You arrive in Rome. You call your friend to have him pick you up from the airport. You talk for ten minutes. You still can’t find him, so you call again. Ten more minutes later, you finally understand where he’s telling you to meet. = $20 USD
You have a few drinks while partying on the beach in Thailand. You decide to start texting that guy/girl you met in Bangkok last week. You exchange twenty texts. The next night, you do the same. You also send a bunch of texts to friends back home. = $14 USD
You suddenly need to get to Granada, Nicaragua but you can’t figure out the bus schedule from San Jose, Costa Rica. You call the bus station several times to no avail before calling a friend of a friend living in Costa Rica for advice. Since it’s last minute, you call several guesthouses in Granada until you find one with an available room at a price you like. You’ve spent forty minutes on the phone. = $60 USD
(*Based on current international rates from AT&T)
That’s a bit pricey.
Unfortunately, many people pay these incredible amounts of money to use their mobile phones while traveling simply because at first, it often seems that using an international roaming plan from your home country is the only option. And while it might be the easiest option (often, all you need to do is go online and activate the additional plan), it’s an option that really has very few, if any, other benefits.
And that’s why I’ve never used that option myself.
Here’s a rundown of how I use my mobile phone as I travel around the world:
- T-Mobile Sim Card: T-Mobile is a large mobile network company in the US and I have signed up for their “T-Mobile Pay As You Go Plan”. With this plan, I pay $50 per month for unlimited phone calls, text messages and data. What makes this plan quite ideal for a traveler such as myself is that I only pay whenever I’m in the country. So, if I was traveling to the US tomorrow, I would login into my T-Mobile online account before getting on the plane, pay $50 and that’s it. As soon as my flight lands in the US and I place my T-Mobile SIM card into my phone, my service is activated and I have one month of unlimited usage. Then, once I leave the US, I simply stop paying and my account remains on hold until the next time I activate it. And while I can’t use my T-Mobile SIM card overseas as a result, this is a great deal for me as I wouldn’t want to use their expensive international roaming rates anyway.
- Local Prepaid SIM Cards: When overseas, I always use local prepaid SIM cards instead. This involves buying a SIM card from a local mobile network provider in whatever country I happen to be in and then paying for credit whenever I need it. This credit allows me to make phone calls, send text messages and connect to the internet. When the credit runs out, I simply stop by any mobile phone shop and add more. As a result, I don’t pay a regular monthly rate and I’m not signed up to any kind of long-term contract. I now have a collection of five local SIM cards from around the world, one each from Australia, Thailand, India, Romania and Mexico. And this generally covers all of my travels. So, whenever I land in Romania (or anywhere in Europe for that matter), I use my Romania SIM card. When in Thailand (or anywhere in Southeast Asia), I use my Thailand SIM card and on and on.
Why Is This The Best Solution For Me?
First, it’s the cheapest. Here in Romania, for example, I have a SIM card with Vodafone and I spend about 30 RON ($8 USD) per month and that’s enough for text messages, phone calls and the occasional checking of email. I’m not exactly a socialite, chatting away on the phone and texting all day, every day, but for minimal to normal use, that’s all it costs me.
Also, it is easy to think that the reason you want to have phone service while traveling is to stay in touch with friends and family back home. However, I just use Skype or Google Voice for that. What you really need your phone for is to get in touch with locals you meet, to make accommodation reservations, to call the bus station to find out when the bus really leaves and to have a local number so that others can contact you within that country.
Having a local phone number (with a local SIM card comes a local telephone number!) makes life a bit easier as you can now reach and be reached by anyone in that country. And like I mentioned, whenever I want to call home, I just find a place with Wi-Fi, turn on the Skype app on my phone or fire up my laptop, and call home. Or I send a text message home, something that doesn’t cost much at all with my Romanian SIM Card (about 50 cents).
In addition, I can use my Romanian SIM card all over Europe and the international surcharges are not too bad at all. In fact, I end paying much less than what mobile phone companies in the USA, or say, Australia, charge their customers to use their phones overseas. And to make it even better, as of July 1st, 2014, it will be illegal for mobile phone networks in the European Union to even charge any roaming fees at all. So once that happens, whether I’m in Romania, Germany, France or anywhere else in the EU, my rate for voice calls, text messages and data will remain the same as what I pay in Romania. Sweet!
Even though I’ve been using Romania and Europe as an example above, the same idea applies to many other regions of the world too.
When in Mexico, I use a local Movistar prepaid SIM card and not only does this give me very low rates around Mexico, but calls and text messages to the US and Canada are charged at the same low rates as well. There are no international surcharges at all for calling/texting those two countries. And when I lived/traveled in Mexico, I was putting about $30 USD of credit on my phone per month and I used my phone all the time, making it a great deal.
