What's the Most Affordable Way to Use a Smartphone Overseas?

by  Darren Murph | Dec 3, 2012
iPhone / Farknot_Architect/iStock

Last week, I took a look at the U.S. mobile phone landscape and how the major players compared when it comes to international plans. The truth is, however, that even the best of 'em aren't specifically set up to offer an affordable, long-term solution for those who frequently cross borders but want to keep their smartphones connected. As the business world shrinks and connectivity is expected even in foreign locales, I've found a number of loopholes, workarounds, and small businesses that exist solely to serve the smartphone-equipped business traveler.

The first option sounds pretty simple on the surface: pick up a local SIM upon arrival in a foreign country. Each smartphone that can support international roaming has a SIM card slot – either a full-size SIM, a micro-SIM, or in the case of the iPhone 5, a nano-SIM. Most major international airports now sell local SIM cards that will allow visitors to temporarily connect to a local carrier for voice and data, at rates that beat the pants off of roaming with a U.S. carrier. For example, I was able to get a SIM valid for two weeks in Kuala Lumper International Airport for around $30, and it had 2GB of data on it. That was plenty for keeping tabs on work e-mail, uploading a couple of photos to Instagram, and generally staying connected with what was going on in the world.

In an ideal situation, this is your most convenient and affordable option. You show up, ask the information desk where a SIM rental kiosk is, and you buy a local SIM for the duration of your stay. In every instance, you'll save anywhere between 50 to 90 percent over comparable roaming rates from U.S. carriers. But here's the rub: success isn't guaranteed. Not every airport sells local SIMs, and if you arrive after-hours, you may be out of luck. Moreover, these kiosks are occasionally sold out, as was the case when I landed in Samoa's Faleolo International Airport earlier this year. Perhaps worst of all, there's generally a language barrier issue to contend with, which could add an extra level of frustration to getting the right product and price.

For undeterred jetsetters, those issues may be seen as mere challenges to overcome. But for those who simply cannot leave connectivity to chance, there's iPhoneTrip (my review). They sells SIMs to U.S. travelers who know where they're headed before they depart. You simply surf to iPhoneTrip's website, plug in the dates of your international travel, choose the countries you'll be visiting (or select a "Global" SIM for those massive Eurotrips), and pay online.

Yes, you'll pay upwards of $10 to $17 per day for a SIM, but look at it this way: that's still over half off compared to U.S. carrier roaming rates, and you can rest assured that your smartphone will work as soon as you hit the runway in a foreign nation. No fuss, no unexpected fees, and no returns to deal with once your trip is over. I've used this company on numerous overseas trips, and their service and support is second to none.

Bon voyage!

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