I stay connected pretty incessantly while on the road, even on ‘vacation’. I make sure I have internet and phone capability wherever I go. And I do my best to keep the costs reasonable.
I haven’t found a magic solution for that which really makes me happy. There are tradeoffs and downsides to every strategy one can employ — whether cost, too many devices to carry around, or speed.
Here are the tools I’m using so stay well-connected by phone and internet without breaking the bank!
Unlocked cell phone, ‘international’ sim card
With an unlocked cell phone, of the sort you can pick up on eBay for around $20, you can use the phone on any carrier rather than being restricted to the one you bought your phone and plan from in the U.S. Just make sure it operates on the bands that the countries you travel to use. Get a quad band phone and you’ll be safe that it will be usable.
Then you’ll need a SIM card.
You can buy a different SIM card in each destination. That’s often the cheapest if you’re going to be somewhere for awhile. You’re changing phone numbers, and juggling cards. Plus you have to make the purchase each time. And any funds you load on the card wind up stuck there.
More expensive is to use a SIM card marketed as ‘international’ meaning that it is going to give you pretty good, although not the best, rates in many countries. Usually what this means is buying a SIM card with a number from a low cost country with cheap roaming and free incoming calls in much of the world. Estonian numbers are common. I used to use an Icelandic number prior to the financial crisis which was the cheapest I’ve ever found. One reliable provider is OneSimCard.com, and they even give you miles via TravellingConnect.
I get cheaper calls than T-Mobile in most countries, although giving people a different (U.S.) number to reach me at can be consuming for them.
Generally these work on a ‘callback’ basis — you dial a number, then you get a phone call back. Pick up, and you’re dialing. That way you’re getting rates based on incoming rather than outgoing calls.
These cards will still usually charge you more to make a call than to receive one. I’ve stopped the extra hassle myself, but for a long time I used CallBackWorld to turn my outgoing calls into incoming calls. That meant a double callback.
I rarely make calls anymore with an unlocked cell phone and sim, since I now carry an unlocked wireless router so can always make and receive data calls with my regular cell phone.
Unlocked wireless router, ‘international’ sim card
I have wireless internet most places that I go. If I’m in an airport lounge or in a hotel, I’ll have internet and it’s generally free (in hotels, at a minimum, based on elite status).
And that means I can make data calls, such as using a service like Skype, when I’m in my hotel room. I’ve downloaded the Skype app, keep my phone in airplane mode, and turn wifi on and I’m good to go.
But I still need data when I’m out and about. I may want to make calls. I may want to check email. Most of the time I probably just want directions, and to be able to update a Google Map on my screen.
I don’t need a ton of data when I’m not in a hotel or lounge, but I do need some. And so what I’ve been using is Gigsky.
I first learned about them from an email that Joe Brancatelli sent out on their behalf. They were offering subscribers to Joe’s newsletter a sim card that would work in an unlocked wireless router for less than $1, if I remember correctly. So I ordered one and figured I’d give it a try.
They’ll sell you a router, or you can buy one on eBay often for about $40. Stick their sim card into the router, and download their app.
Then when you land in a country, turn on the router. You use the app to buy a data plan. You can select a free 10 megabytes. After that you’ll need to spend for data — the rates vary by country. You select an amount of data and number of days for the data to be valid, they charge your card.
Rates vary but may be $25 for 175 megabytes to 500 megabytes which you can use over 3-5 days. There are cheaper and more expensive plans in each country, and there’s service available in most countries.
You’re roaming on a local network, subject to the speeds of those networks. Generally the slowest speeds I’ve experienced have been 3G, usually 4G (although DC and not LTE). More than one person can use it at a time.
The biggest downsides are:
- it’s not the holy grail of ‘free’ or included in a monthly unlimited plan like T-Mobile offers (although it’s cheaper than AT&T’s new international plans and cheaper than renting a wireless router though that would come with unlimited data which I don’t need).
- the service isn’t available instantly when you turn on the router. It can take a few minutes to connect to a local network, and your selected plan can take a few minutes to register with the network as well to let you have access. It’s not ideal then if you want to use it to get an Uber pickup at the airport.
I don’t think I can live with T-Mobile’s domestic network, or their hobbled international data speeds.
No one has yet come out with the silver bullet that lets me use my single device worldwide at a price I’m happy with and without swapping out sim cards.
If AT&T or Verizon offered T-Mobile’s ‘Simple Choice’ plan, and without throttling speeds down below 3G, I’d gladly pay even a little more than T-Mobile is charging.
So I’m left with relying increasingly on wireless internet, and for now continuing to pay for a few days’ worth of data that I use relatively sparingly in each country.
And I still carry around an unlocked cell phone with a sim card that works well in most places as a backup.
Although I look forward to the day when I can jettison both the extra phone and the extra wireless router. Carrying around a wireless router, my US (Samsung Galaxy S5) phone, and my small extra phone sure gets bulky.
What’s your strategy?
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