When in India, I use Aircel. When in Thailand, I use TrueMove. When in Australia, I use Optus. Together, these local prepaid SIM cards have allowed me to use my phone while traveling without spending a ton of money.
Using local SIM cards is also much easier to set up than many people think. It’s not a hassle in most parts of the world at all and the entire process typically takes less than five minutes. (Some regions, such as certain states in India, do make it more difficult for foreigners to get a local SIM card but such places are the exception I’d say.)
Once you settle on a mobile network provider (see below), you just ask for a prepaid SIM card and hand over some money, as it generally costs around $3 – $15 USD for the SIM card itself. You then place the SIM card into your phone and the staff behind the desk will type away on their computer for a moment. And within a couple of minutes you’ll usually receive a text message stating that your SIM card has been activated. Done deal.
How To Choose A Local SIM Card
It’s all about research. Ask locals and ask other travelers who have been to the country you plan to visit yourself. Look around online and find out which mobile network companies appear to be the most reliable while offering attractive rates. Keep your eye out for promotions as well because such special deals seem to be offered all the time in many countries. Sometimes all it takes is asking the staff working in the mobile phone shop what deals they currently have available.
You may find that if you add $10 of credit, you get another $10 of credit for free. Or maybe there is a monthly special going on where you get an additional 100 MB of data at no extra cost. Who knows? It could be anything and I’ve seen excellent deals of all sorts all over the world. All you have to do is ask!
Keep in mind though that while it might seem tempting at times to get a SIM card from a smaller, lesser-known mobile network company that is offering rates lower than the bigger competitors, that’s not always a good idea. You want a network that is widespread and reliable and usually, the bigger the company, the more widespread their network of course. This will help ensure that you have a signal as much as possible and that the connection will be strong. Cheaper isn’t always better, especially when the differences in amount for things such as prepaid calling and texting rates are usually not too much.
$25 Per Month!
By using local SIM cards, and Skype, everywhere I go, I estimate that my monthly mobile phone expense is about $25 USD. And this includes all the phone calls, text messages and data that I need. Admittedly, I don’t connect to the internet too much through my phone, simply because I spend so much time on my laptop that when I’m away from my computer, the last thing I want to do is constantly be checking my emails. That’s just what I prefer, and as a result, I can travel the world while always having a local phone number and always having a way to get in touch with people in the countries I visit, all for a tiny, tiny fraction of what it would cost if I used an international roaming service from a mobile network provider back in the US.
*Note: In order to use different SIM cards from around the world, you do need to have an ‘unlocked’ phone that operates on the GSM network. You can either purchase a fully unlocked phone through a website such as Amazon.com or, if you bought your phone through a mobile network provider in your home country, you can have them unlock your phone for you. The two companies in the US that operate on the GSM network, T-Mobile and AT&T, offer this service. Without an unlocked GSM phone, you won’t be able to connect to another network and therefore, buying local SIM cards wouldn’t be an option.
How do you handle your mobile phone while traveling? Have you found any particularly good deals out there? Any questions about traveling with your phone?
[…] you are in the world, local SIMs will usually save you a ton of money – but you need to know where to get them. Do that research while you have an internet […]
Thank you very much for this sharing.Please which company can I chose in ndia that will cover most places where I go from Mumbai-Delhi-Varanasi-Kolkata? is it possible to get SIM card on Mumbai airport as it was possible on Delhi airport with Airtel..2012.
Hey Zora – I’m not sure if you can get the SIM at the Mumbai airport but probably you can. And I’ve used Tel in India and it seems to work everywhere. I’ve used Vodafone, Airtel and Aircel and they all cover most of the country in my experience.
Thank you! Now I will just have to figure out how to take my iPhone4 apart… or watch how they do it when I buy it.
I have a silly question, as I think this is what we want to do for our two and half weeks in Australia. (Not call home, just call within Oz.)
When you get a new SIM card, do you still have access to all your apps (we have an iPhone) and phone numbers or does that keep only on the card that is removed?
We originally were going to use Viber to connect via text with friends, but I think that is also connected to our phone number somehow?
How do you go about switching back to your original SIM? Can we do it ourselves?
Hey Carrie – It depends on which iPhone you have but yes, you keep all of your apps and phone numbers. That doesn’t change at all. The SIM card simply affects how you call, nothing else. And to switch back to your regular SIM, you just pop out the Australian one and put your original one in. You do it yourself, it takes about 5 seconds 🙂
Thank you! Now I just have to figure out how to open my iPhone4. I’ll watch them do it when they put it in.
