Buying a Prepaid SIM Card While Traveling: What You Need to Know

woman-mobile-phone It’s fairly common advice to travel with an unlocked mobile phone (quad-band GSM to be the most compatible worldwide) so that you can purchase an inexpensive prepaid Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card and pay much better local prices. Choosing a service provider is not usually a terribly important decision if you are only going to be in a country for a short duration and/or you don’t plan to use your phone much. In such circumstances the differences in rates and the effort to find and compare the various options are probably not worth the small savings that could be possible by making the most informed purchase decision. But, if you are the kind who enjoys shopping around, finding the best values, or if you will be making an extended stay and/or using the local service heavily, it might pay to do some comparison shopping. So, what should you look for?

The Three Big Factors

Internet (Data)

Data service is increasingly common and desired as smartphones become ubiquitous. WiFi is increasingly available around the world, but when it is not offered where you are staying being connected via a smartphone is a nice alternative. Plus, being able to access maps and other useful travel information in the street is often helpful for travelers. Data rates on prepaid plans vary greatly and often are sold as unlimited access for a set price daily (or weekly or monthly) or instead are charged per megabyte (MB). Obviously, if you are paying metered (per MB) rates, you will want to monitor your usage; apps for all major smartphone operating systems exist to help you with this.

Calls

Usually calls will be billed in minutes or seconds but there a few things to keep in mind. Often there is a setup or connection fee that is applied to each call made, separate from the per minute fee. Sometimes this can be steep, a sort of hidden way to get you to pay more while advertising low calling rates. Likewise, the first minute often costs significantly more than all subsequent minutes. You will also want to note if calls are billed at different rates within the city versus to other locations in the country. Similarly, you will often have different rates when calling landline numbers versus mobile numbers. Naturally, international calls will be priced differently than local or national calls, but surprisingly they are often far cheaper so make sure you know whether the per-minute fees advertised are for international calls (services often marketed to immigrants) or local/national calls. Finally, in many countries only the caller pays but this does vary so be sure to check the situation where you are. Related to that, even in countries where incoming calls are free, you will often have to pay to receive calls if you are roaming or receiving an international call so check if this is the case and, if so, the rates.

Texts (SMS and MMS)

Generally speaking there will be one fixed price per text that won’t vary regardless of where in the country you are texting to and from, but verify this. Some prepaid plans offer a bucket of included texts or even unlimited texts. Multimedia texts (MMS) usually have a different, higher, tariff so if these are important to you verify those rates before deciding.

Combining the Three

In my limited experience, many prepaid plans focus on one or two of the above but not all three. And, more often than not the focus is not on combining voice and text but rather voice and data or texts and data.

Other Factors

  • Prepaid Plans vs. Usage Plans
    Some companies offer special prepaid plans whereby a daily, weekly or monthly price gets you certain defined benefits. For example, maybe 3.5€ gets you 100 texts and/or 100 minutes of calling time. Or 5€ gets you unlimited data and 100 texts. Whether such a plan is better or worse than a straight usage plan depends entirely on your personal needs.
  • Minimum Recharge Amount and Credit Expiration
    For some prepaid plans and rates you must purchase a certain amount of credit each month. Often your previous month’s credit expires but will be re-credited to your account once you add more money, but not always. This could be an important distinction in choosing.
  • SIM Cost
    SIM cards are usually very inexpensive. Usually you pay for the card and you get some credit as well so that the card is effectively free. SIM cards will expire if not used for a certain amount of time.
  • Registration Requirements
    Certain countries have strict rules about registering a SIM card. For example, in Brazil you must have a DNI, the national registration number for all Brazilians and foreign residents. Other countries, like Bolivia, require you visit an official office (rather than a kiosk or other prepaid sales outlet) to register as a foreigner with your passport. Sometimes the best thing to do is make a local friend and get them to register a card in their name for you. I even read about a traveler who was able to get the sales clerk to do it for him.

Beware the Unlimited Claims

You will often see plans offering unlimited amounts of either data, calls or texts. Sometimes this turns out to be a bit dishonest. For example, there may be time or day restrictions such that unlimited options exists only during weekends and evenings. There may be data speed throttling once you use a certain amount of bandwidth. Certain phones might be ineligible. There might be an “unlimited” number of calls but a limit on the amount of time for each call or for the total minutes in a period. Likewise for data and bandwidth. Perhaps it is unlimited for one period (e.g., daily) but limited for a longer period (monthly). For example, you might get unlimited data each day but once you pass 2GB for a month you’re screwed. Of course, that’s not really unlimited at all. So, be sure to check out the fine print.

Beware the Sales Staff

I am sure there are dishonest people out there trying to convince you to purchase their prepaid service. But, I think what is more common is that the plans are confusing and many people selling them aren’t fully knowledgeable so they will tell you something misleading or incorrect. When in doubt, try to get the full details from a pamphlet or website.

Recharging or Topping Up Your Prepaid Account

Some prepaid services will allow you to create an online account and add credit online with a credit card. Most often however, when your call credit gets low you just drop by any convenience store or kiosk and recharge there. In some countries you buy a scratch off voucher and follow the directions on the back to add the credit. Other places give you a receipt or voucher with a code that you again can use to add the credit via the phone (or via your online account). Finally, some locations have you give them your money, phone number and the phone company name and they add the credit for you. In all cases you will get a near-instantaneous text message letting you know you have added more credit and the amount of your current balance. These texts as well as calls to both check your balance and to add more credit are free.

Be aware that in most cases, you cannot add more talk-time outside the specific country of the SIM card, so before you roam outside of that country, be sure and “top-up” with some extra talk-time vouchers. Likewise, since SIM cards expire, if you are planning to leave a country for an extended time but want to return and be able to use that same card and number you might wish to buy extra vouchers that you can use to occasionally top-up while you are away and thus keep your card active.

A Note About Japan

Japan doesn’t use the GSM standard so your unlocked phone will not work there. Instead you will need a phone that supports 3G UMTS (2100 MHz) or 3G CDMA2000 (800 MHz). If you are just staying a short time and mostly want limited use of a mobile phone, renting might be the most convenient option. Some companies have kiosks at the airports while others will mail a phone to your hotel or to your home. You can usually return the phones at the airport or through the mail. Costs are typically ¥250-1000 per day for the phone plus ¥70-200 per minute. That is pretty steep IMO so if you plan to be in Japan a while and/or plan to use a phone a fair amount, it’s probably better to just buy a cheap phone in the country and get a prepaid SIM.

Other Options

Of course, you can certainly get by as a traveler without buying a local prepaid SIM. If you wish to just use your service provider from your home country, do call them or check their website to see if they offer special international roaming products or services as many do. Also, make sure you disable automatic features that use your data service plan so that you aren’t unwittingly doing so while roaming internationally.

Any Tips to Share?

Have I missed anything? If so, let me know in the comments. Likewise, if you have any company, phone or country tips to offer, I’d love to hear them.

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4 Comments

  1. I personally choose to go phone-free unless I am staying in one place for at least a couple of months. Great info for things to look out for. It is unfortunately that sales people are dishonest, but it happens.

    1. Thanks. I am like you, I forgo the phone unless I will be somewhere for an extended period and/or I already know people in a place I am visiting. I think for people who CouchSurf a lot it is also useful to be able to contact and coordinate with their hosts in each new city.

  2. Beware network choice in a country, some big names may not offer real 3G speed, China Mobile 3G network is not compatible with iPhone or other world smartphones. China Mobile 3G is TD-SCDMA network (not WCDMA). Then, the best option is to pick China Unicom.

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