With the rise of smartphones in the latter naughts, it became common wisdom among savvy travelers that the best way to stay connected while traveling abroad was to have an unlocked phone and buy a local SIM card on arrival. Nearly everywhere else in the world pays far less for cellphone service, so getting a prepaid SIM loaded with lots of data and talk time often cost only a few dollars.
For a long time, I was a big fan of buying SIMs when traveling. However, over the last few years I’ve mostly dropped that practice. There are a few reasons.
First, buying SIMs was rarely as easy as it seemed like it should be. Increasing security concerns meant ever more stringent document checks and restrictions on who could buy SIMs. In many places, the best you could do was a gray market SIM which might work for a time, then suddenly stop connecting. Outside of an airport kiosk, getting English-language support could be tricky, and troubleshooting GSM network issues in a language you barely speak is tough.
Some of the smartphone apps we tend to use have also become more reliant on your phone number being your means of identification. Think of the 2-factor auth codes you get to sign into your bank, or the messages coming in via WhatsApp or iMessage. Suddenly switching to another number minimally means you become harder to reach, and often puts your digital life into a bit of a fugue state. Oh, and also, if you’re the kind of person who gets phone calls on your phone, that gets confusing if your SIM card is tucked away in your wallet.
Finally, American cellphone providers have finally come around to the idea that international travel is a thing customers sometimes do. T-Mobile launched free international roaming ages ago, albeit capped at very slow speeds. All of the providers now offer some affordable options for short term international data – either a fixed daily prices ($10/day or so) or a “bucket of data” to use over the span of a few days.
These packages from carriers are generally still more expensive than a local SIM. But as a percentage of what you’re spending on a trip, they’re a rounding error. I’d rather get off the plane with full connectivity and get on with my trip than spend an hour at an airport kiosk trying to troubleshoot a phone problem, or have to take time out of my travel day to find a “top-up” station in a city.
One other option the market are various “travel” SIMs, either delivered as physical SIMs or the new “eSIM” technology. These tend to be both relatively expensive and complicated, so I’d steer clear of these.
One exception to this rule – if you’re going to be out of the country for an extended period (more than a few weeks), domestic carriers will often get a little salty. Check with your provider for the specifics. In those cases, consider a local SIM (or maybe a travel SIM if you’ll be visiting many countries). Many modern phones also have the ability to effectively run multiple SIMs concurrently (one eSIM and one physical SIM). It’s not for the faint of heart, but for an extended trip abroad it can help thread the needle of wanting your US phone number to continue functioning while enjoying cheap local data.This entry was posted in Trip Tips