The best way to avoid roaming charges and other heightened fees for talk, text, and data overseas is to use a local SIM card at your destination. SIM cards give you access to a local phone number and the plans are usually pretty cheap, e.g. $10-$30 for 30 days.
Many people opt to use Wi-Fi while they are abroad. This is certainly an option to consider—especially if you're only going to be at your destination for a few days. But even for those few days, you may want to consider a local SIM card for some of the benefits it offers.
I used local SIM cards in most of the countries to which I traveled during my 15 month trip around the world. Along the way, I learned a lot about when it is and is not a good idea to get one and what to do to make life easier when setting up and using a SIM card abroad.
1. Start with an unlocked phone for swapping SIM cards/Phone carriers
You need to have a global unlocked phone before you even consider using a local SIM card at your destinations overseas.
A global, unlocked phone will allow you to seamlessly switch out SIM cards from different phone companies. Locked phones require you to use a SIM card from your carrier, e.g., AT&T.
You'll need to get your phone unlocked by your carrier.
Carriers will unlock your phone for you at the end of a completed contract. If you cannot wait for your contract to end (your travel date is before then), you may want to buy an unlocked phone for travel.
You may prefer to use a different, cheaper phone when you travel, anyway. It's a good idea especially if you're afraid of breaking your fancier smartphone while abroad!
Be sure to identify how to access the SIM card inside your phone. My Nokia has a little door on the top that opens up, revealing a micro SIM card slot. The size of your SIM card will vary with your device. So you'll need to be certain you will have the correct size to fit your device. Knowing which size you need ahead of time will make your experience buying a SIM card go much smoother.
2. Consider the benefits of getting a local SIM card at your destination
With a local SIM card, you won't get charged by your phone company back home every time someone texts you or when you accidentally use some data.
People often return home from a short trip overseas only to find a phone bill with hundreds of dollars in overseas charges. They could have avoided these if they knew simple things like turning off their data, turning off apps background data use, or, better yet, removing their SIM card before landing.
My phone plan charges $0.05 to receive texts in most countries overseas. That can really add up over 15 months of travel, especially when it would have also cost me $0.50 to send a text back.
As an alternative, you can use a local SIM card and inform your frequent contacts to text or call you using free apps, such as What's App or Viber. You can use these apps over Wi-Fi or with the data you purchase through your local plan.
Another huge benefit of using a local SIM card is how easy it will be for you to communicate locally as you would back home. It's easier to book accommodation, tours, or work out mishaps and setbacks to your travel plans when you have a local number to call other local numbers.
Having a prepaid data plan through your local SIM card will also be beneficial if you're someone like me who loves to use social media and browse the internet regularly.
3. Think about your length of stay, travel style, and access to WiFi
Before you decide to get a local SIM card, think about the amount of time you will be in the country, how much local calling you will need to do, and whether or not you will have access to Wi-Fi easily. If you are not certain how this will go, you can always decide to get a SIM card a few days after you arrive. Although, it usually is easiest to find a booth at the airport with a company selling SIM cards and set it up there.
The longer you're in a country, the more you'll wish your phone worked like it does when you are home. If it's two weeks, you might be able to get away with not using a SIM, depending on how easy the country makes it for tourists. Wi-Fi access may be limited or slow and local businesses may prefer to make bookings over the phone rather than the internet.
In places like Thailand, Wi-Fi is everywhere and usually very reliable and fast. If all you want to be able to do is use the internet, then there's no reason to get a SIM card. Only if you plan to call and text locally would it make sense to get one in a place with ample and speedy Wi-Fi access.
For example, when I was roadtripping around Iceland for 10 days, I found it useful to have a SIM card. Most of Iceland had no Wi-Fi access and accommodation was easiest to book over the phone. I went online to research places to stay using my prepaid data and then I'd call the local number to book for the same evening. Easy as being back in the USA!
4. Buy a SIM card and prepaid plan at your destination
SIM cards are available for purchase in other countries at many of the usual locations: At the airport, phone carrier stores, or small convenience shops (e.g., 7-11). The easiest location to pick up a SIM card would be as soon as you arrive at the airport.
Here are the locations where I picked up my SIM cards overseas:
For extremely long stays, opt for an open term monthly plan when possible. A monthly plan will usually include more data, calling time, and texts for a lower cost than prepaid. Open term will give you the flexibility you need as a traveler to end the plan at any time.
5. Make note of your new phone number, including the country code
After you get a local SIM card, write down your new, local phone number. The number will appear somewhere on the packaging that comes with your SIM card.
Put the number in your smartphone's phone book (e.g., "My Thai Phone Number"), write it in your notebook, or take a photo of it. Whatever the method, make note of it somewhere that is easily accessible. You'll thank yourself later when you find yourself filling out a form or exchanging contact information with someone you meet on the road.
Remember, when someone with a non-local number contacts you, they will need to enter + and then the country code before the number. When a local person calls or texts your local number, there is no need for the + or the country code. However, you may need a single placeholder digit.
For example, if you were to call the US Embassy in New Zealand from your US number/SIM card, you would enter:
+64 4 462 6000
The same number for the US Embassy using a local New Zealand number/SIM card would be:
0 4 462 6000.
When giving out your US number to people overseas, be sure to remind people of the US country code which is +1 (then your 10-digit number).
Check out Wikipedia's list of country codes here.
6. Try a pill box for storing your SIM cards
I ended up with a collection of teeny tiny SIM cards as I traveled. For such important little devices, these 1cm wide, 1mm thick cards are like marbles; they're easy to lose!
I was constantly afraid of misplacing or dropping them all over the world. I was especially fearful of losing my Verizon SIM card from my home phone plan which motivated me to come up with a way to manage all my SIM cards.
Miraculously, I never lost any of my SIM cards because I stored them in a pill box.
The pill box helped me hold onto my Verizon SIM card for 15 months after initially removing it when I arrived at my first destination in Iceland.
You may consider other options, like storing your SIM cards in a small zip-lock bag. However, I would not recommend zip-lock bags for long-term travel, as they can wear thin and the seams can open up over time. A small, enclosed case, like the pill box I used, would be ideal!
7. Prevent SIM card language barriers
Be certain you will have English options for activating, changing or topping up your prepaid plan before you purchase any SIM card in a country that speaks a foreign language.
An English option may not be possible in every country you visit. But when it is—do it!
I learned this the hard way. I made the mistake of going to an electronics store in Germany and choosing a SIM card recommended to me by an employee. Of course, he wanted to give me what he thought would be the best option in terms of cost, data use, talk, and text. But he neglected to consider my needs as someone who does not speak German.
I ended up with a Congstar plan whose entire website is in German. Using Google Translate didn't help, my relatives were not tech savvy enough to help me, and there was no Congstar store to access help directly from an employee. Very frustrating!
I ended up going without a data plan (even though I paid for it!) for 6 weeks in Germany. Plus, I had to be very careful about how much talking and texting I did since the plan was limited.
I suppose I could have bought another SIM card and plan. In some ways, it was a welcomed challenge to not have my phone to rely on all the time.
As a last and final tip for using your phone overseas: Do what makes the most sense for you.
Your personal budget and needs will be the most important things to consider when deciding whether or not to use local SIM cards abroad. Now you also have all of the above to consider to help you make the most informed decision possible.
Questions about SIM card use/phone plans overseas? Send me a message!