Using your mobile phone plan on holiday just doesn’t make sense: calls are expensive and roaming rates can reach astronomical levels. While travel SIM cards can be convenient to use, they’re also not the cheapest option for most travellers.
A top tip for keeping down costs is to switch your mobile phone provider to a local SIM card to take advantage of local tariffs, plans and deals. Switching to a local mobile phone plan could save you vast sums of money. Local prepaid SIM cards will allow you to surf the Internet, access social media and talk to family and friends at a much cheaper rate.
Why use an international SIM card?
Inexpensive option, especially compared to roaming on your own SIM
Every country has a mobile network, so you can generally make it work
Finding a place to buy a local SIM in a new country might take up precious holiday time
Only works in the country where you purchased it (unless you are willing to pay for expensive roaming)
International or local SIM cards are the most cost-effective, efficient and hassle-free way to use your phone while travelling abroad. While there are other methods of using your phone internationally, local prepaid SIM cards are the best and most affordable option for most travellers.
Local SIM cards are easy to buy from most airports, electronic stores, department stores and directly from phone providers. As long as your phone is unlocked, you should be able to pick one up wherever you land.
Local SIM cards come with a variety of options and plans depending on the country. Many plans come with big data inclusions and unlimited local talk and text, and almost all plans have no contracts and low monthly costs.
Keep in mind, with a local SIM card you will get a local number which will make calling locally easier but can make it more difficult for people back home to get in touch. We recommend asking family and friends to download your choice of texting app, like Viber or WhatsApp, before you leave to make communication as easy as possible.
Compare international SIMs around the world
The cost, type and process of buying local SIM cards vary greatly from country to country. Check out some important information for the following commonly travelled locations. For guides on other travel destinations, head to the bottom of the page.
2G, 3G and 4G/LTE plans available.
Unlocked GSM phones only.
The EU has abolished roaming charges for SIM cards purchased within the EU. That means if you land in Paris and buy a French SIM card, you won’t have to pay higher roaming rates if you head to Bruges for a day trip.
ID and registration are required in most countries.
2G, 3G and 4G/LTE plans available in most countries.
Unlocked GSM phones only.
Some of the cheapest SIM cards in the world.
Strict regulations and complicated rules in countries like India, China, and Bangladesh can slow down the process and make it difficult and time-intensive to purchase a SIM.
Some areas suffer poor coverage.
Some countries including Cambodia and Malaysia require you to register your SIM after purchase.
Countries like China and Indonesia charge roaming rates when travelling to different provinces.
Tips for using your phone overseas
You usually need to show ID to buy a SIM card so make sure to bring your passport with you. Many countries also require a local address, so write down the details of the hotel or Airbnb you are staying at before you leave.
Restrictions around this have tightened in the last few years due to issues of national security, and some countries like India and Bangladesh make it very difficult for non-residents to purchase prepaid SIM cards at all. If your destination includes any of these countries you might want to consider buying a travel SIM or using free Wi-Fi.
The set-up of your new local SIM card will be in the local language, so if you are travelling to a country where you don’t speak the language you might want to find a store with an English-speaking employee to buy your SIM card from. They should be able to help you through the set-up process and explain how you can top up your SIM.
This way people will be able to reach you easily and you won’t have to worry about missing any important calls.
You will no longer be able to press the “voicemail” button on your phone, so if you want to be able to check your messages, make sure you look up the process. Keep in mind that for many providers this involves calling your mobile number, which will be an international call from your new local SIM.
Researching and buying a local SIM card will be useless if you have no way of charging your phone once you reach your destination.
There are many handy apps to make travelling as easy and fun as possible, no matter what your destination is. Download any apps you want to use, like Google Translate, before you go so that you can hit the ground running without wasting any precious data or time on your trip.
Alternatives to international SIM cards
Can be easy to use
Local provider may not support global roaming
Using global roaming on your current phone can be a quick and easy option for very short trips if your phone is unlocked and compatible with local networks, and your local provider supports global roaming. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive way to use your phone while travelling.
Australian phone networks work on GSM technology. While many countries around the world also use GSM technology, including the US and UK, other countries use a mix of technologies, so it is crucial to check if your phone is compatible with your chosen destination prior to departure.
