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The Ultimate Guide To Prepaid SIM Cards While Traveling

All your prepaid SIM card options while traveling explained and compared
The Ultimate Guide to Using a Prepaid SIM Card While Traveling by Travel Done Simple
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Normally, if you travel in a foreign country with a SIM card from your home country, you will be doing what network providers call roaming.  Since the network provider in your home country most likely isn’t present in other countries (and even if they are, there is no guarantee that the phone plan they provide to you in your country will be applicable to others), you will be roaming anytime you travel to another country and use your SIM card from home.

While some network providers may have special deals in place with their counterparts in foreign countries which let you roam for free or at a large discount, this is not very common and in most cases, you will have to pay roaming fees if you want to make calls, send texts, or use data while abroad.  

This is usually extremely expensive and you can often hear stories of people that have come home to ridiculous bills from their network providers after their trip with roaming fees costing them hundreds or even thousands of dollars!

As a result, some people choose to switch off their phones while abroad because they are scared of something like this happening to them while others choose to take out their SIM card or turn off roaming and data entirely and only use their phone when connected to wifi networks.  

Those are all ways that you can avoid roaming fees, but there is a better way and it’s by using a prepaid SIM card instead.  A prepaid SIM card will let you stay connected while you’re abroad at much lower rates compared to roaming.  

This is extremely helpful as it not only lets you upload photos to instagram, but also do useful things such as make calls to local phone numbers, figure out where you are and get directions, hail rides, freeze and unfreeze your debit and credit cards instantly, convert currencies on the go, access important documents and reservations, translate words and phrases you don’t understand, and so much more.  

Check out my Guide to the Top Travel Apps for all the best apps you can have while abroad.

Using a prepaid SIM card while traveling is one of the best things you can do to stay connected and save money at the same time.  However, before you can get one, you need to ensure that your phone is travel-ready and able to accept other SIM cards. 

Find out how in my Guide to Travel-Ready Phones.  

Table of Contents

1. Choosing A Prepaid SIM Card

Once your phone is prepared for traveling and able to recognize foreign SIM cards, you’ll need to start thinking about which prepaid SIM card you should get for your trip since there is more than one type.  

These days, you have three options when it comes to prepaid SIM cards:

  1. Buying an international SIM card online in advance and having it delivered to your house before your trip so that you can start using your phone as soon as you land in your destination
  2. Getting a local prepaid SIM card after arriving in your destination, relying on wifi until you do, but then benefitting from local phone plans which are usually much cheaper than any international SIM card
  3. Buying an eSIM data plan for the country or region you plan to visit right before you depart so it activates immediately and lets you access the internet as soon as you arrive (only possible if you have an eSIM-compatible phone)

All three have their advantages and disadvantages and which one you should go with depends on your priorities (and your phone’s capabilities):

  • If you want convenience and don’t mind paying more for it, then buying an international SIM card in advance is the easiest way you can get connected while abroad (if you don’t have an eSIM-compatible phone).  It’s also a great option if you will be traveling to more than one country and won’t be staying longer than a few days in each one as it can often be used in multiple different countries easily.
  • However, if you want to stay connected for the cheapest rates possible and don’t mind taking the extra step of buying a SIM card after you arrive to do it, then getting a local prepaid SIM card is the best option.  It’s also the better option if you are only traveling to one country or spending lots of time in each country you visit as you can usually get some pretty cheap rates by going local.
  • And if your phone is eSIM-compatible, then you can benefit from eSIM data plans that can be purchased and activated on your phone instantly with only a few button clicks.  This is the ultimate convenience and eSIM data plans can often be almost as cheap as local prepaid SIM card plans. However, they are usually data-only and don’t come with a phone number that you can use to make and receive calls.

2. International SIM Cards

An international SIM card is a great option for those that want to be able to stay connected while abroad without having to worry about going through the process of getting a local SIM card which can be a hassle for some people.  

International SIM cards are typically more expensive than local SIM cards, but you’re paying for the convenience of having them sent to you before your trip so that they are ready to go before you even arrive meaning that you’ll be able to use your phone as soon as you land in your destination, something that you can’t do if you decide to get a local SIM card.  