Also, does this mean that I won’t be charged by AT&T (my current provider) if people try to call in because they are calling my U.S. number? Will it still roll to voicemail so people can leave messages (for us to retrieve when we get back) or will it be dead air or a busy signal?
Sorry for all the questions. I am new to this!
Great article. I live in Canada, but travel south east Asia..(I’m a poor traveler… and south east Asia is so cheap to travel and live there) …. You’re correct that local SIM cards are the way to go. I heard about a family from British Columbia that traveled to Mexico… and the kids used their dad’s phone for games and other things and he got a bill for literally thousands of dollars when they returned to Canada. Nasty shock ! ! You wonder why people don’t research these things more before they get on the plane.
I also found True Move to be the company to go with in Thailand. And I save my True SIM for when I return to Thailand again later this year. The only place I lost connection was deep in the mountains of Thailand north and west of Chiang Mai when visiting a Lisu tribal village for a few days.
The phone I use is an unlocked Samsung Rugby II flip phone…. quad band GSM, 3G+
GSM 850/900/1800/1900 (Quadband) HSDPA 850/1900/2100…and I bought a second one for a spare.
But you don’t have to go to a mobile shop or True shop to refill your True Move SIM card. You can refill at any 7/11 store in Thailand…… they are all over the place. That’s what I did.. It’s one of the things I like about using a True Move SIM in my phone in Thailand.
An iPod Touch is nice also…… there is free wifi almost everywhere..
T Mobile does unlock phones but they require you meet certain conditions. In my case since it’s a prepaid phone, I have to have an active line for a year or at least $100 in credit which I didn’t do. I bought my phone there in the U.S. because my other phone wasn’t unlocked and needed a new one. I forgot to activate it there, now that I’m back at South America, I want to unlock it but some people say you have to activate it first to unlock it. I don’t want to unlock it without knowing if it’s absolutely necessary to activate it first. So my question again. To activate a SIM Card from U.S., do I have to be there to activate it? Can I do it online from another country? Will it count if I do it from another country or will that just preactivate it.
I’ve never heard you have to activate a phone in order to unlock it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
I would search Google for “sim unlock [name of phone]” to see what you get. Otherwise contact a company that unlocks phones.
I’m about to spend 6 weeks in Berlin. My phone is a Verizon iPhone. When I was in Malaysia, I did purchase a pre-paid local sim card, and it seemed to work, however, I don’t believe Verizon runs on the GSM network. Did I just get lucky that it worked? Was I risking having something go wrong with the phone when I did that? In other words, should/could I buy a local sim card in Germany?
The key here is you have an iPhone. It’s a “world phone” meaning it also has a GSM chip inside allowing it to work in Europe, Malaysia, and other countries. 🙂
Hey John – Sorry, I didn’t see your perfect reply before I wrote mine. Thanks for adding that information!
Better Tina get two answers than none at all. 🙂
I’m on the opposite page as you guys. I’m from south america and traveled to the U.S. for vacation. I purchased a phone but never really used it. I thought I would but didn’t. Now I’m back home and I’m hearing that to unlock my phone I have to activate it with original carrier first, T-Mobile. Now what can I do. Anybody knows if you can activate a phone from U.S. online while in another country? I just want to activate it to unlock it. But some say you need credit cards, others say you have to be in the U.S. to unlock it. Any help appreciated
Did you buy it outright? If so T-Mobile should unlock it for you.
You might have to use an unlocking service. I have used GSM Liberty in the past and have been happy with their service.
Hey Tina – It really depends on your phone these days. Many phones are global-ready, meaning that they can switch between CDMA and GSM networks. So if your iPhone has that capability, then you would be able to take it to Berlin, get a local SIM card and be good to go. If your phone is locked into Verizon’s CDMA network only and is not global-ready, your phone won’t work with a GSM SIM card. But if it worked before in Malaysia, which is GSM, you probably have a global-ready phone. Either way, trying it out doesn’t do any damage to your phone at all.
[…] Mobile Phones and Travel: Save Money With Local SIM Cards […]
Hi I just came across your article! I will be traveling to London and Paris in May and I am planning to use an international sim card in my galaxy s3. I was wondering will I need to keep my cellular data on with the new sim card in place?
My wife & I live in Canada but travel a lot (sometimes separately) to South America. We have an old flip phone & are billed in a bundle system with Bell so would like to stay with Bell. We only want the phone for messages, email & occassional internet surfing (not for movies, music , etc.) What type of phone(s) should we get? Thanks. Bob
Hey Bob – Any unlocked GSM phone would work with a local SIM card in any part of South America.
