International SIM Cards for Travel vs Buying a Local SIM When You Land

Kieran Smith

When it comes to staying connected on the road, the traveler has a few options. The cheapest however, is usually to buy a local SIM. There are international SIM cards, offered by companies like WorldSIM, but these offer convenience at a high price.

If you happen to be a T-Mobile customer, then you win the world, quite literally. With their One Plan, you’ll have free texting and data in over 140 countries, automatically. Boom: you land, your cell phone works. For frequent travelers and business travelers, or digital nomads, this is huge. 

If you’re not a T-Mobile customer, there are other options out there which are on a sliding scale from pretty good to pretty terrible internationally. Or, you can invest in a local SIM.

A local SIM will not only give you the best rates, but also access to local discounts. This is undeniably the best option if you don’t want to consign yourself to enduring expensive phone calls, scavenging free wifi, or returning home to an exorbitant bill.

By getting a local SIM on arrival you can immediately inform your friends that you have arrived, coordinate your travel plans, phone your accommodation, book a taxi, or tap into the best possible network and use Google maps to find your way.

However, buying a local SIM is not without challenges, so read through these tips to make sure you have a trouble-free trip.

Pre-departure Checks for a SIM Card for Travel

Is Possible to buy a SIM at your Destination?

In some countries, foreigners are forbidden from purchasing SIM cards, and others make it very difficult. In Pakistan for example, it is very difficult for a foreigner to buy a SIM, but other foreigner-friendly countries like Thailand will greet you at the airport with the opportunity to buy a local SIM.

As a tourist, the majority of countries in the world offer you the opportunity to buy some form of local SIM card, but if your destination is on this list, then it might be either impossible to buy a local SIM, or very difficult.

Here’s a breakdown of the best cell coverage companies, by country, for Southeast Asia. You’re welcome.

Is your Phone is Unlocked?

In order to put another SIM card for travel in your phone it needs to be unlocked.

If you are not sure if your phone is locked or not, then try going to a mobile store from a different network to your own and asking a salesperson if you can try one of their SIM cards in your phone. If it works, then your phone is unlocked.

Lots of US carriers like Verizon and AT&T lock their phones as standard practice to stop you going to another provider.  If your phone is locked then you can either contact your network provider to try and unlock the phone, or, as an alternative, purchase a cheap unlocked phone specifically for the trip.

Inexpensive phones are available almost anywhere in the world if you are willing to forgo the “smart phone” capabilities. Many travelers will buy a “burner phone” with local SIM and then use their smartphone when wifi is available.

Verify Phone Compatibility

Mobile networks across the world run on a range of different frequencies, mostly using one of two different systems; CDMA & GSM. If your phone is not equipped to run on the same system as your destination country, then it will not work.

As most countries use the GSM system, your phone will probably need to be a GSM device in order to be useful in another country.

Confusingly, the GSM system itself also varies from country to country. There are a range of different GSM frequencies, and not all phones can handle them all. However, most modern cell phones are capable of this.

The WillMyPhoneWork website provides a handy way to check if your phone will work in your destination country.

Check Destination Coverage

Sometimes the best option, especially in Asian countries where there are so many affordable options, is to select a SIM card based on the coverage the network can provide, rather than the cost of calls etc.

Regardless of the country you are traveling in, this is particularly wise if you are heading off the beaten path, where it might be worth knowing in advance that you will have a signal. Even in the USA, T-Mobile, for example, has great coverage in populated areas. Rural Montana and the miles of empty road in Texas? Not so much.

Coverage maps are usually available on the network providers website, or you can use Open Signal.  

Buying a SIM Card for Travel

Where to Buy a Local SIM?

In most places you can purchase SIM cards at local stores, 7-11s, news stands, and sometimes from airport vending machines. The best course of action is to head directly to the authentic network shop, rather than buy from a reseller. Buying directly from the company will help make sure you don’t get charged any more than the standard rate, and makes it less likely that you’ll fall prey to any scams. 

Buying from unofficial sources can get you a faulty SIM. Don’t get duped into buying a SIM card that will stop working shortly after activation.  Avoid the risks by buying from an official store, or at least a reputable reseller. If you have a Nano or Micro SIM, as most phones do, then the vendor should be able to cut it down for you.

Will I Need to Bring Anything?

Most of the time you will need only to provide your passport, and possibly a local address. In some countries, like India, you will also need to provide passport photos.

A good strategy is to check blogs of other travelers who’ve done it, or the social groups of local expats and ask.

Helpful Tips

Does the SIM Card Work?

As soon as the SIM is in the phone, check to make sure that it works. The vendor might do this for you, but make sure it works BEFORE you leave the shop.

Note your Local Number

Take immediate note of your new number, and save it in the phone if necessary. This will save hassle down the line when you need to give it out.

If you buy a burner phone, write the number on the sticker inside the inside of the back of the case that slides off. Write your travel partner’s new number in there too.

Change the Language 

Navigating your phone info menu in Thai characters is fun! Not so much. Make sure you have the service attendant where you buy the phone help you to change the language to English.

Keep the old SIM

Take your old SIM and keep it in a safe place. You could ask the store to tape it to the packaging of your new SIM so that you won’t lose it.

Learn a few Phrases

Make sure you learn at least a few basic phrases in your destination language, it will lessen the confusion!

Here are a few to get you started:

  • Good morning
  • Good afternoon
  • Do you speak English?
  • I do not speak (Local Language)
  • I don’t understand
  • Where are the SIM cards?
  • Please
  • Thank you

Pop these into google translate and make a note of the pronunciation. A few words of the local language will not only help you be understood, but help endear you to the locals who might then be more willing to help! 

Add Useful Contacts

Definitely acquaint yourself with local emergency numbers, just in case! Not everywhere uses 9-1-1. Why not put them in your phone so they are ready should something happen.

Here’s the State Department list of emergency phone numbers abroad.

 

Should you Take or Leave a Local SIM? 

When you have finished using the SIM and are returning to your home country, consider what to do with your SIM card.

Some SIMs will expire after not being topped up, and others may incur a fee to remain active. Check the terms and conditions of your particular package, as it may be worth keeping the same SIM, if you are likely to return.

Another option is to pass your SIM along to a different traveler on your way out of the country. Save the packaging and instructions on how to top up the SIM and pay it forward.

TL;DR

Buying and using a local SIM card for travel isn’t too difficult if you just follow a few tips:

  • Make sure that your destination allows foreigners to buy local SIM card and uses the same mobile network as your phone
  • Unlock your phone, if it’s not already unlocked
  • Buy your SIM from an official dealer; watch out for scams
  • Soak up some of the local lingo and memorise a few phrases, it will help in buying the SIM and in answering your phone
  • Know the local emergency numbers

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