There are a few different types of international SIM cards and providers so it’s important to know what to expect before you buy yours.  This guide will outline everything you need to know about international SIM cards so that you’re prepared for when you buy yours.

2.1 Getting an international SIM card on Amazon

If you choose to go with an international SIM card, then it can be as easy as searching for one on Amazon and buying the best one for your trip.  For example, if you’re in the USA and you plan to go to Europe, there is a great selection of reasonably priced SIM cards available on Amazon that are preloaded with lots of data, minutes, and texts from providers such as Three UK, Orange Holiday, Dataroam, and Lycamobile.  

Sometimes the cards will activate as soon as you put them in your phone and other times you have to activate them yourself beforehand by following specific instructions provided by the seller.

It’s important to note that some of these SIM cards may not allow mobile hotspots and others might be data only.  Also, don’t expect to be able to call home for free using these cards as usually, any minutes that are included are only for local calls.  

But if you do get a card that does include free calls to certain countries, you have to remember to add the calling code for the country of the phone number you’re calling before you call it or else it won’t work.  Each country’s calling code can be found in its Destination Guide.

Preloaded international SIM cards bought from Amazon can be convenient, but they can have their risks so you should be aware of them.  

Some risks include your card not coming preloaded or just coming empty, not getting activated or already getting activated by someone else, or simply not getting the best connection in certain countries or places.  These are all issues that people have reported with international SIM cards bought off Amazon.

The reason these things happen is because most SIM cards sold on Amazon aren’t actually sold by the network providers themselves, but by resellers who don’t always have the best track records.  

That being said, most cards people buy seem to work fine, judging by the reviews, so the one you buy will probably work fine for you too as long as you follow the instructions required when you get it.  Sometimes your connectivity issue can be resolved by changing the APN settings on your phone or putting the SIM card in the other SIM slot if you’re using a dual-SIM phone.

2.2 Getting an international SIM card from a Travel SIM company

If you don’t want to risk showing up in your destination and being one of the unlucky few with a faulty card, you can also buy your international SIM card from a company that sells their own travel SIM cards.  

Some of the more popular companies that sell travel SIMs include Flexiroam, OneSimCard, WorldSIM, KnowRoaming, GigSky, and Keepgo.  They won’t be as cheap as the ones you’ll find on Amazon, but buying a card from them will be less risky since they are actual providers and not resellers like on Amazon.  

For reference, here is a comparison of their rates for an international SIM card that comes with 5 GB of data in Spain for a minimum of 14 days (as of Mar 18, 2020):

  • Flexiroam: $30.20 – $38.90* (15 days)
    ($9.90 shipping + $20.30 to $29* for the “Spain Local Data Plan”)
    Get 100 MB free if you download the app and create an account with this link
  • OneSIMCard: $41.94 (14 days)
    ($19.95 for the SIM + $2.99 shipping +$29 for the “Zone EU Data Plan” – $10 free credit)
  • WorldSIM: $46 (30 days)
    ($5 shipping + $41 for the “Spain” plan)
  • KnowRoaming: $55.98 / $60.98* (30 days)
    ($9.99 / $14.99* for the SIM + $6 shipping + $39.99 for the “Europe 5GB” plan)
  • GigSky: $59.99 (30 days)
    ($9.99 for the SIM + $50 for the “Europe” plan)
  • Keepgo: $79.00 (no limit)
    ($39 for the SIM + $40 for 5GB of the “GoFi Europe USA” plan)
    Get 10% off if you use my link to buy your card and data plan

 

*The Flexiroam price depends on how far in advance you buy your SIM card (3 months in advance gets you 30% off, 1 month in advance gets you 15% off).  The KnowRoaming price depends on the type of SIM you choose (normal vs sticker SIM).

Most of these SIM cards are data-only and won’t give you a local phone number to use (opting to give you a US or other country’s number instead), but some of them will allow you to make calls and send texts if you add credit to them and use them on a pay-as-you-go basis, such as the OneSIMCard.  