Bell is a CDMA provider. You might be able to roam in some South American countries, but it’s going to be hit or miss and expensive. I would follow Earl’s suggestion and get an unlocked GSM phone. Canada is much like the US in that it can be difficult to buy an unlocked phone in a store, so I suggest Amazon.com (Amazon.ca ?). You can get one for $30 or so.
You might want to consider a low-end Android phone and here’s why. Calling back to Canada will be expensive. You can buy a smartphone, disable the cellular data, and use Wi-Fi to make free/inexpensive calls/texts/video chats back home. While the phone will cost more, if you spend a lot of time out of the country, it might pay for itself in reduced phone charges. But it really depends on how you use your phone.
Just search Amazon for “unlocked GSM phone” and see what’s out there.
This might be of use for your Canadian readers. https://mobilesyrup.com/2014/04/01/amazon-ca-launches-wireless-store-with-unlocked-phones-cases-and-more/
My wife & I live in Canada & have an old flipphone & need to get something newer. Our plan is part of the Bell bundle so we would like to stay with Bell. We travel a lot (mostly South America) & would like something that we can call home to Canada & also pick up emails while away. What type of phone should we get? Is the Bell system compatible in S. America? other countries? We do not want a lot of apps like movies / music, etc. on the phone…………just for calling & emails & occassional internet surfing. Thanks, Bob
[…] 3. Different SIM Cards for Different Countries […]
I Finally got around to comparing phones for using local SIMs around the world and thought I should share what I found.
Short answer is find a Moto G if you can, which I think you or a reader mentioned earlier was a likely best choice.
I somehow neglected to supply a link 🙁
Thanks for all the info, although I just have one question. Next year I’m travelling to central/south america for 6months+. I do agree that buying local sim cards are the best option although I am not staying in some countries long enough for it to be a good option so i was wandering if anyone knowns any good international sim cards that have low fares and rates, just for emergency purposes etc.
Hey Seb – I’ve never found an international SIM that seems like a good value. And even if you are staying for a week in a particular country, it’s still going to be cheaper to just go into a phone shop, spend 5 minutes getting a local SIM and putting a little credit on it.
I was one of the earlier beneficiaries of this post & thread back in July when I was planning. In October I started traveling.
I’d say, if you are truly only going to use the phone for “emergency purposes,” then if you can find a cheap enough international SIM to suit you, the convenience may outweigh going through the process of buying the local SIM for each different country you visit. For each country you may have to figure out which local company to go with (if there’s a choice), and where the nearest vendor is, and even once you pick a provider you will no doubt find multiple options to choose from. A lot will also depend on how well you know the local language.
In France I did a sort of middle-way choice, lefrenchmobile.com, which is pitched to English speakers (even down to the default voicemail prompts) and it works over all of Europe (I also used it in Spain). I later realized it was less of a good deal than I thought initially, and I didn’t use it very much, but it was super convenient.
Then I flew to Panama to escape the European winter and tried to do the true local SIM. I asked a couple of locals and did a bit of Internet research. I went to a big mall in downtown Panama City and on the top floor, all the mobile companies were arrayed in a row of adjacent stores. The first one I walked into was Claró. I was maybe the 5th customer in the store that morning and it took way more than 5 minutes (they didn’t seem to be particularly efficient or concerned about getting me out quickly). But I got a short-term SIM for $7. Then I walked out into the mall and started getting repeated strange error messages on the phone. I thought I should take care of it before leaving so I went back into the store. By now the line of customers was a bit longer and so I had to take a number and wait, maybe 15 minutes. Then a different rep took my case and fiddled around a bit and seemed to determine that nothing was amiss and that the phone worked OK (he called his own phone). All told it probably took me almost an hour to get a $7 SIM! And I think the cashier short-changed me a bit. (FYI, my Spanish is poor and so was their English.) And I’m still in the dark about whether or not there is voicemail and if so, how to configure it, so I’ve just ignored that. But again, after being here maybe 3 weeks, I’ve only placed 4 or 5 local calls, max.
I also carry an iPod touch and a Macbook Air, both with the Skype app, and that has worked well when I needed it (for calls to the U.S.) but that does require access to decent WiFi (and a little $ for Skype credit, if you are calling normal phones). And there’s no particular reason I couldn’t have used Skype for most or all of the local calls I made.
Hope this helps,
Chuck (in Boquete, Panama)
Thanks for the update and sharing all of that information Chuck! Very useful stuff.
This is sort of a geeky and technical question, but I am looking for a new quad band phone that will connect in a variety of places as the North American and European bands differ etc. So I thought I would ask if you had any suggestions in terms of smartphones to use while traveling. Until now my phone was doing a fine job of it but sadly it has gone mad and is no longer working with any networks.
