According to the most recent Phone Tax Policy of the PTI government in Pakistan, all those entering Pakistan, both citizens and foreigners, must register their phones and pay a phone tax to be able to use their phones while in Pakistan.
At first glance, this seems to be a just policy aimed at generating revenue from those who import expensive phones to Pakistan. But the phone policy enters the realm of the stupid when one finds out that it applies even to the single personal-use phone that one might have brought along.The experience gets Kafkaesque after you try to register your phone. I share here my own story with a brief overview of the implications of this stupid phone tax policy on average Pakistanis and on aspiring tourists to Pakistan.
The Process to Pay the Phone Tax
The website of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), provides you a convenient link to register your phone, a link that I followed.
You are then prompted to create an account, which I did.
After that you fill in your information including your passport number and the IEMI number of your phone.
After you have filled in all this information, you are prompted to add a contact number to which a confirmation number is sent.
This cannot be just any phone number: it has to be a phone number that still is using the SIM card of the company you had bought your original phone plan.
Let us assume you have a friend who has one such phone number and you receive the confirmation code and you enter it and hit submit.
You are now ready to pay your phone tax and register your phone.
But not so fast. In my case, after more than four attempts I kept getting the same message: “This phone does not qualify for tax exempt registration . . .”
Surprisingly, there was no other information provided or no course of action suggested by the PTA website.
A Visit to the PTA Office
In my case, since I am from the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area, I decided to go to the PTA office in Islamabad. After getting in line and waiting for about thirty minutes (I was lucky, as I could get in the “foreigners” line, the native Pakistanis had a much longer waiting time) I was ushered into a room where young men sat behind their laptops, helping many eager phone registrants.
The kind young man who assisted me entered the same information that I had entered and finally told me that my entry into the country was not yet processed and the “system” was not recognizing my credentials, which meant that I had to wait a couple of days before my phone could be registered.
I asked him about the charges for the use of my personal phone. He gave me the following breakdown for an IPhone Xr:
- To register the phone for sixty day use during my visit, I had to pay Rs. 37, 000.
- To register the same phone permanently, I was required to pay Rs. 67, 000.
This was a huge shock to me, especially since this WAS my personal use phone and I had already paid taxes on it when I bought the phone in the US. Furthermore, before this policy came into effect, I was able to use an unlocked GSM phone by replacing my US SIM with a registered Pakistani SIM, which meant that the moment I added a load to my phone, I started paying the usage tax to the phone company and thus to the government of Pakistan.
Now, I was told, I had to pay a huge tax, on an already taxed phone, simply to be able to use it with a Pakistani SIM!
The Problems with New Phone Tax Policy
To me this new phone tax policy is wrong at many levels. Legally, this is double taxation on an item of personal use and seems highly irregular and might even be illegal under international law. More importantly, it sends a wrong message to any aspiring tourists to Pakistan (It’s not like people are lining up to visit Pakistan anyway), for this is yet another hurdle they have to cross simply to be able to visit and travel in Pakistan.
Furthermore, this policy adds an added layer of bureaucracy to the process of visiting Pakistan. The PTA office that I visited was already filled with harried travellers, all trying to ensure that their phones would work in Pakistan. In an economic climate where it is absolutely essential for Pakistan to increase inflow of foreign exchange, tourism being one important sector for this, this additional trip to the PTA office is not likely to endear Pakistan to any future travellers.
The Classic Deflection Argument by PTI Supporters
When I mentioned this experience in a public talk, an ardent PTI supporter countered it through a classic deflection: “Same happens to us when we go to the US; We are not allowed to use our Pakistani Phones.” This assertion is wrong on at least at two levels:
First, the US phone system is not based in the pre-paid model. Most people purchase their phone from one of the large phone companies and then sign up for a two year contract. This way, while the companies can provide them phones at an affordable price, they can also lock in the customers for at least two years (I am not suggesting this is a better or just system). So, if the Pakistani phones do not work in the US, it is because the way people purchase phone services in America is different.
However, if you have an unlocked GSM phone with you, there are small local vendors that do sell you a local SIM and do also offer prepaid national and International calling plans.
But there is nothing in the US law that forces visitors to REGISTER your phone and pay a TAX to register it!
Please bear in mind that I am not suggesting that the US system is better than Pakistan; I am just challenging the deflection offered by many a learned PTI stalwarts. Furthermore, the US economy is not necessarily desperate for foreign exchange and does not depend upon the number of tourists who visit the United States. The Pakistani economy needs the tourism industry and changing this extoritionst phone policy could help make Pakistan more tourist/ Visitor-Friendly!
Please also read my other, more positive, blogs about Pakistan!