One of the biggest issues we face in our life of full time travel is cell phone data. But then we discovered eSIM packages.
Generally speaking, you have three options for a cellular data when you travel internationally.
- Use your home SIM card and plan. But these can be expensive. Plus, we discovered that even if you think you have unlimited international data included in your plan, you don’t! And data is very slow on most international plans anyway – frustratingly slow.
- Use a local SIM card for travel – but this causes major inconveniences like swapping out SIM cards leading to missed calls and texts. And if you lose your home SIM card you’re out of luck.
- Or you can suck it up and only use data while connected to Wi-Fi. But in today’s connected world that’s really terribly inconvenient.
We’ve tried them all. And none of those options are great.
But we think that the eSIM card is the perfect solution for cellular data while traveling.
In this article we cover:
- The Pros and Cons of Using Your Home SIM for Travel
- The Pros and Cons of Using Local SIM Cards For Travel
- eSim to the Rescue! How eSIMs Work
- Why Airalo eSIM Packages are Perfect for Travel
- How Much do eSIM Travel Packages Cost?
- How is the Coverage and Data Speed With eSIM?
- How Do You Get Started with an eSIM Travel Package?
So read on!
Using Your Home SIM for Travel
Buying an international data plan from your home carrier can be expensive. VERY expensive.
But when we first launched as digital nomads we figured that international mobile data would never be a problem. After all, we had traveled the world for years with our T-Mobile unlimited international roaming plan. It worked ok pretty much anywhere we went.
But as actual full time travelers we quickly realized that just ok is NOT ok!
First, T-Mobile’s international roaming is slow. Sometimes painfully slow. It’s supposed to be a lethargic 2G, but that only seems to be in the case in major cities. In most places we’ve been it’s much slower than that. Even Google Maps couldn’t load in many places so we were always downloading offline maps.
And second, it turns out that T-Mobile’s international roaming isn’t really unlimited, either. After 5 months of nomading around Asia and Australia I got this text from T-Mobile:
I checked the terms of service and sure enough:
T-Mobile unlimited international data roaming is not unlimited at all!
Once you hit 50% of international roaming for ‘an extended period of time,’ you get a warning. If you don’t reduce that ratio then they turn it off.
Using Local SIM Cards For Travel
T-Mobile suggested that I use local SIM cards for travel.
And so I did.
It’s generally pretty simple to find and use touristic local SIM cards. You can buy them at airports, cell phone stores, and even newsstands, bodegas or convenience stores.
The price and data plans are typically reasonable. I typically get 10 gigs of data for $10 to $30 US. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
And the speeds using local SIM cards is typically somewhere between fine and great.
But there are a few of major drawbacks to using local SIM cards while traveling.
First, in many countries your passport has to be scanned or copied and logged when you buy a local SIM card, which is a minor inconvenience.
But more importantly, most phones only have one SIM card slot. This means that I must take out my T-Mobile SIM and replace it with the local SIM.
Which means that I can’t make or receive phone calls on my home phone number. Which can be a big problem.
And far worse, it means I can’t receive SMS texts to my home number. Including 2-factor authentication texts from banking and other websites.
That’s a deal-breaker for travelers!
Oh, and one more BIG downside to using a local SIM card. If you lose your home SIM card (and those things are small and easy to lose!) you are essentially screwed until you can get a new SIM card from your home carrier and get it set up.
That could take weeks if you are traveling afar.
Local SIM Work Around – If You Have Two Phones
So Lisa and I created a work-around.
I changed all my 2-factor authentication to her home phone number. Then I got a local SIM and put it in my phone.
To avoid going over her T-Mobile international data limit, Lisa tethered her phone to my phone’s personal hotspot when she was not on WiFi. So in effect we shared the data on my local SIM but she could still get phone calls and SMS texts on her home number for 2 factor authentication.
This little travel hack of ours worked.
But it was a pain in the butt.
Lisa was constantly losing my personal hotspot and so we’d have to manually reconnect our phones. And if I walked too far away from her she’d lose signal too.
So even with our travel hack, while buying and using local SIM cards is ‘good enough’ for travel, they are far from ideal.
eSim to the Rescue! How eSIMs Work
eSIM stands for electronic or embedded Subscriber Identity Module (SIM).
It’s a relatively recent innovation that acts like a generic SIM card that you can load with a phone and/or data plan.
eSIMs act like any other SIM card and contain a phone number and data plan, letting your smartphone connect to a cellular network for data, calls, and texts.
But unlike standard or touristic local SIMs, eSIMs are built into the phone or tablet and cannot be removed. Instead, you load eSIMs with SIM functionality by scanning a QR code or entering a code on your device.
It’s basically a downloadable SIM card.
And here’s the key: eSIMs allow you to leave your home SIM card in your phone!
We were amazed at how many phones and tablets as well as some laptops have eSIMs built into them. Basically any new-ish phone or tablet. Including ours. You can see the list of devices with eSIMs built in by clicking here.
As for where to find eSIM phone and data packages, Airalo is the world’s first eSIM store for travelers.
Airalo gives you access over 100 eSIMs at the most affordable, local rates from around the world.
We love Airalo because we never have to carry multiple SIM cards or change our number again, no matter where we are in the world.
