International Roaming (not a pun) and Local SIMs

Being able to access the Internet while traveling makes things so much easier

a question that friends have asked on several occasions is the best way to save money while roaming with your smartphone. as a 21st century digital boy, i rarely talk on my phone or SMS but rather prefer to stay connected via email and twitter and other internet goodies. heaven knows that accessing the internet on your phone internationally without wifi can be ridiculously expensive (we’ve all heard the stories), and short of turning data roaming off (always the safest option), what’s a nomad to do? (as data roaming is more important to me than regular call roaming, that’s what i’ll focus on.)

before you go any further, if you don’t know what an unlocked phone is, read this. if your phone is locked, it won’t hurt to call your phone company and tell them you are traveling and want it unlocked. they may be able to unlock your phone for you, depending on the type of phone it is and the company’s policies on unlocking.

but first, a brief note about how i roam now — really only applicable to verizon customers, but other providers may have similar plans:

a couple years ago i discovered that through work i can get pretty much unlimited international data roaming for a couple dollars a day. they (verizon) used to have this option for regular consumers but pulled it a couple years ago and they don’t advertise it anymore for business accounts. however, if you do have a business account, it wouldn’t hurt to ask if you have access to their GlobalEmail plan. it sounds like it’s limited to email, but you have full internet access (barring things like the Great Firewall, which i ran into). sometimes you have to call the global roaming people several times because many reps think the plan is discontinued for everyone including business accounts, but as of November 2011 (the last time i used it, when i went to Japan), it was still an option — YMMV. basically it’s a ~$65ish per month data plan add-on that gets prorated for the amount of time you’re gone (you tell them to activate it on the day you go and to cancel it on the day you get back).

if you have a global-ready verizon phone like the iphone 4S that can handle CDMA and GSM (the two main cell phone network types), you’re good to go pretty much anywhere. if you only have a CDMA phone (the majority of verizon customers, but verify with your rep), you will need to rent a phone from them if you are going to a GSM country (the vast majority of places, but again, verify with your rep). this is pretty cheap as long as you don’t need the phone for more than 2-3 weeks — as i recall just $15 for shipping. their phone selection the last time i checked was pretty crappy, so if you have a better unlocked phone, i have been successful at taking the SIM card out of the loaner phone and putting it into my unlocked phone and changing the APN to make the internet work. (if you don’t understand what i’m talking about but aren’t scared off by my description, let me know and i’ll get back to you with more details).

the GlobalEmail plan has worked for me throughout Europe as well as South Africa, China, Cambodia, South Korea, and Japan.

Some of the places I'm Foursquare mayor of (as of this writing), thanks to international data roaming -- from a convenience store in Japan to an airport in South Africa to a hotel in Beijing!

what about everyone else?

as i see it, you have five options if you are not setting up residency in your destination country and you want to take your phone with you. this following is for those who have a GSM phone since that is the technology used in the vast majority of countries out there (in the states, if you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile, you’re GSM; certain phones on other carriers have GSM capabilities, verify with your provider). if you do not have a GSM phone and are traveling to a GSM country, you are out of luck unless you can rent one from your cell phone company (which locks you into option 1 or 2 below) or a travel phone company (option 5), but in these cases you likely will not be able to use a local SIM card unless the phone you get is unlocked (check with whoever you’re renting from) and it’ll likely be pretty expensive.

  1. turn off your phone completely and only use it in emergencies, or leave your phone on and turn off data roaming — as long as you use it sparingly, you shouldn’t get sticker shock when you get home, but keep in mind that these per-use rates are quite high. if you want to leave your phone on just so you don’t miss important calls or text messages (which cost 25 or 50 cents each to receive, so tell your friends only to text in an emergency!), turn off data roaming in your phone’s settings menu. most smartphones should have this option; check your manual. be sure to verify with your home service provider that your phone will work in the country you are visiting, and that you have international data and voice roaming enabled on your plan (you never know, you may need it!).
  2. buy a roaming package from your home cell phone provider. these usually give you a fixed amount of data (say, 50MB or 200MB) at a certain price, with overages being highway robbery. you will want to make sure you don’t go over this amount, or you will start paying through the nose. remember that many phones check your email automatically, which can suck your data plan dry before you know it. you may wish to turn this off. again, be sure to verify with your provider that your phone will work in the country you are visiting.
  3. buy a local SIM card once you arrive if you are going to a GSM country and have an unlocked phone. most countries indeed have GSM networks, but check first and also verify that your phone is compatible band-wise; some phones may only be able to access the network frequencies of your home country, which may be different than your destination.
  4. use a company like maxroam, which lets you roam globally with just one SIM card in your unlocked phone. depending on your usage, option 2 might definitely be cheaper, but it’s more convenient than option 3.
  5. rent a phone — if you do not have an unlocked phone and your home cell phone company doesn’t give you the option of renting a phone, there are companies that will rent out phones with international data plans to you (most of the time, they will ship to your house before you leave, but for instance, in japan, you can pick it up at the airport). from what i’ve seen, this option is quite expensive and you are locked into the plans they provide. compare prices with option 2.

a local SIM card (option 3) is, in my experience, the cheapest option and, imho, the best one if you have an unlocked phone and can’t get a good deal through your home cell phone company on the amount of roaming you plan to do. (note: if you have an iPhone 4 or later or another phone that uses a Micro SIM, check that the company you plan on roaming through offers them, or else you’ll have to cut regular SIM cards down to size.)

getting and using a local SIM

warning: buying a local SIM will likely eat into your sightseeing/exploring time, so set aside a couple hours for this adventure. if all goes well it won’t take more than an hour (often much less) for everything.

