Buy an International Sim Card in 2018: The Ultimate Guide
A review of 12 cards covering 200+ countries. What's the difference, which to use, and which to avoid?
Dec. 28, 2017
May 3, 2018
This post makes the following assumptions: You are a digital nomad who works online while traveling internationally, you change countries frequently (every other month or more), and you need large amounts of data (more than 10 Gbs per month). If these assumptions do not apply to you, this advice may not, either.
May contain affiliate links.
It's a new year, and your resolution is to finally make that dream vacation you've been fantasizing for years. Just do it already! Go to Kiwi.com, Skyscanner, or whichever is your favorite airline search tool, and buy yourself the flight tickets before you come up with an excuse not to! Don't worry, I can wait.
Welcome back! I'm so excited for you!
Now it's time for reality to set it. Do you even know where you're going? What you'll be doing? And most importantly: how you'll stay connected?!?
I can't help you with the first two questions, but I can definitely help you figure out how to stay online when you travel the world in 2018—whether you're an experienced, long-term, international digital nomad; or a first time traveler.
There are a lot of different ways to get online or stay connected when you're traveling internationally. In almost all cases, it's best to get a local sim card. But sometimes, you might want something that will work everywhere, not just in one country or region of the world. In that case, all the options can start to feel overwhelming. To try to help you figure out what's best for you, we've done the tedious research in the fine print of all the major International phone options available, and which countries they cover.
In This Article:
At a Glance
Chart summarizing each option's main features and effective pricing
Specialized International Sim Card Providers
General providers with international offers (the hybrids)
Which international sim card should I buy? Which to avoid?
At a Glance
Please view with a larger device to see summary chart
|What||Startup $||Phone number?||Text||Tether / Hotspot||Approx $/GB||Countries|
|ChatSim||$30||"unlimited" (max 75Mb)||160+|
|ekit||$29.99||UK, US||$250 - $750||190|
|Keepgo||$49 - $99||$21 - $40||70|
|KnowRoaming||$9 - $29||US free; more for purchase||$100- $650||200+|
|OneSimCard||$40||2 in US, UK, or AU||$250||160|
|Sim4Globe & Speeek||$14||US||$200||190|
|AIS||$30||$5 - $8||15 or 58|
Specialized International Sim Card Providers
ChatSim's claim to fame is unlimited text messages with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and many other messaging apps, all for $30 a year. Sounds great, right? Well, it's not really that simple. For one thing, it's not internet, only chat apps. For another, you need to buy recharges to add photos, videos and calls to your plan. AND they don't tell you that "unlimited" usage is limited to 75 Mb a year, which is very, very limited, by my definition of the word.
Recommendation: Don't even consider ChatSim, it's a scam. Don't take my word for it, read the pages and pages of one star Amazon reviews.
Full disclosure: I have had an ekit international sim card for several years. Ekit is my emergency-backup-plan because it worked in every country I've ever tried to use it in—including US, Germany, Austria, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Ekit used to be one of many callback services, which means that you will place a call with your phone, and the phone will call you back a few seconds later when the call is connected, but they very recently changed their sim card so now it sends and receives calls like any other phone. One thing I like about my ekit sim card is that it gives me a US number that I can use to receive verification texts when my Google Voice number gets rejected. The American number used to be free, but now it costs $2 a month.
Having an emergency phone has definitely gotten me out of a jam or two. The International sim card costs about $30 and comes with $20 credit, but the rates are nowhere near competitive with a local plan. In Singapore I forgot I was using mobile data instead of wifi and burned through $10 of credit in half an hour—so it is only my emergency phone. They don't make it easy to access data rates on their site, but after a lot of poking I did find their international data rate chart, which lists prices from $0.25-0.75 / Mb.
Recommendation: I can personally verify it functions as advertised and can receive texts to the US number, but its rates are higher than its competitors. Consider ekit as an emergency sim card, and get a local sim as soon as you arrive in your target country. The talk and data rates are too high to actually use as more than an emergency backup.
GigSky's sim card is only $9.99 and their data rates are potentially the best of all of the international data options—higher than a local sim card, of course, but significantly lower than any of their direct competitors.
The only thing that might make GigSky a bad fit for someone is:
- They are data only—no talking, no phone number
- They do not rent a device, but they do sell one at the uncompetitive price of $150
- Their packages expire after 1-15 days—best for short vacations, not long-term travelers.
- Their prices are much higher in The Middle East and Africa.
