Whether you use it to stay connected with your fellow travellers, keep in touch with home or surf the internet for maps and restaurant reviews, travel SIMs are a great way to use your phone without relying on Wi-Fi hotspots or spending a fortune on international roaming charges.
But with so many options out there, finding the right mobile package for your needs can be difficult.
In this guide to international SIM cards, we cover the basic benefits of a travel SIM, define the key terms you’ll need to learn, and weigh up the pros and cons of some popular options.
What is a travel SIM?
A SIM card (standing for Subscriber Identity Module) is a small plastic card that is inserted into your mobile phone. It allows your phone network provider to identify your device and the subscription you’re paying for, making it possible to send and receive information as per your phone plan.
A travel SIM is a prepaid card you can use to connect to local networks while overseas. Different to buying a local SIM card when you arrive at your destination, travel SIMs are purchased in Australia before you leave.
Why buy a travel SIM?
Your phone can be a lifesaver overseas, and a travel SIM is one of the smartest ways to use it. Here are three reasons why a travel SIM beats relying on public Wi-Fi, using your existing phone plan with international roaming or buying a local card when you arrive.
1. It’s easier to track your costs
Using your existing SIM card overseas can be surprisingly expensive. In fact, research by Finder found that almost half a million Aussies have returned home from holidays to find they’ve been stung by unexpected global roaming charges from their phone provider.
With a prepaid travel SIM, you’re more likely to have complete clarity and control over the charges you pay for data. Instead of your network provider continuing to charge extra fees as you use your phone, your prepaid travel SIM will simply run out when your allocated data is depleted or when it’s period of validity ends.
Instead of stopping to function entirely when your allocated data runs out, most travel SIMs will fall back to slow download and upload speeds so you can still use the internet for essentials. And if needed, some providers have apps you can use to top up your plan.
2. It’s more secure than public Wi-Fi
Connecting to public Wi-Fi networks can put travellers at risk of cybercrime. Leading antivirus provider, Norton Security, says that “All information on unsecured Wi-Fi is easily viewed by others using the same network if they know the simple tricks that cybercriminals use to eavesdrop on whatever you do online."
On the other hand, a travel SIM connects you to a secure network, so you can use your banking, email and messaging apps with less risk.
3. It gives you flexibility
Travel SIMs can be a simple option if you’re visiting multiple countries during your trip. Whether you’re travelling in Europe, Asia or the USA, you can find options that allow connectivity to local networks in hundreds of countries.
Buying a local SIM card once you arrive at your destination is certainly a better alternative than using global roaming, which can often be expensive. However, it has its downsides too - like having to visit a phone store when you arrive, and not retaining an Australian phone number. A travel SIM can have you up and running as soon as you land, whatever your destination.
Mobile phone glossary
From roaming to recharge and everything in between, there’s a lot to learn when researching the best mobile phone package for you. Before we look into some of the popular travel SIMs on the market, let’s learn the lingo and define some key terms.
3G network - The so-called ‘third-generation’ network that provides internet connectivity, allowing your phone to make and receive calls and surf the web.
4G network - The ‘fourth-generation’ network that provides even faster downloads and uploads, allowing you to surf the web with greater speed.
720p - A measure of video resolution also known as HD (high definition). Travel SIM companies sometimes provide a guide of how much video at 720p you can watch until your data will run out.
Credit - The amount of data, phone calls and text messages you buy from your travel SIM provider.
Data - Cellular data is what allows your phone to connect to a network, browse the internet and make and receive calls and messages. Data is measured in kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB).
GPS - Meaning ‘global positioning system’, GPS is a satellite navigation system that allows you to use digital maps on your internet devices.
International roaming - Using your existing mobile phone provider (e.g. Vodafone) while you travel overseas. Your provider will automatically connect your device to an overseas network through international roaming, but often charge a high price for data.
Mbps - Meaning ‘megabits per second’, Mbps is a measure of your internet connection speed.
PAYG - Most travel SIM companies offer a PAYG (pay-as-you-go) system, which is a contract-free mobile plan where you can buy additional data as and when you need it.
Recharge - The act of topping up your mobile plan with more data and credit.
SIM - Meaning ‘subscriber identity module’, your SIM is the small plastic card that is inserted into your mobile device, connecting you to a network.
Wi-Fi - Technology that allows devices to connect to the internet and communicate with each other.
Travel SIM cards compared
Aussies have several companies to choose from when it comes to finding the right travel SIM card. Here are two of the most popular, with information on pricing, functionality and value for money.
- Simple mobile app to recharge your plan
- 24/7 Australian phone support available
- Free text messaging to other TravelSIM users, even if they’re in another country
- No extra fees to call mobile phones
- Unused credit is non-refundable
- Data packages can’t be shared between devices (e.g. by connecting your phone to your laptop so you can surf the web on multiple devices)
- Extra fees to receive calls from Australia
TravelSIM is a popular option for travellers wanting to send and receive phone calls, messages and browse the internet overseas.
- International SIM cards for every region
- Ability to recharge your phone credit online
- Data-only plans that work on phones and tablets
- Free incoming calls in over 135 countries
- Free incoming SMS in all countries
- Unused credit is non-refundable
GoSim is another option that supports calls, messages and data use overseas. It offers international SIM cards for every region, with data-only plans that charge per MB (megabyte). Unlike TravelSIM, GoSIM doesn’t charge extra fees for incoming calls in 135 countries.
There are countless options for Australians to choose from and we recommend researching customer reviews to find the right package for you. Things to look for when buying a travel SIM include:
- What is the data allowance and how much do they charge per MB?
- Do they offer coverage for your destination?
- What do they charge to make and receive calls?
- What technical support do they provide?
- What is the recharge process?
- Are there extra fees which aren’t clear?
Buying a local SIM at your destination
Purchasing a local SIM card when you reach your destination is an alternative option to buying a travel SIM before you leave. It’s a good choice for last-minute trips, however it does mean you need to visit a phone store when you arrive.
Local SIMs can be even cheaper than buying a travel SIM card, but you sacrifice the ability to be connected from the moment you land. This can be frustrating if you need to use maps to find your way to your accommodation or send a message home to friends and family once you arrive.
As you can see, your phone can be incredibly useful when travelling overseas, but getting the best deal on an international phone plan takes research.
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*Information correct as of 14 August 2018.