We’ve all heard stories of unsuspecting international travelers coming home to a bill of hundreds or thousands of dollars, all because they didn’t check the fine print on their cell contract.
While things have improved a little in recent years, using your phone overseas, especially for data or outside North America, can still be extremely expensive.
There is a way to avoid excessive roaming charges, though, and it requires just two things: an unlocked phone, and a local SIM card. Follow a few simple tips, and a world of inexpensive phone usage awaits.
While it’s typically a good idea to pick up local SIMs almost anywhere you’re staying for more than a few days, some countries make it especially worthwhile. Whether it’s due to low costs, lack of free Wi-fi, super-fast speeds, or something else, it pays to buy a local SIM card in these six countries in particular.
New Zealand is a beautiful country, full of towering mountains, lush rainforests, windswept beaches, and slow, expensive Wi-fi. It’s rare to find free Internet (even in hotels), prices can be high, and even when you’re paying a lot, speeds are often slow.
While cellular data isn’t a bargain for the amount you get, it’s still cheaper, and faster, than relying on Wi-Fi.
You can expect to pay around $20 USD for calls, texts and light data usage for up to a month. Given the issues with Wi-fi, though, you’ll likely use more cell data than you would back home. Plan to spend more like $40 or $50 if you use your phone regularly.
The main cell companies in New Zealand are Vodafone, Spark, and 2degrees. SIM cards can be bought at any of the company's retail stores, as well as gas stations and elsewhere. There are also outlets at some of the international airports.
Much like New Zealand, it’s not always easy for travelers to find free or fast Wi-fi in Australia. While you shouldn’t have too many problems using hotel and cafe Internet to stay connected in major cities, that’s not the case elsewhere in this huge country.
Telstra has the largest network, with the highest prices. Competitors Optus and Vodafone have good service in towns and cities, but less so elsewhere. If you’re heading to the outback or will be spending a lot of time behind the wheel, buying a Telstra SIM is the way to go.
You should expect to pay around $30 USD for a package of local calls, texts and moderate data use that lasts a month. Add an extra $10 to $20 if you need more data, or want to make a few short phone calls home.
Thailand is well-known as an inexpensive travel destination, and staying connected is no exception. While free Wi-fi is very common in bars, restaurants, hotels and elsewhere, local SIM packages are so cheap that it’s worth picking one up anyway.
Major carriers include AIS, TrueMove, and Happy, and they’ve all got kiosks at Bangkok airport, where you’ll be sold a tourist SIM package at an inflated (although still inexpensive) price.
For the best deals, walk into a 7-11, FamilyMart, or another convenience store anywhere in the country. Official stores can also help you with more complicated requirements.
If you buy at the airport, $6 to $10 will get you a moderate amount of data, typically with a little extra credit for making local calls and texts, valid for two to four weeks. As mentioned, you’ll get more for your money elsewhere, especially if you use a lot of data. Either way, be sure to always check international call rates if you plan to phone home.
If you want to see what a high-speed cellular network really looks like, head to Romania. Renowned for having some of the fastest fixed Internet speeds in the world, the cellular network is no less impressive.
In the capital, Bucharest, it’s not unusual to see LTE downloads close to 100Mbps, and the 3G network (which you’re more likely to be using if you have a phone from the US) also has remarkably high speeds.
Even better, you’ll pay relatively little for a local SIM package to access that network. For under $20, you’ll have a good amount of data for a stay of up to a month, plus vast numbers of local calls and texts if you need them.
Vodafone and Orange are the major carriers, and you can buy their SIMs from convenience stores, or official outlets in shopping malls and elsewhere.
Nepal is a wonderful country to travel in, with some of the best, most-rewarding mountain trekking in the world. The infrastructure, though, leaves a lot to be desired, with pot-holed roads, frequent power cuts, and exceptionally slow Wi-fi almost everywhere.
Surprisingly, the cellular network is quite reliable, with much higher data speeds – you can make a Skype call without a problem, for instance, which is something you’d hardly ever be able to do on Wi-fi.
There are only two carriers in the country, Ncell and Nepal Telecom, and you won’t pay much to use either. SIM cards can be purchased (with ID) most places you see the company logos, even from tiny hole-in-the-wall stores.
A SIM and light data package typically costs under $10, and you’ll pay as little as 2c/minute for calls back to the US.
Want to stay connected on the beach in Cape Town, or while spotting lions in Kruger National Park? Local SIM cards are reasonably priced in South Africa, and with Wi-fi often having speed restrictions or download caps, picking up one of those little pieces of plastic is a good idea.
The major providers are Vodacom and MTN, and for most visitors, there’s little to choose between them. You can order SIMs online with Vodacom beforehand, which you collect at the airport on arrival. Like most airport services, though, you’ll pay a lot more for the convenience – unless you’re in a hurry, just wait until you get into the city.
You’ll need a passport and your hotel address, but the process only takes a few minutes. Expect to pay $15 to $25 for light to moderate data usage, plus a few local calls and texts.