Public phones are nicknamed orelhôes (floppy ears). They take a cartão telefônico (phone card), available from newsstands and street vendors in denominations of R$5 to R$20.
To phone Rio from outside Brazil, dial your international-access code, then 55 (Brazil’s country code), 21 (Rio’s area code) and the number.
To make a local collect call, dial 9090, then the numbers. For calls to other cities, dial 0, then the code of your selected long-distance carrier, then the two-digit area code, followed by the local number. You need to choose a long-distance carrier that covers both the place you are calling from and the place you’re calling to. Carriers advertise their codes in areas where they’re prominent, but you can usually use Embratel (code 21) or Telemar (code 31) nationwide.
To make an intercity collect call, dial 9 before the 0xx (the ‘xx’ representing the two-digit carrier as explained above, ie ‘21’, ‘31’ or a host of other Brazilian carriers). A recorded message in Portuguese will ask you to say your name and where you’re calling from, after the tone.
Local SIM cards can be used in unlocked European and Australian phones, and in US phones on the GSM network.
The celular (cell phone) is ubiquitous in Rio. Cell phones have nine-digit numbers beginning with 9.
Brazil uses the GSM 850/900/1800/1900 network, which is compatible with North America, Europe and Australia, but the country’s 4G LTE network runs on 2500/2690 (for now), which is not compatible with many North American and European smartphones.
Good news for some Americans: if you have an LTE/GSM-capable device (like certain models of the iPhone6) on Sprint or T-Mobile, you can get unlimited texting and data in Brazil on certain plans – though on the 2G network (meaning data is quite slow/nonexistent). You can, however, purchase additional data for better use. Check to see if your iPhone is compatible on www.apple.com/iphone/LTE.
Calls to cell phones are more expensive than calls to landlines. Cell phones have city codes, like landlines, and if you’re calling from another city you have to use them. TIM (www.tim.com.br), Claro (www.claro.com.br), Oi (www.oi.com.br) and Vivo (www.vivo.com.br) are the major operators.
Foreigners can purchase a local SIM with a passport instead of needing a Brazilian CPF (tax ID number), though this option is often ignored by cellular providers – prepare for a battle.
If you have an unlocked GSM phone, you can simply buy a SIM card (called a chip) for around R$10 to R$20. Among the major carriers, TIM generally has the most hassle-free service. You can then add minutes by purchasing additional airtime from any newspaper stand. Incoming calls are free.
Long-Distance & International Calls
International landline-to-landline calls from Brazil start from 66¢ a minute to the USA and R$1.42 to Europe and Australia. Pay phones are of little use for international calls unless you have an international calling card or are calling collect. Most pay telephones are restricted to domestic calls, and even if they aren’t, a 30-unit Brazilian phone card may last less than a minute internationally.
Without an international calling card, your best option is Skype. For international a cobrar (collect) calls, secure a Brazilian international operator by dialing 0800-703-2111 (Embratel).