Travel SIM cards
Cheaper than roaming
You can use the same SIM card in multiple countries
More expensive than local SIM cards
Not available in every country
While local SIM cards are usually the cheapest option for international travellers, travel SIM cards can come in handy if you plan to visit many countries on the same trip. As long as your travel SIM is compatible in every country you are travelling to, you won’t have to get a new SIM card every time you cross a border.
Also, a travel SIM can come in handy if you want to be able to use your phone the second you get off the plane to order an Uber or call your hotel.
Companies like WorldSIM, GigSky, TravelSIM and even Woolworths offer a range of data, text and call options for Australian travellers all over the world.
If you really want the cheapest possible option when using your phone abroad you can always rely on the free public Wi-Fi available in hotels, restaurants, museums and city centres. Unless you are travelling to a remote area, you can usually find at least one place with free Wi-Fi wherever you go.
By using apps like Skype and WhatsApp you can make calls and send and receive texts, but the quality of the connection can be unreliable.
Public Wi-Fi spots usually have strict limits on the amount of data you can use, creating an extra hassle when you have to find another location just to continue a conversation or upload that perfect travel selfie.
Frequently asked questions
It depends. Your phone will need to be unlocked and compatible with the networks of whatever countries you are visiting. Australian phones use a GSM network which is standard in many, but not all, countries around the world. All phones sold under contract in Australia are now unlocked, but if you have purchased your phone elsewhere you may have to pay a fee for your provider to unlock your phone. Also, keep in mind the size of your SIM card. SIM card adapters and cutters are available but, if you can, save the hassle and buy one that already fits.
If you’ve done your research and you know your phone will not work in your intended destination, you have a couple of options. You can buy an unlocked phone online before you go or a local phone when you land, usually at the same place you would buy your local SIM card. A few companies also have options to rent phones specifically for travelling at a variety of rates, depending on how long you will be away and how many countries you will be visiting.
No, so make sure you inform your friends and family of your new number as soon as you get your local SIM. You can also ask them to download a texting app before you leave to make the transition as seamless as possible.
If you know you will need to access your phone as soon as you land, or simply don’t want to spend your precious holiday time looking for a place to buy a local SIM card, you can always buy your SIM card online before you depart. Keep in mind this will be more expensive than buying it locally and may include additional fees and taxes.
Usually, no. Many local prepaid SIM cards will only work in the country in which you purchase them, while others that allow international roaming in other countries usually have extremely high roaming rates. The European Union is the exception to this. If you are travelling to many countries in a short period and won’t have time to look for local SIM cards, you might want to consider a travel SIM.
It depends on when you plan on travelling next. Most local prepaid SIM cards have expiration dates, so if you are returning to the country within that time period you should be able to reuse your card. However, prepaid SIM cards may deactivate if they are not used for a certain period of time, usually three to six months, so you should check the specifics of your SIM card before purchasing if this is important to you.
Some providers have a free number you can call to top up your card when needed, others use websites or apps to make topping up quick and easy. You can also get prepaid phone cards at local convenience stores and simply buy a new one when yours runs out. Some companies have an automatic top up option, allowing you to link the service to your credit card so that your account will be topped up every time it falls below a certain amount.
It depends on the country and the SIM card. Some providers don’t offer any data service at all, others offer 4G service. Rates vary from provider to provider and are usually based on kilobytes used. It is important to check the specifics of your SIM card before buying.
No matter where you are travelling, you should consider buying a local SIM card to make your trip as easy and inexpensive as possible. The importance of having a direct link to friends, family or even local services should never be underestimated.
Your phone is your lifeline, especially when travelling to the far reaches of the globe. Whether you’re a student on a gap year, a group of friends making the trip you’ve always dreamed of, going it alone or travelling with family, local mobile phone plans will leave you with extra cash to splash while on holiday or to simply save.
All local mobile phone plans will require you to have a SIM-unlocked GSM compatible international phone. Contact your service provider before you set off on your travels to double check you have this option.
Sarah Brandon is a senior writer at Finder specialising in technology and reviews. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from New York University and loves learning about why people do what they do. Sarah has researched and written about a wide range of topics, from air purifiers to AirPods. But no matter the subject, her number one priority is figuring out what information our readers need to make the best decisions.
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