When traveling through Malaysia, using a prepaid SIM on your GSM phone can spare you the nightmare of an astronomical phone bill waiting for you upon your return home. (Read about cellphone roaming in Southeast Asia.) Malaysia's mature and widespread GSM network allows near-seamless calls wherever you go in peninsular Malaysia, though when it comes to East Malaysia, all bets are off once you venture beyond the cities of Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Miri. And Malaysia has plenty of telecom firms vying for your phone patronage.
Maxis is one of Malaysia's largest telecoms firms, and their prepaid SIM card brand is known as Hotlink. The prepaid service comes in a tourist version with relatively low call/SMS rates, and a Hotlink Broadband SIM that provides a hefty chunk of data (for mobile internet users).
I was looking forward to buying the tourist SIM card when I arrived in Malaysia, but the Hotlink kiosk at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) did not have them on stock. They did offer a good deal on the LTE-capable Hotlink SIM card, so I took the bait.
Buying the Maxis Hotlink Prepaid GSM Card and Topping Up
Getting connected to Hotlink is as easy as seeking out the provider's kiosk at any Malaysian point of entry. Outside the airport, SIMs and top-up cards can be purchased at any convenience store, bus terminal, newsstand, cellular phone shop or shopping center within Malaysia.
Checking balance: To check your phone number, look at the packaging for your Hotlink SIM card, or dial *139# to have your phone display the number for your reference.
To check the remaining balance on your SIM car, dial *122# to have your phone display the balance you have at your disposal.
Dialing *100# summons an "Easy Menu" that allows you to tap a wide variety of Hotlink-specific services - from buying more value for your Internet surfing to checking your voicemail. To check your mobile internet status, for instance, dial *100#, choose "Internet and Settings", then "Mobile Internet", then select "Status".
Topping Up: You can buy scratch top-up cards called "tickets" wherever Hotlink SIMs are sold. Follow the instructions on the back to add ("top-up") stored value to your SIM card.
Surfing on the Internet with Maxis Hotlink
When you buy your Hotlink SIM card at the airport, the staff will set up your phone to immediately access the Internet. Internet use is metered in gigabytes downloaded; if you're a heavy Internet user, you can "top-up" GB on your SIM card as you go. For top-up values and their cost, visit the Hotlink page for more details.
My experience with Hotlink was by no means comprehensive: I used my SIM card within Kuala Lumpur and Penang, two highly-urbanized cities with excellent GSM coverage. (I figure a fair test of Hotlink's capabilities should include trips to deepest darkest Sabah in Borneo, or through one of Malaysia's national parks.) Internet speeds were quite good, exceeding 2mbps in Kuala Lumpur's city center. (Read more: Top Ten Reasons to Visit Malaysia)
Depending on your phone model, Hotlink permits tethering between phone and laptop; I found this exceedingly useful when working in areas where WiFi wasn't available.
Calling Home with Maxis Hotlink
While overseas calls using Maxis Hotlink are still relatively expensive if you simply direct-dial the other party, the telecom offers a cheaper alternative to users looking to update the folks at home about the trip.
Maxis' 132 call service charges on the basis of individual 30-second blocks - calling the continental U.S. using this scheme costs MYR 0.07 (2 US cents) per 30 seconds. To get these cheap overseas call rates, dial 132 00 (country code) (area code) (phone number). Phone calls are slightly choppy but legible. As you will be charged per 30-second block, you'll pay the full MYR 0.07 even for a 15-second call home.
The Lowdown on the Maxis Hotlink Prepaid SIM Card
Maxis Hotlink is quite reliable, and visitors limiting their travels to Malaysia's most well-traveled tourist trails will find no reason to complain. Overseas calls are cheap (assuming calls are made using the 132 service) and Internet speeds can be quite fast in Malaysia's city centers. While Hotlink is slightly more expensive than its rivals in the Malaysian telecom industry, the reliability of the service and satisfactory download speeds more than make up for that small pitfall.