wait (until you find an actual carrier store).
throttling update: this morning i got the following messages:
You are using Minib: Due to the excess of the quota of traffic speed limited to 32 kbit / s for 18 hours 57 minutes, or until the activation Turbo button option.
32 kbit/s is HELLA SLOW, believe me — and i discovered that there are not that many free wifi hotspots around town. for what it’s worth, my phone said i used 9 MB of data. i was looking around for an MTC shop to ask about this “turbo option” when i passed by a MegaFon store. i stopped in to ask about my experience at the airport and he said you basically can’t trust non-official sellers, but he could offer me a SIM for 200 rubles that includes 100 MB per day. i wasn’t willing, after all of this rigmarole, to spend even more money on a local SIM, so i told him i’d come back (but never did).
exactly 2 hours and 1 minute later, i get the second message:
You are using BIT: speed is not limited to the speed limit 50 MB of available traffic for 16 hours 56 minutes.
and indeed, i was unthrottled! several hours later i still have not hit the 50 MB limit, but i guess we’ll see what happens when i do or when i reach the time limit. i’ll keep you all posted if anything of interest happens. let’s hope this “BIT” plan is here to stay.