Using A Smartphone Abroad: International SIM Card Vs Local One

Local vs global SIM card – A World to Travel

It’s an age-long question on every traveler’s mind when leaving for the next trip. More important than sightseeing or event entertainment. The answer that assures their survival while away from home for a week or two… Will there be Internet? Which are the pros and cons of getting a local vs an international SIM card?

Ok, maybe this is not the most critical aspect that can bring the greatest importance to a person’s survival in a foreign place. However, the truth remains the ability to keep in touch with family and friends, see your GPS location, post updates on social media, and reply to business emails, etc. are important for any modern-day traveler. And you cannot do this without Internet access. 

For the frequent international traveler that goes abroad for business or pleasure, there are several options to get Internet connectivity abroad. This includes paying roaming fees to your local mobile phone provider, buying a global data SIM card that will keep you connected internationally, or purchasing a local SIM card in the country that you visit.

Using roaming data is not an option for a person who needs to stay connected to the Internet 24/7. We’ve heard many stories of travelers being slapped with huge phone bills after arriving back home from their vacation. Spending huge amounts of money on connectivity is not a smart way to end a getaway. There are ways to get cheaper data when going abroad – like using an international SIM or a local SIM card. Which of these two solutions is the best choice for international travelers? When it’s time to switch from a global SIM to a local SIM? Let’s find out. 

What Type of Traveler Are You?

Before we start our discussion of the best SIM card choice for your next trip, let’s find out for how long you are going to stay abroad and what you are going to do there.

  • A short-term traveler. You leave for a one-time short-term trip for less than 2 weeks. You need Internet connectivity to get in touch with family and friends. So, using an international data SIM card can be the best choice for you. 
  • Relocator. You go abroad for at least 1 month. You are going to stay in one region or location and need regular calling and data capabilities for your smartphone. This is when both global and local SIM cards will work well. 
  • Convenience traveler. The length of the trip is not of the biggest importance to you. Being able to connect to the Internet internationally – this is exactly what matters the most for you. That’s why using an international data SIM card is the perfect choice for every convenience traveler.
  • Nomad will also give more preference to using a global data SIM  card than buying a local SIM every time they arrive in a new place. 

Related read: Is The Digital Nomad Life For You?

Before You Buy a SIM Card

Global SIM cards and local SIM cards are the most efficient and cost-effective ways to access the Internet abroad. Global SIM cards can be bought before your vacation. As a rule, you need to have an unlocked phone to use a global SIM wherever you go. When buying a device through a carrier, it’s commonly locked to that network, which makes it impossible for you to switch to a rival carrier’s plan.

A local SIM card can be bought from most airports, electronic stores, department stores or directly from phone providers. 

Depending on the country and prone provider, local SIM cards offer a variety of options and plans, many of which come with big data inclusions and unlimited local calls. However, buying a local SIM card means that you’ll get a different phone number that can make it more difficult for people back home to get in touch with you. We recommend that you ask your family and friends to install messaging apps (like Viber or WhatsApp) to facilitate communication as much as possible. 

Another condition that you need to mind when using a local SIM is that it needs to be GSM-compatible. Mobile networks around the world run on different frequencies, mostly using two common systems – CDMA & GSM.  If your smartphone doesn’t run on the same system as your destination country, then it will not work in the place where you travel. 

As soon as most countries use the GSM system, your smartphone needs to be a GSM device to use the Internet abroad. Websites like WillMyPhoneWork provide a handy way to check if your smartphone will work in the destination country. 

International SIM card 

As said above, roaming charges can be too expensive for travelers. So, in order to save cash on paying phone bills, people think about connectivity services ahead of time and purchase global data SIM cards. The major factor making an international SIM card different from a local is the way they work in different geographic locations. Unlike a local SIM card that is programmed to work on only one network that operates in a specific region, a global SIM card works on multiple networks in different countries around the globe. 

A global SIM card is a great option for short-time travelers that discover several new locations per year, staying there for 1-2 weeks during a single journey. An international SIM card is also convenient to use during trips in Europe when you visit several different countries in one week. With its help, you can access the Internet immediately upon arrival to a new country. Your SIM card will connect you automatically to a local telco provider, making it possible to run your mobile ride-sharing apps or other applications without the fear to pay immense roaming charges upon your arrival back home.

