How to Stay Connected Abroad
A Traveller’s Guide to SIM Cards
Anyone who isn’t living under a rock knows that WiFi is everywhere, making it really easy to stay connected while you travel (not always a good thing!). But WiFi does have its issues. In the “developing world” it’s not always dependable, and in the “developed world” it comes at a price. There is an easier way.
If you have an unlocked smartphone you can buy a SIM card when you arrive in a country or region. In addition to mobile access, you can create a hotspot for your computer or tablet when WiFi just isn’t available or convenient.
In some countries, getting a SIM card is just another item on your arrival checklist: collect bags, visit ATM, get SIM card, arrange transport. In other countries, it takes a little more effort.
China Unicom will deliver a SIM card to your hotel room. But be sure to install a VPN on your phone before you arrive so you can access the full internet. You’ll need to get a new card when you arrive in Hong Kong or Macau, or be prepared to add credit or change your plan.
In Thailand a monthly plan with 5 GB of data will cost about $30, and when the data runs out, you can still connect at a slower rate. Look for phone shops in the airport, or ask a tuk-tuk to take you to a cell phone store. Add baht to your phone for texting, calls, and monthly plan renewal at any of Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens.
Getting connected in Cambodia is cheap and easy, with $1 SIM cards and a variety of plans, beginning at 2 GB of data plus minutes and texts for $5 a month. Competing kiosks will greet you as you exit the international terminal in Phnom Penh. You must go to carrier’s shops to add time—but since it’s so cheap, buy more credit than you think you’ll need when you get the card, and you won’t have to worry about it again.
Until recently, security restrictions in India limited visitors’ phone options. But new policies allow non-residents to sign up for data service, as long as they can confirm their identity over the phone—and you can get 10 GB a month for about $25. But nothing is easy in India. You may need to wait a few hours for service to begin, or even make multiple visits to the carrier’s store to ensure activation. Little shops all over the country can add time to your phone, but adding data is a little trickier if you’re travelling from state to state—you’ll need to visit the official carrier or try your luck over the phone. Note that a photocopy of your passport and visa page, the address and phone of your accommodation, and a passport-sized photo will be required to purchase and activate a plan.
In Europe, availability and options change depending on the country. In Belgium, SIM cards with data are sold in train station vending machines. In other countries, like Switzerland, you’ll need your passport and possibly your first-born. In Spain, pre-paid SIM cards are easy to get (with a passport) but the amount of data available is limited: $35 for a SIM card and 1 GB of data; getting a month-to-month plan with more data requires a Spanish bank account.
To be safe, bring your passport no matter the country. European SIM cards will work across Europe, but any included texts and calls are usually to same-nation phones only. If you want to call or text a German mobile phone using your Spanish SIM card, you’ll probably need to buy additional credit. Top up your account online at sites such as Cloncom.com.
Have a Back Up!
SIM cards aren’t always worth it. In some countries it’s not easy, your stay may not be long enough, or you have access to ample WiFi. But in today’s world, a phone of some kind is a necessity. Enter the cheap pre-paid phone. While Canadian pay-as-you-go phones don’t work outside of Canada, the situation is different outside of North America. A 20£ Virgin U.K. phone (including 10£ of credit!) will retain its number and let you top up online in small amounts that don’t expire. The roaming rates are atrocious, but my little plastic phone works all over the world and never expires. I use it for necessary calls and texts (like contacting AirBnB rentals and couchsurfing hosts). And it comes in handy as a contact number for online bookings made on the road or getting WiFi pass codes via SMS.
This post originally appeared on Travel + Escape.