The Moto G might be a good answer for you. It’s relatively inexpensive and is unlocked GSM. I don’t know if it’s quad or quint-band, but should work in much of the world.
Hey Tim – If you get an unlocked GSM phone, you’ll be able to use it in most of the world, including the US if you use T-Mobile or AT&T as they use GSM as well.
I was thinking the same thing, but unfortunately not being from the US and not really planning on going any time soon I will likely just grab some off brand weird thing in Macau when I am there next month. I’ll be doing a bunch of research on phones in the near future and likely making a post on what I find in my tech section, I will make sure to send you a link to what I find.
Thanks for the suggestion as well to John.
I am from Singapore, isit that we have to purchase a phone to get a SIM Card in US? As I have got a Samsung Note 2 myself, just want to purchase the SIMCARD. Any idea where can I get the simcard for DATA? Thank you!
Hey Derine – You can purchase a SIM card from T-Mobile in the US no problem.
I like to travel a lot, few years ago i got prepaid sim card for using in roaming and i am happy with that, i save up on roaming charges, actived discount packages for calls, text and data, my recommends.
FYI, I did end up buying a cheap unlocked GSM phone from Amazon before I left the U.S. (a Huawei G6620 dual-SIM, which cost about $40: https://amzn.com/B009G292OI ). I activated it with H2O Wireless in the U.S. before I left (cheapest I could find, uses the AT&T network) and I’m still carrying the H2O SIM so I’ll have a working phone as soon as I land back in the U.S. (I also have my U.S. cell number’s voicemail handled by Google Voice, so it’s easy for people to leave me messages at my old number and for me to pick them up whenever I’m near WiFi.)
I started my travels in France and got a “LeFrenchMobile” SIM, which has reasonable rates all over Europe and is geared towards English speakers. I’m pretty sure I paid too much for the SIM by buying it at a dealer in Paris rather than direct, but I was there, they had it in stock, and they were helpful. After nearly 4 weeks in Paris (using it mostly for texts and one or two calls with AirBnB hosts, as well as calling to the U.S.) I’ve just arrived in Spain and it worked fine for calling the hotel here. So I probably didn’t wind up with the cheapest possible SIM, but so far it has been pretty convenient. The phone is basic but perfectly adequate, and has great battery life.
Basic question.. I have an unlocked GSM phone in the USA, currently using Straight Talk cellular service.
I’m going to Italy for a month & am plan on buying an Italian SIM to use there in this same phone. What happens when people in the USA try to call my USA phone number? On their end, will their call go directly to voice mail, will it just ring into space or ?
Your USA number won’t work when you insert a SIM card from a different country. It will go straight to voice mail. They would have to call you on the local number or via something like Skype.
If StraightTalk allows call forwarding you can forward to, say, a Google Voice number. This will make it easier for you to receive calls and retrieve voice mails.
I’ve never been to either country, but I’ve yet to visit one where prepaid phones were not available, so I think it’s safe to assume they would be available.
Another option is to buy an inexpensive unlocked GSM phone from Amazon.com before you leave.
What about getting a local prepaid phone in countries like Italy and Israel? And are there any with texting and data, too.
Our phones can’t be unlocked (without voiding our warranty). And I don’t think we want to purchase a few just to also get local SIMs.
Thank you in advance.
Hey C. – I’m not too sure as I’ve never bought a prepaid phone while overseas. You could also buy a cheap unlocked phone at home and take that with you when traveling.
Great and Informative Post !! Buying a new Uk local sim would be better option instead of paying high roaming bills. Once I got a chance to visit London. I ordered a Sim card from a site called Prepaymania, the Sim was delivered to my address, the best part was that the SIM card was free, i just got charged £2.50 for shipping 🙂
Hi Earl. Thanks for the advice. Might have to be careful with the currency conversion and not get too caught up in the excitement. I will have to keep an eye on my family too- all females in a shoppers paradise doesn’t sound too good for the old bank account!!
I think your advice regarding the sim cards makes sense- it would be wise to take the advice of someone who has seen and done it all!! After all, only my third trip out of the country in nearly 50 years- what would I know??
Counting down the sleeps til ‘bombers away’.
Cheers and happy trails.
Thanks John. I will add them to the list of things to see and do!!
Thanks too for the info regarding purchasing electronics in KL. Someone had previously told me that electrical items were really cheap over there. I was going to hold off buying a new camera until I got there, but best get one before I go I reckon!!
Shopping is good, but not for electronics. Prices were 20-100% more in Malaysia than in the US. I’m convinced the US has the best electronics prices in the world.
