As we all know, international roaming is very expensive. By now we’ve heard at least one news story about an unlucky traveler who racked up tens of thousands of dollars in roaming charges on his cell phone plan after an overseas trip. Fortunately, this is very easy to avoid. As a location independent world roamer, it makes sense to buy a prepaid SIM card in each of the countries you travel to. There are several things you need to do to make it work:
Unlock Your Phone
In order for your phone to accept a different SIM card from your cell provider’s, your phone needs to be unlocked. If you have an iPhone, you can do this by sending an unlock request to your cell provider, and then confirm the unlock at a local Apple store (or by borrowing someone else’s SIM card and testing it). Do this before you leave.
An alternative to this is to buy a cheap prepaid phone in the country you’re in, and use your original phone for WiFi only. This may or may not be more convenient for you.
Also, your phone needs to be a GSM device. CDMA won’t work outside of the Americas as of the date of this writing. The reason has to do with frequency bands, which is technical stuff I won’t get into, but if you have an iPhone you should be fine.
Here’s a map of CDMA (blue) vs GSM (green) coverage. Not sure how up to date this is, but should give you a helpful hint just by eyeballing it.
The fastest SIM you can get depends on whether your phone can support 2G, 3G, 4G, and/or LTE. Most of the newer iPhones and Android phones will work fine in this regard. You want to get the fastest SIM your phone can support, which in most cases should be the LTE. Sometimes you have to specifically ask for LTE because some vendors don’t advertise those.
Buy Prepaid SIM Cards
You can buy a SIM card at the airport upon arrival at your destination, at a 7-11 convenience store, or at the mall. Before you arrive, check the country on the link below, read the telecom datasheet on that country.
Wikia: Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki — VERY useful resource!!
Learn the names of the main providers in said country. Pick one, and find an airport kiosk, store, or 7-11 and ask for a SIM card with that provider.
You will pay for the SIM card itself, plus the amount of data you want to use (could be 1GB, 2GB, etc). When you use up all of your data, you will need to go back and buy more data. In order to conserve, you can use WiFi as much as it is available, and turn off push notifications by setting Fetch New Data to manual in your iPhone settings. Whatever you do, just make sure your phone won’t use up all your data while you’re sleeping (happened to me in the Philippines). If there is no WiFi or the connection is patchy, set your phone to airplane mode before you go to sleep.
In my travels within the past year, I’ve collected multiple SIM cards. If you want to reuse them (keeping the same phone number in each country), you need a lightweight case to store all of your SIM cards. I use this:
Very handy, and I love it. When I open this thing up on the plane just before we land, showcasing multiple cards, an eject pin, and fluidly perform a SIM card switch, I get curious looks from other passengers. If a nice looking female passenger happens to sit next to me while I whip this baby out, a phone number and a date should be a guaranteed lock.
Side note: If you are on a cell phone plan back home, just be sure to remove the old SIM while you’re in the air so you don’t accidentally roam when you switch off airplane mode!
If you work a lot on your laptop or own an online business, make sure your SIM card / provider allows tethering. If WiFi is not readily available, you can tether your laptop to your phone and get internet access that way.
Probably won’t need this in first tier cities with free WiFi everywhere, but this may become useful in 2nd or 3rd tier cities. This nifty option will be there if/when you need it.
Use Free Messaging & SMS Apps
Given that most SIMs around the world are on pay-as-you-go plans, it’s best to use free messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Line, Viber, etc. Ask around in your destination country which app is the most popular, and install that on your phone.
Or just take the “shotgun” approach — install all of the top dozen messaging apps in one sitting, and then switch between apps on the go. Boom!
When You Visit Back Home
In the times I will visit family the US, I will need some way to use my phone, look things up online without access to WiFi, and be able to text my folks.
But I already got rid of my previous provider. Simply reinserting my old SIM won’t work. What you can do is get on a pay-as-you-go plan similar to the ones I use in other parts of the world.
Who is a good pay-go provider in the US?
Before I left the US, I went to the T-mobile store to port my existing number from AT&T to T-mobile. As my number got ported, my old plan with AT&T got cancelled automatically. No termination fees as I had already gone past my contract period and was on a month-to-month plan. If you’re still in a contract, you might have to pay termination fees.
The nice thing about it is I just pay for what I use, so I don’t pay anything if I’m out of the country and don’t use my T-mobile SIM. But it’s there whenever I need it. Just fill ‘er up with some dollars on your online account before you touch down in the US and put the SIM in there, and carry on.