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Brazilian Mystery Series – Cellphones and the “CPF”

The first few days or weeks of travelling are exciting but not so glamorous. No matter how hard you try, you stand out with your pale skin and rusty language skills. It’s basically like being the mid-term new kid in class—the only way to survive is to learn how to fit in.

Brazil is a rewarding country, but a challenging one. It took us several trips to pick up some Portuguese, understand the mindset, and solve a few “Brazilian mysteries”, i.e. find answers to puzzling cultural questions.

We’ve learned a few lessons from past mistakes and this year, everything went smoothly. We managed to withdraw cash from ATMs (tips—stay away from Itaú, Bradesco handles foreign cards well, go before major holidays otherwise ATMs are empty). We booked a hotel that doesn’t suck in Rio de Janeiro (tip—avoid Copacabana). We didn’t starve on New Year’s Day (tip—everything is closed, plan ahead). Hell, people even occasionally understand me when I speak Portuguese!

We thought we had it all figured out and we were so confident that we decided to get two Brazilian SIM cards and prepaid minutes/data with Claro, Oi, Tim or Vivo for convenience.

We both brought our cellphones—Feng uses it as a camera, I use it as a media player. But hey, we could also like… use them as phones?

We’re not phone people. I’d much rather write an email than make a call and I have a complicated relationship with a device probably smarter than me. Feng is the same. Yet, last summer, we both bought French SIM cards for our Canadian phones and it did make our lives easier to answer the top question in the 21st century—“where are you?”

Besides, last year, I felt like an outcast in Latin America without a phone. “Get a Uber ride!” “Ahem… I don’t have a phone.” “What’s your Whatsapp?” “I… can’t download the desktop version.” “Can you text to confirm arrival time?” “I DON’T HAVE A FUCKING PHONE!” I’m pretty sure Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil think Canada is a backward country because of me. Sorry, eh.

We didn’t stay long enough in Peru and Chile to get a SIM card, we were only planning to buy it for Brazil, the land of megalopolises, unexpected torrential downpours, endless beaches and other challenges that can make meeting at said place and time tricky.

When we arrived in São Paulo, I went to a Claro store on Avenida Paulista and asked about pre-paid cards. “Yeah, we do that… we just don’t sell them at this store.”

No worries. The following day, I went to another Claro store at the Shopping Cidade São Paulo while the guys were eating at the food court. They had SIM and pre-paid cards but I had to bring my passport.

“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Não.”

“No?”

“We’re closed on the 31.”

“Ah.”

And the store was also closed on January 1, so we left São Paulo without SIM cards.

In Rio de Janeiro, there was a Claro store inside the supermarket by the hotel, but it was one of these stores without pre-paid cards. However, there was another Claro store at Botafogo Praia Shopping, so we brought our phones, Canadian passports and more reais than usual to complete the transaction.

Guess what—this Claro store didn’t sell them either. Never mind, we went to Vivo, next door. No problem, they had pre-paid cards and they could sell us a SIM card. It was 112 reais for a chip and some data.

“Perfect! And how many minutes do we get?”

“Minutes?”

“Yeah, minutes. Crédito para falar… para fazer ligação.”

“No minutes.”

“Okay, so how do we buy minutes?”

“You can’t. It’s a data only card.”

I translated for Feng.

“But… but it’s a phone! We want to use it to make calls!”

I translated for the Vivo employee.

She shrugged.

“No minutes.”

We sighed and went to the Tim store. Yes, they had pre-paid cards. Yes, we had our passports. Phew.

“Ahem… minutes are included, right?”

“No, you need a CPF to buy minutes.”

I immediately knew what he was talking about. This is probably the only Brazilian initialism I know—CPF, Cadastro de Pessoas Físicas, i.e. some kind of individual taxpayer registry identification. A bit like the Canadian Social Insurance Number, I guess.

When you buy something in Brazil—anything, a bottle of water or a new car—you basically have to say “no” twice before paying. First question is “CPF?”, which means that you can register your CPF with the purchase. Second question is whether you want a receipt. You may say “yes” to the third question, “sacolinha,” if you need a bag.

“Caypayfay?”

“Não.”

Repeat twenty times a day.

It’s the same in Chile where cashiers ask for your RUT, the local equivalent of the CPF. I solved that mystery a few trips ago, even though it’s still weird for me that locals keep on giving out the number we’re told not to share in Canada.

“So wait… you need a CPF to buy a pre-paid card?”

“If you want a phone number and minutes, yes.”

Damn.

We asked several cellphone providers and even the bancas de jornal (newsagents) where you can reload your pre-paid card. There’s no way around it, CPF or just data, which is pretty useless for us. I know, we could use Whatsapp or Skype, but then may as well use free Wi-Fi.

So this is my new Brazilian mystery. Why do you need a CPF to buy cellphone cards with minutes?

I’m sure I’ll get a logical explanation at one point—one that will make complete sense to Brazilians and none to me.

Praça Quinze de Novembro, Centro, Rio de Janeiro
Praça Quinze de Novembro, Centro, Rio de Janeiro

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