SIM Card Options: International SIM Cards Vs. Local SIMs

I’ve had this question a lot, people wanting to travel and have access to all those super-useful travel apps. If you use your phone at home plenty and rely on it for data or just want to keep in touch with people at home maybe this is what you will want when you travel but just how hard is it to get your hands on a local SIM card and is it worth your time really?

Today I will discuss the pro’s and con’s of three popular SIM card options for travel: international SIM cards, local SIM cards bought before you land and SIM cards bought after you land.

Well, I guess everyone's going mobile now...

Well, I guess everyone’s going mobile now…

International SIM cards

These are available online or though some travel agents/tour companies. They’re often marketed at people who want to visit whole regions but only spend a short amount of time in each individual country. For example, people backpacking Europe who don’t know how long they will be in any one place and want the ease to send a text message or receive a phone call anywhere. It’s important if you’ll be needing data to check if it’s available and the rates before purchasing your SIM card.

Pro’s

  • Simplicity – put one SIM in your phone and away you go. No having to worry about getting a new SIM every few days’ as you travel and you can give one number to your family back home before you leave and not have to think about it again.
  • Less stress for family – if they know they can reach you anytime sometimes just that knowledge is enough to make some loved ones feel much better.
  • You can call anyone, even those people you thought you wouldn’t – on a stop-over in Thailand I received some good news from home, a friend was now engaged to be married, with the international SIM I had with me I gave her a call, expensive call but so worth it!

Con’s

  • Cost – not the cheapest option by a long shot in some locations.
  • It costs you for other people to call you – when I was in New York City I had one of these SIMs (hung over from another trip) and I missed out on seeing a New York Yankee’s game with some locals because I ran out of credit and didn’t realise it cost me money for others’ to call me.
  • Falling off the grid can be harder – if you’re going on your first solo trip abroad you may want to get caught up in the freedom of backpacking but then being woken by Aunt Mary at six AM just because she wants to say hello and see how you are can be a mood killer.

Getting a SIM before you go

There are plenty of companies online now marketing to travelers who sell SIM cards for multiple countries. With the internet too, you can look up the provider reading reviews on them, checking their coverage and call rates and know everything – even your new number – before you even board the plane. What a way to go!

Pro’s

  • Easy – you just give someone your credit card number and address then pop the little SIM in the back of your phone once it arrives.
  • Know your number before you go – handing out your number to your loved ones before you go abroad can be wonderful, they know how they can contact you should there be any issues and all their numbers are right there for when you need them.
  • Save time – it can be time consuming (especially if there are language barriers) to get a SIM before you go. You need to work out who you want to go with, get the SIM in your phone and activated (often in a language you don’t know) and recharge. Then work out how to recharge as needed. This option cut’s out all that time spent working things out for yourself.

Con’s

  • Cost – companies that provide this service are buying in SIM cards from providers or wholesalers, having them shipped to them and then out to you, have staff and other overheads so of course this isn’t as cheap as buying a SIM card in country.
  • Missed opportunity – if you are going to a country to interact with locals for the experience of a different culture or to practice language skills, you could be missing out on a great opportunity here in finding someone to buy a SIM from, asking them for help in setting it up in your phone, asking how to recharge, etc.
  • Slow shipping times – Ordering with time to spare can help you with this, make sure you’ve given it enough time for incidentals like the company running out of SIM cards and taking longer to get one to you.

Getting a SIM after you arrive

Sometimes people don’t want to do all the running around before they get to a place – or don’t have time to – they either choose to buy their SIM when they arrive. There are of course pro’s and con’s to this method too.

Pro’s

  • Often cheapest method – often this is the cheapest method of the three, especially in a lot of developing nations where a few dollars can buy you plenty of data, calls and SMS messages.
  • Opportunity to interact with locals – buying my local SIM in Vietnam meant I met a whole family, laughed with them as they helped me activating the SIM and recharging it then ended up sharing tea with them. It was a great experience I never would have had if I didn’t buy my SIM there.
  • You know the coverage – with a local provider, you know the coverage (from coverage maps, however accurate they are) before you buy a SIM whereas the international SIM can sometimes be a bit hit and miss depending on which provider it taps into.

Con’s

  • Wasted time – if you have to find someone to buy a SIM off then purchase, activate and recharge the SIM when you could be on the beach sipping cocktails, are you really going to be that interested?
  • Getting the right SIM for your phone – when I was in Laos, I met a guy who went down the local SIM route who’d gotten frustrated because at the time the providers there didn’t have SIM cards that fit his smart phone, so he had to get scissors and cut the SIM down to size. Not sure what he did wrong but it only worked sometimes, so he couldn’t call, only text which he was very frustrated about.
  • Not having a SIM when you touch down – not having a SIM card when you arrive in-country can be a big deal for some people who want to text or call their loved ones ASAP about their adventure so far or that they’re in their hostel safe to ease concerns. If this is you, perhaps you want to consider one of the other options.

Over to you! What do you do about your phone when you travel? Do you have advice for other travellers about SIM cards? Please tell us in the comments below!

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