I’ve spent the most time in Penang. Lots to do and lots to eat. In KL it’s worth going to the KL Tower (Menara Kuala Lumpur) and Batu Cave. Singapore is simply amazing. I highly suggest Little India. I’ve been to Hatyai, Thailand. It’s not a tourist spot which made it even better. No one spoke English and it had an edgy feel to it. The West End Bar is fun and they have a great band.
Thanks John. I am really looking forward to seeing a small piece of the world, even if it is only for a couple of weeks!!
Thanks too for the answers to my queries. It might just be worthwhile checking out what sort of prices I can pick up a couple of phones for. I’ve heard the shopping in Malaysia is very good, but not too sure how it stacks up for electronics??
I would love to here any tips you have for new players venturing to this part of the world- things to do, places to see, experiences to be had etc.
My favorite part of the planet! Enjoy! If you need some tips let me know.
Yes, a SIM card from any country will pretty much work in any other country. However you’ll pay roaming charges. Unless your visit is going to be brief it’s probably worthwhile to buy a local card.
I don’t know about Thailand, but Malaysia and Singapore requires you present a passport. No biggie, but just make sure you have it on you.
For the most part any GSM phone will work anywhere. Yes, there are exceptions. But I personally know Aussies running around Penang with the Australian phones and Malaysian SIM cards and it all works well.
Hi Earl. Thanks for all the sound advice for us folk who have little idea of these things, and who are yet to experience the great outdoors!!
Heading to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore soon. Will a local sim card purchased from any of these countries work in all of them, or will I need to purchase different ones for each country?
After reading previous advice, is the data the only thing I need to temporarily suspend on my phone while in Asia?
Also, given your travel experience, do you have any advice on buying a mobile phone in Asia that will work fine on Australian networks? I am not sure as to the costs of mobile phones in say Malaysia, but thought this might be a cheaper way to get a new i-phone, rather than paying the seemingly high price that they cost in Australia!!
Thanks Earl. Hope you can offer some advice.
@Bomber – I do agree with John about the cost of mobile phones over there, not as good of a deal as people think. And yes, if you suspend your data, you will eliminate being charged for that. It’s best to put your phone in “Airplane Mode” and just use the wifi as this will ensure you don’t rack up any charges from your mobile provider back in Oz.
As for the SIM, you would be better off buying one in each country which sounds like a pain but really isn’t. It takes five minutes to get one in each country and the cost is really quite minimal. This will avoid international rates and will make sure you pay the least amount of money possible for calls/texts.
None of these questions were directed at me, but I’ll share my answers. 🙂
I agree with Earl. The best prices and selection of electronics is in the US. I was quite disappointed when I first visited Asia. I expected cheap everything. Many things are, but not gadgets. At best they’re the same price, usually they’re a lot more.
I only buy unlocked phones. My latest was the Google Galaxy Nexus which I bought in June 2012. It wasn’t significantly more than an on-contract phone and I pay less each month. It’s not LTE, but given how I use my phone it’s just not a big deal to me, I don’t need those kind of speeds. Your mileage may vary.
How to keep gadgets safe? Being 6′ 6″ (198 cm) tall helps. 🙂 The usual rules apply. Don’t carry anything you can’t afford to lose. Don’t flash money or valuables in crowded areas. Be aware of your surroundings. Also I carry bags that are difficult to get in to. It’s a pain for me when I need something quickly, but even more of a pain to a thief.
which SIM you are using in Romania ? thx
Hey Yoram – I am using Vodafone in Romania.
We totally agree. We have met so many travellers who pay a fortune for roaming or simply turn off their phone. It makes no sense. Our 6 months in SE Asia have purchased 6 SIM cards and boy, is it a useful tool. We can keep in touch with travellers that we meet, arrange to met up for a beer, use the GPS when I make yet another wrong turn on the bike and end up, well, god knows….. or even just look up the word for peanut that you couldn’t remember in Javanese.
In Thailand – True (not AIS) but it does depend on which part of Thailand you are in
Vietnam – Vinaphone
Indonesia – Telkomsel
Malaysia – Tune
We lost our Thai SIM cards and upon arrival in Koh Tao purchased a Smile SIM – but the internet access isn’t very good….
Never mind on the “what phone do you use” question. I just found your “Traveling with Technology” post. Still curious about how you manage phone data.
Very useful, thanks. What phone do you use and how do you deal with the data part of the services? Do you keep data turned off and watch it closely, or do the local SIM deals provide enough data that it isn’t a concern? Are you able to use something like Google Maps with your setup? (I’d like to have a phone with GPS/map functions while traveling, but I’m not sure the best way to keep data costs in check.)