Some SIMs from my collection. Vodafone from Germany, an old ICQ Voice Roaming SIM that i used in Egypt, and a Personal SIM from Argentina

it’s pretty straight-forward — just like getting cell phone service at home:

  1. make sure you have an unlocked GSM phone. if you don’t know for a fact that it’s unlocked, call your cell phone provider to check whether it is, or to request an unlock. you don’t want to arrive at your destination only to discover your phone is locked to your home cell phone company and is thus useless. btw, if you have an iphone, you can jailbreak and unlock it yourself without your cell phone company’s involvement, but you’ll have to do your own research on how to do that 😉
  2. research what your options are. a site that i discovered a couple years back has the best (though slightly disorganized) information on local cell phone companies and their prepaid data plan offerings. it saves you from having to look up what companies are out there in your destination country and researching/translating their websites. every time i’ve gotten a local SIM (T-Mobile UK, Orange France, Vodafone Germany, Personal in Argentina), this is where i turned to first for information.
  3. after you pick a company (maybe have a backup one just in case), do your prep work. print out as much as you can from that wetpaint site and/or the company’s website so you can show them what you want. you will also need to find a store in your destination country. if you don’t speak the local language, i recommend choosing the largest store in a touristy area (usually the one with the longest hours or offering the most services); chances will be higher that someone there speaks English. if you can’t figure out the company’s website, use google maps and street view the stores (if available) to see which ones look promising.
  4. once you land, go to the store and tell them what you want and hopefully you’ll get it and they will help you set it up. i’ve had to muddle my way through in French and Spanish before, but they have always (ultimately) understood me. luckily when i had to get a local SIM in Argentina, the guy who helped me spoke excellent English (though the people at the front who take down your name didn’t), which was great because in this case there were a lot of forms to fill out. oh yeah, be sure to bring your passport with you. also, you may want to have local currency on hand versus a credit card since, at least with T-Mobile UK, there was a minimum purchase amount for a credit card that i didn’t meet.

    Waiting room at the Personal flagship store, Buenos Aires

  5. once you get the SIM, pop out your old SIM card (don’t lose it!) and put the local one in. the rep at the store might do this for you, or you may have to do it yourself. be sure you know how to get access to and change the SIM card on your phone (consult your manual; practice at home first). if you have an iPhone, carry a paper clip that you can straighten to access the SIM card tray (yes, i have brought my own paper clip with me).
  6. hopefully whoever helps you will also go through the process of adding funds to your prepaid account, and teach you how to activate your data plan (both of which you may have to do on your own again depending on how the plan works, how long you’re staying, and how much money you loaded to begin with).
  7. the end! sometimes it will take a while for your card to be activated (especially with Orange in France, up to a day), but if all goes well and you will be up and running in no time, tweeting and facebooking away! when you get home from your trip, take out the SIM card you bought (souvenir!) and replace it with your home SIM and you should be back on your home network.

    Confirmation of buying a data plan. Sesame Street Spanish powers activate!

note: if you are planning to get a local SIM, you will probably also want to call your home service provider before you leave and turn on international roaming just in case your plan falls through. in this case, at least you’ll have roaming for emergencies (option 1 above). if you still really want to be connected, find a way to call them and see if you can add a roaming plan (option 2).

how you add funds to your account varies by country (again, try and get them to explain how when you buy the SIM). in some, you can buy a card at a newspaper stand or store (usually a market or drugstore) that has a code (scratch off to reveal), and you enter the code into a special menu either on the phone itself, via SMS, or over via an automated voice system that will add funds in the amount of the purchase price of the card to your account. some providers will give you a card with a magnetic strip that is linked to your SIM card to use those in an ATM or special-purpose kiosks (look for a symbol on each of these that matches one on the card). swipe that card so they know which account to credit, then pay the amount you want to add. of course, you can always find a retail outlet of the cell phone company and top up there. in all of these cases it helps if you can understand (even a bit of) the local language or find a friendly face who does, but if not, more adventures for you!

note that if you want to save time, you may be able to buy SIM cards over eBay or Craigslist, but buyer beware since you’re not guaranteed those cards are valid. i actually bought that German Vodafone one off of eBay just so i didn’t have to bother going to a store, but you will need to be familiar (or be willing to experiment) with adding funds and activating data plans, or else you’ll end up going in for help anyways.

some might argue that going the local SIM route is too much of a hassle, but if you can spare the time (and don’t want to spare the money to pay for roaming, as this is almost always a much cheaper option), it’s a great way to feel like (and be!) a local.

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