Keep in mind though that their pay-as-you-go rates typically aren’t very good and there are other much cheaper services you can use to make international calls (including calls back home) as long as you’re connected to the internet which I talk about in my Guide to the Top Travel Apps.

3. Local SIM Cards

Getting a local SIM card takes a little bit more work than buying an international one, but your work pays off in other ways.  For one, you get a local phone number and if you pick a plan with minutes, you get to call other local numbers for free which can be useful if you ever need to call your hotel, airbnb host, or anyone else in your destination.  

You also get access to rates that locals pay meaning that you can get a lot more out of your phone at a much lower price than you would with an international SIM card.  To put this into perspective, a local SIM card in Spain (with Simyo) that has 5 GB of data and 100 mins in calls would only cost you 7€ ($7.64).

In addition, if you’re traveling in Europe, a local SIM card from one European country will let you roam in any other European country for free thanks to a roaming regulation enacted by the EU back in 2017 (more on this later).  This means that a local SIM card can be just as useful as an international SIM card when it comes to staying connected while visiting multiple countries in Europe!

The benefits of using local SIM cards are plentiful, but it’s important to know what to expect before you start looking for one as there are a few things you need to be aware of:

3.1 Pay-as-you-go vs prepaid plans

Some local SIM cards you buy may already come preloaded with a phone plan on it, but most will need a plan added to it.  When you don’t have a plan, most network providers offer pay-as-you-go meaning that you get charged every time you make a call, send a text, or use data with the money being taken out of the credit that you added to the SIM card when you bought it.

You could use your SIM card in this way, but you won’t benefit from very good rates if you do and when your credit runs out, you won’t be able to use the SIM card at all until you add more.  If you don’t plan to use your phone much, this might be beneficial for you, but getting a prepaid phone plan can give you more calls, texts, and data at even lower prices.

When getting a prepaid plan, you pay for access to a specific amount of calls, texts, and data for a time period ranging from 1-35 days, depending on the plan you get (although most plans are 30 days).  

If your plan expires or you go over your limits, you won’t be able to use your SIM card anymore unless you renew the plan or you add credit to it and use it with pay-as-you-go.  But if you get a plan with enough calls, texts, and data for your trip, you won’t need to worry about it expiring on you.

3.2 Every country will be different

With regards to getting local SIM cards, most countries will allow you to buy one and use prepaid data plans while you’re there without issue, but there are a few exceptions.  Some countries have restrictions or limitations on foreigners getting local SIM cards while others might even completely ban it. 

Some restrictions include being a resident or requiring that all foreign devices get registered with the government.  The good news is that these exceptions and restrictions are rare and typically, the most you’ll have to do is show some ID to get a SIM card.

In addition, the price of prepaid SIM cards will also vary by country.  India’s phone plans are the cheapest in the world with the price per GB of mobile data being only $0.02 in some cases!  Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea has the most expensive phone plans with the cheapest price for 1GB being $27.58. 

Luckily, most countries in the world have prices that are closer to India’s than Equatorial Guinea’s and you can typically get a few GBs of data in a foreign country for under $10.  Just be aware that some countries will be pricier than others.

Finally, the way you get a SIM card will vary by country and network provider.  Many of them will have “tourist” SIM cards available in shops all over the airport which you can pick up and activate right when you arrive whereas others will require that you go to one of the local network provider’s shops found somewhere in the city.  

Know which one you will have to look for when you arrive and be aware that the “tourist” cards are typically more expensive than the prepaid phone plans they offer for locals so make sure you do your research beforehand if you want the best deal possible!

3.3 Doing your research in advance is useful

A “tourist” SIM card can be one of the easiest ways to get connected instantly since you can usually pick them up at the airport as soon as you land, but they can often still be expensive and there are usually even cheaper prepaid phone plans available if you do your research ahead of time.  

That being said, since every country is different and even within each country, there are several different network providers that all offer different plans, it can get confusing.

