Local SIM cards are the best International SIM Card for most travelers, but for best connectivity, combine a local SIM with a good international carrier.
The Best International SIM Card and Data Plan Options for Travelers
Why is internet access important while traveling long term?
Consistent internet access allows me to plan less before traveling with fewer worries. Recently, I’ve gone as far as not planning travel to a different country until two days beforehand…that includes purchasing flights, accommodations, and visas.
Having internet access allows me to keep an eye on the essentials (flight price alerts, travel security alerts, locations of traveler friends), and plan the non-essentials (accommodation, itinerary, messaging friends in the area) as late as on arrival in the new country.
Don’t think an international SIM card is worthwhile? Here are a few other examples of how having an international data plan has come in handy for me during the last year of international travel.
- Using local rideshare apps or Uber instead of taxis – saves money and avoids being ripped off
- Facetiming with friends and family at epic sites so they can experience the travel with me instead of seeing pictures on Instagram later
- Looking up information about a site or location in a city while wandering, bringing history and culture to life
- Planning and booking accommodations, transportation, and tours during long stretches of travel – such as on buses or trains – to make good use of seat time, and spend less time planning while I’m in a destination or before travel
- Last minute planning and checking – such as visa information, or searching for common scams in a country
- Access to support via travel insurance support, such as through travel insurance through World Nomads. Keeping their number handy means I can call for help, or to confirm I’m covered before potentially pricey doctor visits or emergencies that aren’t covered. Like I did on the Everest Trek.
- Access to local public transport schedules on demand
- And the list goes on…
So, suffice it to say, if you’re nomading, moving quickly, or take lots of risks when you travel, then getting a sim card and keeping access to the internet is a cheap way to stay safe and make traveling smoother
Your best options for staying connected abroad: Local SIM cards, T-Mobile, and Google-Fi
Your best options for staying connected while traveling internationally:
- Purchasing a local SIM for each country andregion (~$3-$15 depending on country)
- T-Mobile One ($70/mo. or $55/mo. when active, $10 per month when suspended)
- Google-Fi ($80/mo. with unlimited text and data)
- Combining T-Mobile with a Local SIM Card (Best Option)
Each option has its pros and cons. Ultimately, a combination of using T-Mobile One when moving frequently between countries and a local SIM cards when slowing down or in a country not covered by T-Mobile is your best option, giving you the best coverage while saving the most money.
Option 1: Using local Sim Cards
If you will be in one spot longer than two weeks, a local SIM card is the best option. They’re extremely cheap, and simple to get started on as long as you have a Quad-band, unlocked cell phone. If you’re unsure if your phone is unlocked, contact your current provider to check. If your phone is locked, contact your service provider to have them unlock it.
If your phone provider won’t unlock your phone, or it will cost more than $100, consider purchasing one abroad. There are plenty of cheap phones (such as Huawei) that give you the processing power of a Samsung S9 on an Android platform. The best part, is they’re only about $100 USD throughout Southeast Asia. Just head downtown, wander, and you’ll easily find the phone you need. Or buy one an unlocked phone on Amazon before going.
How to get a local SIM Card: Start at the airport and bus station information desks
To get started, just stop at the information kiosk in your arrival airport or bus station. The information kiosks/desks either sell the SIM cards or will be able to tell you where to buy a SIM card easily.
Outside of the airport or bus station, you can find the SIM cards at kiosks and mini-marts all over the world. Just look for a picture of a SIM card, a “3G” sign or a “4G” sign.
I arrived in Bali yesterday and plan to be here for a month, so I picked up this SIM card from a kiosk I was passing by in the Canggu area. For one month of data, up to 7GB of 4G data coverage, I paid roughly $4 USD. For the month I’m here I’ll suspend my T-Mobile line for $10 a month, saving me about $55 a month on my phone bill, giving me better coverage throughout Indonesia, and allowing me to sidestep T-Mobiles “3 Months Abroad” rule**.
Review of Local SIM cards as an option for data while traveling
Pros of using a local SIM Card
- Cheapest option – usually between $5-$15 for 3GB-7GB of data good for one month
Cons of Using a Local SIM Card
- You’ll usually require a different SIM for each country
- You’ll need an unlocked phone
- You may end up with 10 different SIM cards in your bag in your bag by the end of your trip.