Hey Chuck – It all depends on the country but in general, I don’t use data too much on my phone, simply because I spend enough time online working as it is. But even with prepaid local SIM cards, you can still find data packages as well often times that will allow you ‘x’ amount of MB per month for a certain amount that is usually isn’t too expensive.
Thanks Earl. What about maps–do you find yourself using (or wanting to use) a phone-based map app very often, or do you get by without it? I would think those might suck up the data allotment on a phone, but I’m not sure.
Hey Chuck – I almost never use a phone-based map. Usually I just ask locals for assistance when I need to find a place, preferring such interaction over tech-based assistance.
Thanks for the info. I think that’s probably the best way to go (though I often feel I am “directionally challenged” without a map!).
Great post mate, I run with a similar set-up, a local sim on a throwaway phone, I do rely heavily on Wifi to stay in touch with home though, skype, Viber and emails.
Yes…all true, especially …DO YOU RESEARCH! In Indonesia they tried to rip me off at the airport. I was tired by a long flight but i used my judgement well…they were asking me for something like 45$ for a local sim card! RIDICULOUS. I found one at 5$ including some traffic at a local shop. Better wait to be fresh to buy something 🙂
I also have an entire collection of sim cards. Bad thing is, i never write down my new numbers 🙂
I think that my sim card collection has like 15 different chips.
I have a small tin from a sample of mints (think Altoids, but a much smaller box). It snaps shut and would be difficult to open accidentally. I keep my SIM cards in this to keep them safe.
Hey John – That’s a great idea.
I just returned from a business trip to Mexico. I bought a Telcel SIM there. A program manager asked I write up how that’s done so others can do it to. No sooner had I written up my dissertation on unlocked phones and SIM cards I see this article and realize I could have just sent a link to this page. 🙂
Here’s how to buy a SIM card in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Dave. That makes sense. I’m going to see if this works as well here in Canada because Google Voice has some restrictions for Canadian users.
Hi DF. There are many features of Google Voice, but one of the main benefits is that it’s the only number you have to give people – at least to people in the U.S. I forward it overseas, where I usually am, but when I’m home I forward it to my temporary US phone. So I never have to keep people informed about number changes.
That’s really the only reason I don’t give out the LocalPhone number. Considering that I’m usually overseas, it might be a good idea, at least for the people who call me more often. I could also forward LocalPhone to my temporary US number when I’m home. All this forwarding – it can get kind of confusing!
Another benefit of GVoice: free calls to any phone in the US (and I think Canada) for at least the last few years. As for Skype, I rarely it anymore to call real phone, because LocalPhone is quite a bit cheaper.
Hi Dave, I’m intrigued. This sounds like it’s cheaper than Skype. I’ve been looking at the localphone.com website and I’m confused as to why you don’t just have your friends and family call your localphone number to avoid the double forwarding. Any particular reason why you choose to go with a Google Voice number?
I was a bit worried (and confused) about the use of cellphones during longterm R-T-W travel. Very insightful piece -Thanks for the helpful tips. Think it would ever be possible for you to just ditch the phone and operate solely off a laptop? Or would it be too difficult with booking accommodation/transportation?
Hey Morgan – That’s definitely possible and I know several travelers who don’t use a phone at all. It’s definitely not a necessity at all.
“…I now have a collection of five local SIM cards from around the world…”
Ditto Earl – for here in Vietnam, dashes into Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Australia, etc. Only trouble is – keeping track of those bitty sim cards as I move to ‘n fro! 😉
Hey Dyanne – I know what you mean and these days, I keep all of my SIM cards in my eyeglasses case. Since I barely use those glasses, I rarely open the case, so those SIM cards are quite safe.
Great stuff Earl! Sam and I hope to travel around Asia the end of next year. We have been using local SIM cards throughout South America, and in particular we found using our SIM card in Bolivia as our sole internet link (we were able to tether all our devices to my iPhone) worked better than internet in hostels and hotels. It seems that in many countries here in South America internet via fibre-optic cable is rare. Most hostels and places outside major cities work via a 3G dongle pluged into a wireless router for guests to use. Since we require internet for work so a SIM with 3G capabilites is a great backup and relieves stress when deadlines for work crop-up!
Hey Zab – I’ve done that too and it’s a good option, and back-up option, in many parts of the world.
Thank you! More people need to know about this.
My friend went to the Philippines for a couple of weeks and came back to hundreds of dollars of data charges. He didn’t know he was supposed to turn off data from his phone settings. *facepalm*
I use a combination of Skype + local number too, even when it’s only a one-week trip. I used TrueMove in Thailand and it worked well even in remote areas. For Indonesia, Telkomsel Simpati is a great choice. Starhub for Singapore.
