Whether you keep your number or choose to buy a local Sim in country will be on your mind as you travel.
When traveling long term you will need to think about how you’ll stay in touch with home. That means having a cell phone and internet connection. In most cases your US carrier will offer an international roaming plan. This often means that when someone calls you from home they pay next to nothing, but when you receive the calls you may pay a connection fee (make sure to ask) and it’s expensive for you to make local calls.
Getting an International Roaming Plan With Your Home Provider (e.g. AT&T, Verizon, etc.)
Renting a Local SIM Card
- Keep your number
- Have guaranteed phone and internet access as soon as you arrive at your destination
- Easy for people to reach you
- All your apps are easily accessible since programmed to your number
- Expensive monthly fees
- Expensive to make in-country local calls
- Could discourage new local friends from calling you, unless you have WhatsApp
- May cost you extra to receive international calls from home
- In-country local number
- Easier to make local calls and less expensive
- Costs less than an international roaming plan
- May have better coverage than your provider
- Another number to hand out to everyone back home (unless you’re carrying two phones or your main phone allows for two SIM cards)
- In some countries, like Vietnam, the process to obtain a SIM card is difficult
What to consider when buying a local SIM card.
If you plan to travel around Western Europe it can be easier to get a local number that works across Europe, rather than buying SIM cards in each country. Check out carriers like Vodafone. Years ago, I bought a SIM card from Le French Mobile – it gives me a French number which I can keep indefinitely, as long as I either use the card each month, or pay a few euros each month, to keep it. I can roam all over Europe and much of the world with that same number. I like this option because I can usually change carriers if signal strength is weak in a small village, and find better service with another carrier, without having to swap SIM cards or numbers.
If you have a pay as you go account, or top up, it’s a good idea to review your bills. Understanding rates in advance isn’t always easy, but your SIM card provider should be able to either direct you to a website or email you current rates. Be aware that it’s very common to get tons of advertisements by SMS message. If you’re using your phone in another country, these can unfortunately eat up a lot of money. Make sure your phone can block numbers.
SIM cards come in different sizes! Make sure you open your phone and take out the SIM card so you buy the right size. Also eSIM technology is in development and might offer you another good option, depending on whether your phone supports it.
As of January, 2019, eSim technology is available in newer iPhones. AT&T is allowing customers to use the eSim for their main number, freeing up the physical slot for an in-country Sim. However, because of how it’s designed, you will lose access to iChat with your US number if you move it to the eSim slot. Because it’s newer technology, you can only pay lots of money to have a universal card in the eSIM slot, or, move your US number to that slot, and then buy local SIM cards more easily.
A word on WiFi Hotspots
To be frank, they don’t work great. I traveled for a while with a TEP Wireless device. Even in Western Europe it didn’t have great connectivity, and with a 1GB bandwidth limit per day, I was lucky to get 30 minutes of usage when I could connect. Other travelers I’ve spoken to have similar experiences. The best thing you can do is try and book accomodation with WiFi, or, if you really need good service, see if you can rent something from a local carrier in-country.