Option 2: Using T-Mobile One for International Travel
Using T-Mobile One is hands down my preferred method forstaying connected abroad and the method I’ve used for the last year ofinternational travel. T-Mobile Oneoffers unlimited text and data in 210 countries which means I can arrive, turnon my phone, and I’m connected. No fuss. Nice and easy.
To date, the only countries I haven’t been able to use T-Mobile were Vietnam, Laos, and Lebanon. That’s it. I’ve tested T-Mobile in 19 countries, and only 3 of my last 50 countries weren’t covered, and in each of those countries I just picked up a local SIM for less than $5 or stuck to Wifi with no problems.
What is T-Mobile One? The best option for International Travel of Less than 2 weeks per country, and a great option to keep in your back pocket
T-Mobile One is a flat $70 per month plan that offers unlimited text, voice, and data in the US and allows you unlimited text and 3G data in 210 countries, without doing anything else. This allows you to seamlessly keep touch with friends & family and access to the internet wherever you’re at.
This plan is also great because it allows you to keep and use your number abroad. So, when your bank, or paypal, or AirBnB need to send you a verification text for security, you can actually do it. I guarantee, this is a lot more useful than it sounds when you’re outside of the US longer than a few months.
…But… there are two catches to T-Mobile One...
First, you have to setup and activate T-Mobile One while you’re in the US, from then on you’re good. If you want T-Mobile One, set it up early before you travel.
Second, technically you are only allowed to roam internationally for 3 months maximum with T-Mobile One before returning to the states. Supposedly, if you roam internationally for more than 3 months they will suspend your service until you return to the US (I’ve received the warning message a couple of times) – but there’s a travel hack to maintaining your service
To maintain your T-Mobile One service beyond three months while traveling internationally, simply suspend and restart your service**. Boom! The clock for your “three months of international roaming” starts back at zero, and your “three months of international roaming” restarts.
To suspend and restart your T-Mobile One Service, go into “My T-Mobile” within your online T-Mobile account, schedule for your phone to be suspended for a few days, and schedule your service to be restarted. Once your service is suspended, you’ll receive a nice text alerting you it has been suspended, and you will also receive a nice text notifying you when it has been reconnected. During the period of suspension, you won’t be charged the normal $70 per month, just a prorated $10 a month for the period of suspension.
This leads to one of the benefits of T-Mobile One – the ability to easily suspend your number for only $10 per month (while you’re using a cheaper local SIM) and restart your service simply by hopping online and clicking a few buttons. Awesome. When your service has been restored, you’ll maintain the same number you always had.
T-Mobile 55+: The T-Mobile One plan, but $35 per line with international text and data
Simply put, T-Mobile 55+ is T-Mobile One but you get up to two lines for only $35 (or $70 for two lines) including international text and data…but at least one person on the account has to be over 55 years young.
So, if you are over 55 years young, or know someone who is, T-Mobiles 55+ (we’ll say T-Mobile One for the “seasoned” crowd) is the best international SIM card and data plan for travel. — OR — if you’re a gap year student headed abroad, ask mom and dad to switch to T-Mobile 55+ so your line is cheaper and you can stay in touch via text abroad. They’ll like that.
Review of T-Mobile One for International Travel
Pros of T-Mobile One for International Travel
- Unlimited texts and 3G data in 210 countries foronly $70 per month
- Easy to suspend, . via online dashboard, for only$10 per month while suspended
- Allows you to receive texts at a single,verified phone number while traveling
- T-Mobile One is month to month and requires nocontract, thus you can cancel at any time with no penalty
- SIM can be switched to any phone for service ifyour phone breaks or you upgrade phones while traveling
Cons of T-Mobile One for International Travel
- International roaming is “limited” to 3 months – but is easily overcome**
- More expensive than a local SIM ($70 for T-Mobile vs. $5-$15 for a local SIM)
- Only provides 3G speeds internationally unless you upgrade
- Data coverage can be spotty sometimes, depending on the country you’re in and T-Mobile’s partner carrier
- Coverage in the US can be weak at times compared to ATT and Verizon
The Bottom Line on Using T-Mobile One for International Travel
Do it. It is a fantastic option that you have to set up while home, but having consistent connectivity on arrival in most countries is pricelessly convenient. If you decide to use a local SIM, suspension is easy and $10 a month to maintain the line isn’t much. It is better to start with T-Mobile and cancel later than get overseas and wish you had it. I switched to T-Mobile from ATT a few years ago and have been using T-Mobile for travel for the last 1.5 years. Its worth it.