However, finding a local prepaid SIM card has never been easier these days thanks to the Prepaid SIM Card Wiki which outlines everything you need to know about the local prepaid SIM card situation in every country in the world.  I would love to thank whoever started that website as it is an extremely useful resource on local prepaid SIM cards for travelers.  

Just search for the country you want information for and not only do they tell you what prepaid plans are available for each network provider in that country, but they also tell you if you need to pay for the SIM card, where you can get it, how you can add credit to it, your roaming options, and other important information.  And the best part is that it’s all in English meaning you don’t need to navigate websites in other languages!

In the past, if you wanted to do the research yourself, you would have had to figure out which network providers operate in the country you’re visiting, go to each one of their websites (some of which might not be available in English), find their prepaid phone plans (some of which might not be easy to find), and note down their offerings to compare them all and find the best one for you.  It’s pretty tedious, but that wiki completely eliminates that whole process for you!

That being said, keep in mind that the information on that wiki is all user-generated, meaning that it comes from other travelers just like you and me that have taken the time to do the research and update the wiki with it.  

Most of the time, the information will be accurate, but since mobile networks and operators change their plans all the time, there is a chance that some of the information might not be fully up to date.  As a result, it doesn’t hurt to double check your findings on the network provider’s website whenever you can just to be sure that the plan you found on the wiki is still available.

3.4 Using your local SIM card

Most SIM cards these days will come available in three different sizes (standard, micro, and nano) and you just have to pop out the size you need for your phone from the card you get it in.  If your phone uses a smaller sized SIM, a good tip is to save the shell from the larger sized one just in case you get another phone that uses a different size.

Once you get your SIM card from the shop in your destination country, don’t just leave immediately.  Wait until the SIM card starts working because if there are any issues during its activation, being in the shop means the staff will be able to take care of them immediately.  

Also, be sure to ask the staff if they can change the language of the SIM card to English for you (if possible) so that you can understand its service menu.  And write down the codes for checking your balance and usage if they’re not provided to you on an info card.

Note down your SIM card’s phone number somewhere like in a notepad app on your phone or as a contact in your contact list so if you ever need to give it out or you need to add more credit to it, you can find it easily without having to fumble around for it.  

Also be sure to note down or add local emergency phone numbers to your contacts as well since not every country uses 911 in case of emergencies.  You can find the emergency numbers for every country in its Destination Guide.  

And remember that if you want to make any calls to international phone numbers (this includes numbers back home), you have to add a + or the numbers 00 and then the country’s calling code before the actual phone number.  

For example, if you want to call a Canadian or US number, it will only work if you add +1 or 001 before the phone number (i.e. instead of dialing 555-555-5555, you have to dial +1 555-555-5555).  Every country’s calling code can be found in its Destination Guide.

If you’re using a dual-SIM phone, make sure roaming is turned off for your SIM card from home if you decide to keep it in your phone.  If you don’t need your main card in your phone at all, keep it somewhere safe so you don’t lose it. 

And when you leave your destination, don’t throw out your local SIM card because you can use it again if you ever return to that country!

3.5 Take advantage of international roaming agreements

If you’re traveling to multiple countries in Europe, you can benefit from roaming regulations that came into effect in 2017 that essentially make roaming completely free between member nations for every SIM card bought in a country that is part of the EEA (European Economic Area).  

This includes every country that is part of the European Union as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. There are some exceptions though, depending on where you buy your SIM card.

Some network providers in some countries are granted an exception to the agreement and will not allow you to roam for free with their SIM cards because their cards are so cheap that they would lose money if you did.  In other countries, they are allowed to limit how much data can be used when roaming or will require that you “activate” roaming with the card before it will work. 

So if for example, you were planning to roam with a Finnish SIM card (one of the cheapest in the world) in the rest of Europe, you may run into issues.  Make sure you read up on the SIM card restrictions that are in place for the countries you plan to visit on the Prepaid SIM Card Wiki before you buy yours.

