Education, Hints & Tips, Travel

6 Shocking things you need to know before buying an international SIM card

So you are planning to go overseas, maybe to Europe, maybe further afield and you need to keep in touch with home. You’ve heard all about how expensive roaming can be if you take your US SIM card with you, so you’ve done the sensible thing and looked at international SIM cards. Job done. But are all international SIM cards the same or are there pitfalls you should avoid? Make sure you check the following 6 things:

1. Your phone may be incompatible or locked
Your US phone won’t necessarily work in all countries. For the phone to work in Europe it will need to support GSM and be at least tri-band. If it’s a CDMA designed only for US frequencies then it won’t matter what SIM you put in – it won’t work. It’s also possible it’s locked to your domestic US network (e.g. T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T). If so, then you’ll need to get the phone unlocked before you can put in a SIM from a new network. If you call your network they should be able to help you with this.

2. Are Incoming calls free?
In the US, incoming calls and SMS are often chargeable. That’s not always the case in other countries, especially Europe. Therefore if you can choose an international SIM card that offers free incoming calls then you can often stay in touch more cheaply by sending an SMS and getting someone to call you. But be aware – not all countries may be free. Check the call charges for your destinations.

3. Does the phone number you get make you expensive to call?
Every SIM has a phone number (sometimes they can have more than one) which in turn will be registered to a country. Even “international SIM cards” have to be registered to one country. For example, a US number will begin +1, a UK number +44, a French number +33. No matter where you are at the time, when people call you it will be as if they are calling that country. So even though you may be in Canada, if you have French SIM and your family back in New York call you, they will pay for an international call to a French number. If you have one person that may be contacting you a lot during your trip, then it might be worth considering an international calling card for them. Also, not every US landline can make international calls by default. Sometimes you’ll need to get this service unblocked by your home service.

4. Can you check your usage for runaway spend?
SIM cards can be pre-paid or post-paid. Pre-paid is easier to control spend because you can’t spend more than the credit you put on, but they are less convenient because you have to keep topping up. Post-paid provides more freedom but you need to keep aware of your call spend. Some of the best providers, like Cellhire, offer an online way to not only check your usage to date but also download a record of all your calls.

5. Check for inflated call rates, especially to “local” numbers
Some international SIM cards offer really competitive headline rates but these may only be for certain countries and certain call types. Make sure to check the call types for the countries you’ll be visiting. And keep in mind that because these are international SIMs, if you’re in Germany calling a German number this may NOT be a local call. International SIMs typically come from a single network e.g. US or UK and they roam at reasonable rates. Therefore if you have a UK-based international SIM and you’re in Germany calling a German number this is actually a roamed call, not a local Germany-Germany call and it could be more expensive.

6. Beware: Hidden data use in Smartphones?
If you take a SIM which allows data (for the internet and email) and put the SIM into a smartphone (i.e. Android, iPhone), be aware that smartphones use data all the time in the background. Even though you’re not browsing, the phone is downloading the latest mail, twitter feeds and software updates. It may even be synching your photos back to a central server the whole time. If your international SIM card charges for data on a per MB basis, you can easily run up a large bill. Look to choose either a SIM that doesn’t allow data and instead take a separate MiFi product or choose a SIM that has a decent sized data bundle. However, roaming voice and data SIMs with bundles can often be expensive and hard to find.

Hints & Tips, Travel

Mobile Internet with a Personal Hotspot

With the huge upturn in smartphone and tablet ownership there is a near 24×7 requirement to have a mobile internet data connection wherever you are. Whether it’s downloading emails, updating twitter or Facebook status, map navigation, online shopping, Skype or simply finding train times, your iPhone or Android phone is becoming a life essential. When you’re in your home country, it’s not a problem; the networks offers large data bundles and you have your home WiFi networks to rely on. But what about when you travel abroad? We’ve all heard tales of bill-shock and leaving your data roaming turned on with a smartphone can quickly lead to a large roaming bill.MiFi

So what are the alternatives? If your smartphone is unlocked then you can look to swap the SIM card and put in a SIM card for the country you’re visiting, complete with a local data bundle. That’s OK but if you’re visiting multiple countries then you need a roaming SIM card that offers both voice and data (to allow the phone to make calls) and the data allowances on these SIMs are often small and overage quite high. Also, if you’ve got a WiFi-only tablet then this isn’t an option because there’s no SIM to swap.

The most effective option is to take a MiFi Personal Hotspot device with a roaming data-only SIM card. These personal hotspots are about the size of small cell phone and connect to the mobile internet using the SIM inside. They then broadcast the data wirelessly to up to 5 devices in a 10m radius. In other words, it’s like taking a mini version of your home WiFi network with you wherever you go. The access is password protected so only you get to connect. Because devices connect through WiFi, you can connect a phone, laptop and tablet to the device at the same time and you can share it with a traveling companion. Also, because the device is separate to the phone you can use it even if you have a cell phone that is locked to your domestic network. If you use something like Skype to make voice calls then you don’t need to worry about roaming call costs. The MiFi personal hotspots can use data-only SIMs, rather that voice & data SIMs, which tends to give you larger data bundles and better prices on overage.

The units do need charging and when under use tend to last about 8 hours. However, for the traveler this is generally fine since you only need it for bursts at a time. And you can still use the hotel or restaurant WiFi as well.

So if, like me, you feel completely cut off if you’re unable to connect your iPhone to the internet when travelling then the MiFi personal hotspot is an ideal solution.