Option 3: Using Google-Fi
I love all things Google and I actually love the Google-Fi plan. Similar to T-Mobile, you get free data in 170+ countries. Additionally, your bill is tiered based on how much data you use and you will never pay more than $80 per month ($60 for data and $20 for talk and text) but you only pay for the data you use at $10 per GB up to 6GB. Therefore, your bill is anywhere between $30 and $80 a month but never more. You can also add someone to your plan for $15 and you can add one device free. That’s pretty awesome. What’s the catch and why don’t I recommend Google-Fi?
You have to own one of Google’s phones to get on the Google Fi Plan. That’s the catch. If you don’t have a Google phone, you’ll have to buy one. This also means if you swap phones abroad, because you break your phone or decide to upgrade, you might not be able to get back on your Google-Fi plan.
If you have one of Google’s phones, Google Fi for international travel is still a great option. You can still suspend your Google-Fi service, similar to with T-Mobile, whenever you decide to use a local SIMs.
If you don’t own a Google phone, pop for T-Mobile one and still consider getting a local SIM if you’ll be in a country for two weeks or more.
Review of Google-Fi for International Travel
Pros of the Google-Fi Plan for Travel
- Covers you with data and text internationally in 170+ countries
- Easily suspended (when using a local SIM)
- Let’s you add a device to your data plan for free
- Bill can be cheaper than T-Mobile if you use 4GB or less data per month
Cons of the Google-Fi Plan for Travel
- Requires a Google Phone
- SIM can’t be used on any non-Google phone if you upgrade or if the phone breaks while traveling
- Must be activated while stateside
Option 4: Combining T-Mobile (or Google-Fi) with a Local SIM
By far, the best option is to combine a reliable US carrier SIM, that offers free international roaming in its plan and the option to suspend service easily (like T-Mobile), with a local SIM card. When using a local SIM, just suspend your service to save money (~$55 to $65 savings per month). When traveling too quickly through countries to warrant a local SIM, just rely on your existing T-Mobile or Google Fi service for data coverage wherever you go. Done deal
Bonus: Make Cheap calls via Skype, Google Voice, or Google Hangout Dialer
With one of these four options you have data covered, butwhat about voice? Whether you’recontacting a local about renting a villa or trying to find your tour office, or calling home to handle business, you will likely need to make a call at some point. Skype, Google Voice, and Google Hangouts Dialer are perfect for making voice calls over your data connection.
- You only pay for the calls you make, and creditdoesn’t expire
- Allows you to call friends on their phonenumbers, not relying on Facebook messenger or Facetime
- Provides a way to call support lines (banks, Paypal, Airbnb, etc.) back at home
Just ensure that you load credit to your account before leaving the US, as Google Voice won’t let you add credit to your account while outside of the US
To start using either, just download the Google Voice app and Skype app (I recommend downloading both), signup, then load credit. For the Google Hangout Dialer, just download and and its completely free to use from there. I honestly use Skype more than Google Voice but having them for redundancy is better. You’ll then be able to make calls to anywhere in the world over a data connection…like the one you now have via T-Mobile or a local SIM.
The Bottom Line on How to Stay Connected while Traveling Internationally: T-Mobile + Local SIM
The best option for most travelers is to get the $70 per month T-Mobile One plan for traveling internationally ($70/mo. Including international data coverage) combined with the local SIM option. If you will be in one country for two weeks or more, pay the $5-$15 to get a local SIM with data and suspend T-Mobile service. With this approach, you’ll have the best coverage for the lowest cost.
For travelers with Google phones, also consider the Google-Fi program for international travel as a great option to combine with a local SIM.
For more useful info on staying connected while abroad, see these useful articles
- Picking a cell phone for traveling abroad**
- How to avoid having T-Mobile One turned off while traveling**
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