Ah the telephone and Internet when travelling… a little like managing money when travelling, it is a world in constant evolution that we must follow study and test in order to finally find the best solution for the type of traveller we are. I’m pretty bad at this kind of thing and I tend to focus on the easy way out, before I look at it once and for all years later. For example, I was very familiar with the existence of the international SIM card concept, but I had never taken the time to look at it until a few weeks ago… You can also visit www.simoptions.com and learn more about prepaid SIM cards. Here I share my experience with you.
Without wanting to be my old thirty-year-old killjoy, in 12 years of travel, I’ve had time to see the evolution of telephony and the Internet when travelling, to struggle without the Internet, to spend time in cyber-cafés, to use rechargeable phone cards in the phone booth, to run after all the Wi-Fi in the world, to travel without a smartphone, etc. Even if there is still certain nostalgia for the time of the galleys, for those moments when we get disturbed and meet beautiful people, for those blessed moments of disconnection, I cannot deny how much easier my life is today, with all the solutions that exist, especially when working on the road.
How do I stay connected when travelling?
I started by going on a rather relaxed trip, not really worrying about my Internet connection when travelling, except to choose a youth hostel with Wi-Fi as much as possible. It wasn’t always easy, especially in New Zealand or Australia, or when the hostel’s Internet connection was a big joke or when the power went out. Yes, I have very often lost it, because when you have deadlines and you can’t do anything, it can drive you crazy. Burma was a nightmare, but I expected it.
The more I continued to travel and be serious about my freelance and digital nomadic career, the more I began to choose my places of visit and stay according to the connection. This goes for the hotel, for the volunteers, but also sometimes for the country… I could hardly travel long distances in Paraguay or Cuba for example, at least for the moment, unless I disconnect and go on holiday.
So I started to carefully choose the places where I was going, to refuse volunteers who were too isolated, but also to buy local SIM cards to stay connected. I bought my first local SIM card in Argentina, but it was quite expensive, so I only took it “just in case” to connect quickly or call if necessary. Being hitchhiking across Patagonia, this seemed essential to me. Gradually, I started buying local SIM cards when I stayed in the country for a long time, when it was cheap or when I had a specific need for work while roaming.
I have tested the purchase of SIM cards in Bali, the United States, Thailand, Japan, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Bosnia, Croatia, Germany, Canada and of course also in France (because no, I don’t have a package, since I haven’t been in France in a sustainable way for more than 8 years!) I can only hide from you depending on the country, the purchase of a local SIM card is more or less complicated: In the United States, I had to go to the store, have a passport and pay a very, very high price; in Canada, I had to put a friend’s address, sign a contract and the termination was a waiting puzzle on the phone; in Japan, the termination was also complicated and I had to pay an extra month when I was no longer there; in Bali, I had made a lot of enquiries, because there were many scams and price variations x 10; if the other countries listed were very easy, I think Germany wins the prize: I was there for a week for work, and after buying a SIM card in a phone store, you had to activate it online, then print a paper, have it certified at La Poste and send it, then wait for activation! A real obstacle course!
I also tested the Pocket Wi-Fi system in France and Japan, which I found very interesting because we can have the device sent to our first hotel and go on the roads with it, then send it back by La Poste when we leave. Sometimes, Airbnb hosting offers this system so that you can have the Internet everywhere with you.
Disadvantages of local SIM cards
When I move to a new country for more than a month, it is always easier for me to buy a local sim card, especially if I have time to do the paperwork, but it is not always the ideal solution and there are some disadvantages. I will continue to purchase local SIM cards on a regular basis, but this may not be appropriate for all needs and/or all travellers.
Here are some disadvantages of the local SIM card to note: as I mentioned above, the registration and termination processes are sometimes cumbersome and convoluted, prices are sometimes prohibitive, search and waiting times in telephone shops are long… It should also be noted that, by using a local SIM card as soon as I change countries, I change my phone number: it is therefore impossible for me to give a number to a relative, a customer or an administration, because there is a good chance that I would have changed it a few weeks later. This leads to another important problem: I don’t have a stable phone number to give to my bank and when I have to make an online purchase (plane ticket, hotel reservation, etc.), I can’t receive the verification text message (my current solution is to put my father’s phone number and call him when I make an online purchase to get the text message code… I don’t tell you the logistics behind it, especially with time difference!) Another problem, Whatsapp, which is associated with my Argentine phone number for the moment and has been for 3 years… nobody, has taken it back, hoping it will last!
I often buy local SIM cards with only Internet data, telling myself that I can always call by Skype in case of an emergency (with the extra credit I add to my Skype account, I can call phones and mobiles). Except that if you find yourself in a car breakdown or other emergency, far from the 4G network or the Internet, your local SIM card won’t be useful for much (real life story!)
Finally, if my loved ones want to reach me urgently and I am far from an Internet connection, they cannot do so and it is not at all reassuring for them. I have already found myself in this situation and it certainly wouldn’t have made much difference, but I was far from Wi-Fi when my father had to call me about my mom’s death and it took him several hours to reach me. I had warned him a few days before that I might not have Internet for a week in Paraguay and fortunately I had Wi-Fi. In short, I know that if I had a stable phone number, it would be reassuring for many people, for my relatives abroad and for me to manage emergencies.
The last small problem with local SIM cards, even if it’s only an anecdote: if you arrive in a new country by public transport (and not at the airport), as I often do, you arrive without the Internet and you have absolutely no idea where you’re going. If you need to send a short text message to someone to let them know you are coming, check your location on a map or something else, it’s always a good idea to have a solution before you buy a local SIM card!
The specific case of the European Union and roaming
As you no doubt know, the end of roaming charges in the European Union has changed the game for travel and telephony within the European Union. No more expensive bills and having to monitor your consumption at the second loan! But is that really the case? To some extent, this is true, but remembers to study your contract and what is offered by your operator. I would be surprised if you could surf unlimitedly (in terms of data and time), thanks to your French package. There are always limits, in terms of gigas, text messages, and calls and of course depending on the time you spend outside France. Study your contract, the price of calls per minute and compare it with the price of local SIM cards and international SIM cards and you might be surprised. And yes, there are even limits with Free; otherwise it would be too easy!
As I told you a little earlier, I don’t have a French Package and I will study the issue in a few weeks, since I will be in France more regularly, and I will come back to tell you what it is in more detail. I let you make a comparison between the international SIM card tested below and your operator and you will immediately see the possible savings!