Using your cellphone in another country has always been a tricky proposition. There are a number of hoops to jump through, and there are many considerations to take into account. It is a subject many people approach with trepidation, for if you’re not keeping your eye on your spending and usage habits, it can end up costing you a lot of money.
Fortunately, there are a number of options to help keep you in your comfort zone, and allow you the freedom to make calls, send and receive text messages, and surf online without incurring huge costs.
Everyone has read the horror stories of people returning from a trip abroad only to discover that they have accrued a huge amount of International roaming charges. You can use your current domestic SIM card abroad, but data costs in particular are often especially high. Do your research before you leave by contacting your cellular provider and ask them what they offer for International roaming. Once you have the facts, you can decide if they offer a good deal you can live with, or whether you need to explore other options.
Before you travel
If you are considering using another SIM card, make sure that your handset is ‘unlocked’. Handsets can be sold ‘locked’ so that they can only be used with a SIM from the phone company that sold it to you. In this case, enquire about having your cellphone unlocked before you leave – this may take a couple of days, and there might be a charge. You should also make sure that your phone will work in other countries. Older models of handsets sold in North America that run on different frequencies may not work when you travel, so research this carefully well before you leave.
Local SIM cards
in most cases, the least expensive type of cellular service involves buying a local SIM from the country you are visiting, and signing up for a local pay-as-you-go plan. Airports, newsagents, tobacconists, phone shops and other stores will all usually carry these SIM cards bundled with a pay-as-you-go plan for use in a particular country. Just top up the SIM with some credit and you will be charged the low, local rate.
There are some drawbacks to using a local SIM card. You may, for example, be required to register before you are able to use the SIM, and produce passports, visas and other information. These signup procedures can take a while to complete, so carefully consider if your precious travel time is worth spending on this. Many foreign cellular providers only provide help in the local language, so research this carefully!
If you are only in a country for a short while, tracking down the right store, making sure you have the best deal and waiting to be registered can eat into time you would probably rather spend seeing the sights. If you are travelling to multiple countries, this will also mean you will need to purchase a new SIM card (and therefore a new phone number) and go through the process again in each country.
If you are going to use your local cellular provider’s roaming service while travelling, be sure to note their customer service number to call. You want to find the non-toll-free number you can call from overseas if you need help. Enter these numbers in your Contacts, so you can quickly get help when you need it most!
International SIM cards
International SIM cards (also known as Roaming SIMs) are not quite as cheap as using a local SIM, but they can be less expensive than roaming on a Canadian or USA cellular plan. There are a number of additional benefits as well as the price:
- Multiple operators – international SIM card providers (as well as your home country cellular provider) have agreements with telecoms companies all over the world, often with several in each country. Your cellphone should automatically switch to the local cellular service that offers the best coverage in a particular area. If you cross a border into a new country, both International SIMs and your home country SIM will automatically switch to the best provider in that country…not so for a local SIM.
- No change of number – an international SIM typically comes with two phone numbers, a number with a European prefix (usually +44 UK or another European country), and a +1 USA/Canada number. These remain the same no matter which country you visit, and because roaming SIMs are often bought in advance, it’s easy to inform family and friends of your contact details before you travel. If you use local SIMs, your contact number changes every time you install a new SIM.
- Take control – by using features of smart phone apps for accounts setup with your International or home cellular provider, you can track what your overseas usage is costing. There are no monthly charges with International SIM plans, since they are pay-as-you-go. Avoid getting huge bill after you return home! Keep in mind, there may be delays with these apps seeing your latest usage, so give it a day before trusting the usage figures reported by the apps.
Where can I get a SIM for my international trip?
So-called International SIM cards that are pay-as-you-go, and often come with credit included in the plan you pre-select. Look for bundle deals to give you better value, especially if you are visiting many countries. Sometimes, it may pay to purchase a low-cost unlocked cellular handset from the plan provider. Some smartphones support having two SIMs installed at once, which allows you the option to make use of your roaming and domestic plans while you travel, but watch out for escalating costs and complexity! You can also buy a dedicated Hotspot device, which allows you to create your own local WIFI network so you can connect your family’s other users all under one data plan while you travel, Satellite phone rentals can make sense for when you’re going off the beaten path but have to keep in touch, however they are much more expensive than traditional cellular service.
Perhaps it’s not worth it…
After exploring all the options described above, you may decide it simply isn’t worth the hassle or expense to keep in touch while you’re travelling. You may decide that using local Internet Cafes or relying on connecting to the Wi-fi in your hotels will be enough to keep you connected to your family. Getting hung up on staying in constant touch with friends and family may also defeat the purpose of why you are travelling – to get away from it all, relax, and get into the moment!