I bought the Skype premium package that gives me unlimited calls to actual phone numbers in North America for $30/year. I also got myself a Skype phone number for another $30/year.
Hey DF – A lot of people have that happen to them and end up with such high data charges as a result. Thanks for sharing your experiences and it’s good to know about Telkomsel Simpati for Indonesia.
Don’t SIM cards expire? Are there certain companies out there that have longer expiration dates than others? I found that a lot of mine expired after about 6 months of non-use. Do you have any strategies for prolonging the life of each so you can retain the same phone number as well as not pay the upfront SIM card price again and again if you only visit a country every 12 or 18 months? thanks!
Hey Annie – You are right, most cards do expire but usually I make it back to the places within the 6-12 month expiration period so it hasn’t been too much of a problem. And if it does expire, I simply search for the best deal again and buy a new one, or in the case of Thailand, get a new one for free at the airport.
I also try to use local SIM cards whenever possible so I am glad to read that things seem to have improved in India. When I was there 2 years ago, I was told at a few places that I needed a local guarantor and it would take a few days before I could get a SIM card.
Hey Jordan – Yeah, it has changed quite a lot recently. Some states are still a pain but when I got one in Delhi in January, it took about 5 minutes.
Nice tip dude.. This is very helpful… Now all I need to do is unlocked my phone. thanks…
Thanks Earl – all good advice, and I do the same. The trick I came across a few years ago was getting a Google Voice account, forwarding that number to a dedicated phone number from http://www.localphone.com ($.99/month), and forwarding THAT number to my local mobile wherever I am in the world. My friends and family can make a local U.S. call and I pick up the cost of the forwarding to, say, India, or Bali, where I am now. It’s usually in the range of 5-7 cents per minute in Asia and 15-20 cents in Europe, and I’m happy to pay it for the convenience and ease of connection. When I move countries I change the forwarding number on LocalPhone. It’s not perfect, and with two forwarding it doesn’t always go through on the first try. But it’s very handy. Thanks again!
Hey Dave – There is no perfect solution but that’s quite a good one you’ve come up with! I’ll look into that as well.
We did the same thing last year. We found for most of our trip we didn’t need a phone, especially for places we were only in for a few days. We had a couple of apps that we could use on the iPad to call home to Canada. However, we did get SIM cards flr both the phone and for 3G on the iPad in India, South Africa, Tanzania (phone only), Kenya (iPad only), Turkey, Ireland and the UK.
I was looking for a card that would cover us across Europe but apparently I missed that one.
Hey Earl – That’s a good point too…I don’t use my phone nearly as much while traveling as I do when I’m in the US. That’s why I’ve never really tried to come up with a better solution that would allow more people to get in touch with me or me to get in touch with them. The SIM cards have worked well so far, even if I need to travel with a bunch.
This is exactly how I do it Earl.
Just was looking at Hungarian options an hour ago. Looks like it may be Vodafone for me there.
I have an unlocked iPhone 4s, been a good companion for the last 18months.
Hey Forest – I’ve been quite happy with Vodafone over here. Maybe a little more expensive than some of the others (higher rates) but always reliable so far!
I used ChinaMobile when I was in China for a month. Their rates are slightly different than in the other places in the world I’ve been – e.g. you get charged different rates if you are in a different province. It is still very cheap though and it is very useful to have a Chinese number, e.g. for getting free wifi in airports.
I live in South Africa, and here Vodacom, MTN and CellC are all great options. Many locals use pay as you go rather than contracts here as the rates are very competitive.
Local pay as you go is the way to go! Thanks for another great post.
Thanks for that info Elzet and I agree, local pay as you go is a great option. The benefits far outweigh the negatives!
This is all so helpful – thank you so much!
hahah, and I scroll down and see the link, travelling with technology and how I keep it safe! DOH! I shouldn’t comment on no sleep… 😛
Good article on travelling with a mobile.
Was just wondering, do you tend to get issues with carrying a phone around in some of the… lets say, less “safe” countries?? Like, you always hear horror stories of people going to busy asian countries and having their phones stolen from them, or going to busy tourist sites in Italy and the same deal, etc.
Do you have any tips on how to avoid such instances??
Also, do you have an article about computing abroad, laptop advice, ruggedness of said laptop, etc. And do you purchase your laptop in any particular country when you require a new one or do you fly home for that?
@frodzy – Glad you found the article on keeping technology safe 🙂 As for laptops, I always buy mine from the US simply because there are more options and the prices are usually the lowest you can find anywhere.