This is always a smart choice to carry an international SIM card with you for several reasons: 

  • As a rule, international data SIM cards are prepaid. This means that you get a certain amount of data “out-of-the-box”. For example, Keepgo international sim card for travel is delivered with 1GB of global data that remains valid for 1 year since its activation and provides you with the whole year of data use (provided that you refill your balance at least once a year). 
  • You are not bound to a monthly contract. You will always have your smartphone connected to the Internet as long as you have valid data on your balance. 
  • And finally, the major reason why travelers give preference to an international SIM card is their cost-effectiveness. Using a global data SIM card, you can save up to 70-80% compared to the roaming fees you will pay your local mobile phone provider. This is because a global SIM card is programmed to work with multiple network providers worldwide. 
  • Also, buying a local SIM card at the airport is not a good option. You will be charged twice or three times more compared to purchasing a local SIM card in any other location, like an official reseller.

Carry an international SIM card with you when you leave for a vacation to a foreign place. When you reach your destination, it can be a tricky thing to find a local SIM card all at once. So, you can use the data of your global data SIM card for the first couple of days in the country. If you are planning to spend more than 3 days in that place, then you can go ahead and find a place to purchase a local SIM. If you arrive in the country for a couple of days only, then it’s not efficient to buy a local SIM.

Local Number 

Buying a local SIM card is the cheapest way to use the Internet abroad. This is especially true in Asia, in cities like Singapore and Taipei where you can buy a tourist SIM card offering lots of cheap data for a short time. With a local SIM, you can choose a rate plan that will offer you affordable phone calls or an Internet connection, as well as both options in a single SIM. 

The cost of local SIM cards varies depending on the country that you visit and a local connectivity company that you choose. An average cost of 4G data and call in a foreign country makes up about $20 per month. This is more cost-effective than paying roaming charges to your hometown provider since most of them will charge you $20 or more for just a few days of roaming in a new place. 

When you decide to use a local SIM card in a foreign place, there are several pre-departure checks that you should mind before leaving for a trip. 

  • Do your homework before you leave to find out which telcos are the best in the country you are going to visit. A clever move is to read blogs of other travelers who have visited that place or check out social media groups where fellow travelers share their experiences. 
  • Most of the companies want to look at your passport, so make sure that you bring it with you when you decide to buy a local SIM.
  • In some countries, foreigners cannot buy a local SIM card because it’s forbidden or difficult to do. For example, it’s difficult to buy a SIM card in Pakistan, however, when arriving in Thailand you will be invited to get a local SIM right at the airport. 
  • Regardless of the place that you are going to visit, it’s important to know in advance if you will have a signal rather than the cost of phone calls or SMS messages. Even in the USA, T-Mobile doesn’t offer great coverage in rural areas like Montana and miles of empty roads around. 
  • As a rule, you can buy SIM cards at the airport, but this is more expensive than purchasing a local SIM card from a local telecom provider. The best solution is to head directly to the authentic shop or a reputable reseller. This will help you feel certain that you don’t get charged anything extra than the standard rate and your local SIM card won’t stop working straight after its activation. 
  • This is quite logical that when you buy a local SIM card you will have a new phone number. Just for emergency cases provide your family members, close friends, as well as staff at your hotel reception with your new phone number so that they can call you on that number when needed. 
  • Also, do not forget to forward phone calls from the phone number that you use in your hometown to your new local SIM.

When you reach your destination point and buy a local SIM card, there are a few more things that you need to keep in mind to set it up properly:

  • As soon as you buy a new local SIM card, make sure that it works before you leave the vendor shop. 
  • Note down your new phone number and save it on your smartphone. This will help you avoid the hassle when you need to give it out. 
  • Change the language to English (or any other language that you’ve got adjusted to start using on your smartphone) in the vendor shop where you buy your local SIM card.
  • And do not forget to keep your old SIM card in a safe place so that you won’t lose it on your trip. 

Whether you leave for a short-term vacation or you are going to spend several months at a new place, this is always wise to conserve your data usage to prevent extra spending on connectivity abroad. Get ready for your future trip while downloading everything you need in advance. This includes applications, audio and video files, as well as downloading or taking a screenshot of your electronic boarding pass.

Disable push alerts and background data usage for the applications that are installed on your smartphone. They will consume more megabytes of data and kill your phone’s battery at the moment when you least expect it. 

Such tips can be also useful when you use mobile data in your hometown. These will save you from paying extra cash for connectivity abroad as you use an international or local SIM card. 

Final Considerations

So, what SIM will be the best choice for connectivity abroad? It depends on how much time you are going to spend in that place and if you are ready to hunt for an official spot to get a local SIM card there. If you are a “convenience” traveler or go abroad for less than a week, then an international SIM card will be the best option for you. If you go to a foreign country for 2 weeks or longer, then keep an international SIM card with you for the first couple of days in a new place, and buy a local SIM card from a trusted telco provider afterward. By doing so, you will never go offline and avoid extra spending on your trip. 

Bon voyage!

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  1. Cordelia.photojaanic

    HI Team! very useful post as choosing a SIM card and having mobile connectivity is truly a major concern for many travellers.

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