Why Airalo eSIM Packages are Perfect for Travel
If you aren’t sure you’ll have connectivity when you land in a new country you can buy a local or regional eSIM package before leave on the Airalo app or website.
But it’s just as simple to download and start using an eSIM package when you land using Wi-Fi or your home SIM data.
The free Airalo app is on the Google play and the Apple App store. Just search for “Airalo” and click download when you find the Airalo App.
And then you can easily switch between your home SIM and your local eSIM.
Critically, the dual SIM standby technology in compatible handset models lets you remain connected with your physical SIM and your eSIM simultaneously. You can select which of the two SIMs you use for data connectivity. So your phone calls and SMS texts to your home phone number will still come in while you are using an eSIM for data!
You can buy eSIM cards at-will. And they generally work for a set amount of time. Unlike with local touristic SIMS where you never know when your data will run out, we can track our data remaining in the Airalo app or website.
When this period ends (or you run out of data) you can simply top up the eSIM with more data or purchase a new data package. We prefer to top up on the app because it literally takes seconds to add more data.
And Airalo offers eSIMs in over 190 countries and regions!
Even better, eSIM compatible devices allow you to install multiple eSIMs.
So you can have 1 physical SIM card and 1,2,3,4 or even 5 eSIM plans.
The max number of eSIMs you can have on your device depends on the device and manufacturer.
And while only 1 eSIM can be active at a time, it only takes a few seconds to switch between them on your device’s Mobile/Cellular Settings.
How Much do eSIM Travel Packages Cost?
eSIM plans tend to cost slightly more than local touristic SIM prices. But not much more.
For example, in Croatia we could by a local tourist SIM with 10 GB of data that expire after 30 days for 67 kuna – about $10.30 US. That’s relatively cheap for a local SIM card plan.
An Airalo eSIM for Croatia is $15 US for 5 GB, also valid for 30 days. So the eSIM is slightly more expensive.
BUT, if you are in Croatia for a shorter period of time, you could get an Airalo package with 1 GB of data that lasts for 7 days for only $5 US.
Regional eSIMs are slightly more expensive than country-specific eSIMS. But again, not much more.
So yes, the eSIM tends to cost a bit more than local SIM cards in general.
But eSIM packages are FAR less expensive than buying an international roaming plan from a your home carrier or getting a local plan. And it’s much more convenient than purchasing a physical SIM from a phone shop.
And since you can keep your U.S. number active you’ll never miss an important call or text when traveling abroad.
To us the slightly higher price is well worth the convenience of:
- Not having to physically buy a SIM card at a cell phone shop
- Not having to replace our home SIM card in our phones
- Being able to receive phone calls or SMS texts to our home number
- Never losing a home SIM card again
How is the Coverage and Data Speed With eSIM?
We all know that data speeds vary by location and network. This is true whether you use your home SIM on roaming, a local SIM card or an eSIM.
So far our experience with Airalo eSIM coverage has been excellent. Mostly 4G but sometimes 3G.
I just ran a speed test on my eSIM in my iPhone Xs Max in Trogir, Croatia and was getting 57 mbps.
I have a local SIM card in my Dell Inspiron laptop and it’s getting about 26mbps (by the way, getting a laptop with a SIM card slot is a terrific travel hack – it allows me to access the internet without tethering my laptop to Wi-Fi, a phone or…anything!).
In our overall experience, the speed of an eSIM is comparable to local SIM cards.
And so so so much faster than T-Mobile international data speeds.
How Do You Get Started with an eSIM Travel Package?
Getting started with an eSIM travel pacak is easy. Just visit Airalo’s website or download their app to set up an eSIM package.
It took us less than 10 minutes to get our first eSIM data plan going. And that includes learning how to switch between SIM and eSIM in our phone settings.
Word of warning: follow the instructions for installing the new eSIM package carefully, including potentially finding the APN
THIS IS KEY: Turn data roaming off on your home SIM but on for the eSIM. Or if you have ‘unlimited’ international data go ahead and turn both on. If data roaming is off on the eSIM you may not connect to the data network.
Once you have the app and have configured it once then adding eSIM packages takes seconds.
A Word About the Sign Up Process
When we were signing up, we were a bit surprised and concerned that it asked for our passport information
But we did some research and it turns out this is because certain countries have Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations. Which makes sense, because in some of the countries we have visited we couldn’t get a local touristic SIM without showing our passports.
Airalo uses eKYC, a paperless Know Your Customer authentication process, which is why they ask for your passport info up front.
The good news is that you’ll never have to carry your passport around when you need to buy a local SIM card from a store or newsstand. And there won’t be paper copies of your passport floating around in countries whey you buy local SIMs.
Once you are registered you are ready to purchase a package. You can do so on the website or app and have the data package on your phone using a QR code or alpha-numeric code in seconds!
As noted, we were up and going in about 10 minutes for our first one. The second eSIM package we bough took us seconds to start using.
Bottom Line – eSIM – An Alternative to Local SIM Cards for Travel
Using eSIM card packages from Airalo is a simple and convenient alternative to hunting for, buying and using local touristic SIM card.
You’ll get decent rates, get to keep you home SIM card in your phone and will never lose a SIM card again!
As full time travelers we’re thrilled with Airalo’s eSIM service.