Note: The UK was a part of this agreement before Brexit and still is until Dec 31, 2020 which is when the Brexit transition period ends.  The UK network providers have claimed they will still allow UK SIM cards to roam in the EEA for free after this, but it is unclear if SIM cards bought in the EEA will still be able to roam for free in the UK from 2021 onwards.  There’s still time until then though so make sure you take advantage of this agreement!

All that being said, after all the exceptions, the cheapest country in the EEA where you can get a phone plan that will allow you to roam for free in the rest of the EEA without restrictions is Spain.  

If you start your Eurotrip there and get a SIM card when you arrive, you will be able to use it in every other EEA country without worry and save a lot of time and money that you would otherwise spend on finding more SIM cards in every other country on your trip!  Not to mention that Spain is one of the best countries in the world to visit so it’s a win-win.

You might also be wondering if this type of agreement exists in other parts of the world too, but unfortunately it does not.  Some network providers in some parts of the world may offer free roaming to some other countries as a part of their phone plans, but that’s at their discretion and not as a result of an international regulation.  

That being said, starting in 2022, a similar regulation will come into effect in South America, more specifically between Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru so look out for that in the future!

4. eSIM Data Plans

Some newer phones support eSIMs which is a new SIM technology that lets you connect to mobile networks without needing a physical SIM card.  You just download the app for the provider you want, pay for a plan, and get connected. 

This saves you both time and money if you want to get an international data plan since you don’t have to pay for a SIM card or shipping (although some providers might charge an activation fee for the eSIM).  It’s way more convenient than getting a local SIM card and sometimes, the prices can be almost as good as local SIM card prices.

You can even have more than one eSIM connected to your phone at the same time meaning you can switch between multiple different data plans instantly.  However, this technology is very limited and as of now, only a few phones, like the iPhone 11 and Samsung Galaxy S20, offer it. 

If you have a phone that does, you can take advantage of some lower rates from global eSIM data providers.  Here is an example of pricing using the same comparison criteria as before:

  • Airalo: $11.50
    (5 GB with the “Holasim” plan valid for 30 days)
  • Ubigi: $19
    (10 GB with the “Spain” plan valid for 30 days)
  • Yesim: 21€ (~$23)
    (5 GB with the “European Union” plan valid for 28 days)
  • KnowRoaming: $22.99
    (5 GB with the “Spain” plan valid for 30 days)
  • Truphone: $23
    (5 GB with the “Local Data Plan” for Spain valid for 30 days)
  • Stork Mobile: $23.99
    (5 GB with the “Europe” plan valid for 30 days)
  • Soracom Mobile: $23.99
    (5 GB with the “Europe” plan valid for 30 days)

 

As you can see, both Airalo and Ubigi offer some very good rates for data plans in Spain, only being a few cents more expensive than prepaid plans for local SIM cards!  And this type of pricing isn’t limited to Europe, you can find similar pricing for other countries and regions too.  

Of course, you have to keep in mind that eSIM plans are data-only and you won’t get a phone number with them so if you want to make calls, you have to use a VoIP service.  However, that’s a small price to pay for all the convenience it gives you!

And if you want to compare all the different eSIM providers and plans for a country or region, you should use esimdb.com.  They have multiple different providers in their database.


And that’s all there is to it!

As you can see, we have quite a few different options available when it comes to getting connected, each with its own benefits.  I enjoy the experience of getting a local SIM card when I travel, but I can understand why some people would prefer the convenience of an international SIM card.  And while I don’t have an eSIM-compatible phone right now, I can’t wait until eSIM technology takes off so I can start taking advantage of it too!

If this guide helped you out, let me know in the comments below.  And now that you know how to get connected while abroad, take a look at my Guide to the Top Travel Apps to know which apps would make your experience while traveling even better!

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Hi there, I’m Sebastian, founder and creator of Travel Done Simple. Since I turned 20, I have lived in 5 different countries and traveled to over 40 others! You can learn more about me on my About page and find me on social media.

Hi there, I’m Sebastian, founder and creator of Travel Done Simple. Since I turned 20, I have lived in 5 different countries and traveled to over 40 others! You can learn more about me on my About page and find me on social media.

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