Recommendation: GigSky is perfect for a short-term traveler that already has their own tablet or hotspot. For a short trip, GigSky's prices are great for US and Europe, and decent for Latin America. Prices start to get high for Asia and are highest for the Middle East and Africa, wherein they are $50 for 1 Gb. In the case of Asia, the Middle East, or Africa, one is obviously best off getting a local sim card; but if that is not an option, a rentable device that charges by the day might actually be cheaper than GigSky. GigSky is not ideal for a long-term traveler, or someone who does not already have a device.
Strictly speaking, GlocalMe does not belong in this post, because they are not really an international sim card provider. They sell their own mifi device, like SkyRoam, and then use it to sell you their data packets. Under most circumstances I always say that you have to be an utter idiot to buy a mifi from the same company that wants to sell you data, because they tend to charge you too much for the service, knowing full well that you're stuck and have to buy it from them, if you don't want your mifi to become a useless brick.
But GlocalMe is not most circumstances, for the following reasons:
- Not only is their device unlocked, but it actually has 2 sim card slots, actively encouraging you to use other service providers, whenever it's beneficial to you.
- Their data packets are still pretty well priced, sometimes as low as $2 per GB—which is why they're not afraid to make it easy for you to shop around
Recommendation: GlocalMe is such a great option for the long-term traveler that I named it The Best International Mifi Device in 2018. If you are an international digital nomad or long-term traveler who will get a lot of use out of a mifi device, you should absolutely consider buying a GlocalMe. If you are only going to be traveling for a short holiday, and especially if you already have an unlocked device, GlocalMe may be more of a financial investment than you need.
I like Keepgo. At first glance they seem not too different from the rentable international hotspots I absolutely reamed in another blog post, and maybe I am just responding to a more clever marketing ploy. For whatever reason, the other rentable hotspots remind me of used-car salesman, branding themselves as the smartest way to travel, when their option is really only cost-effective for short trips of under 3 days. The impression I get from Keepgo is that they are real people providing an honest service. Additionally, while their data prices are not as low as a local data sim, of course—nothing international ever is—at an average of $20-$40 / Gb, their data rates aren't significantly higher than going local, either.
So how are they different from their competitors?
- They do not charge extra for 4G LTE, nor do they throttle
- You don't pay daily, you pay for the data you use
- Your data takes a year to expire—so effectively: never.
- They have a referral program, where you can get free data if your friends sign up
- The bad news: They only rent devices from airports in Israel. So unless that's in your travel itinerary, you will either need to buy a sim alone for $49 (comes with 1 Gb credit) to use in your own hotspot device, or buy a hotspot from them for $99, also with a sim and 1Gb credit.
Note: currently, the same Huawei hotspot you get from Keepgo is selling for $99 by itself, so if you are already looking to buy a mobile hotspot, buying the hotspot from Keepgo essentially gives you a reputable, free international sim card with a free 1Gb of data.
Recommendation: If you are looking to buy a mobile hotspot of your own, buy it through Keepgo and get a free international data sim and 1Gb of data. If you are a short-term traveler with your own device, Keepgo may be the cheapest non-local international option for you, or maybe GigSky will be better—that will depend on where you're going, for how long, and how much data you plan to use. Because their data takes a year to expire, Keepgo is the best data sim to have as backup; although if you're going to stay somewhere a long time, you should still get a local sim card.
KnowRoaming is a unique and innovative idea. It's a sticker that you apply to your home regular, home-country sim card. Knowroaming also offers a standard international sim card, which includes a free US phone number, 3G—4G LTE in 60 countries—speeds, plus free WhatsApp data usage. With this sim card, you can purchase an unlimited data pass for $7.99, which works in 104 countries (but might be throttled to 2G after 250 MB per day).
One claim Knowroaming makes over many of its competitors is very transparent pricing. Many of the Amazon reviews of ekit, Sim4Globe, and Speeek, is that people think they run out of data way faster than they should, like they are being overcharged or blamed for consuming more than they have. Knowroaming has an app that you can use to manage your use, as well as let you know about the price for talking, texting, and data, in every country. However, as I'll explain shortly, their data price is actually quite expensive.
Knowroaming customers seem to be a very happy bunch, product-satisfaction-wise. However, multiple reviews mention that it can be a little difficult to get back on your home carrier when you get home, possibly requiring you to reset something on your device. You may or may not be able make a hotspot with a Knowroaming sim card. Also, Knowroaming is not compatible with all devices, so you might want to check the site or email them before purchasing one.
One additional issue, which is a major detraction for me, is that you cannot receive text (SMS) messages on your KnowRoaming number. Their customer service representative told me that texting is currently under maintenance and temporarily disabled, but will resume eventually. However—and this is very important to me—even when SMS is fully implemented they will be unable to receive verification texts to that number. The representative said:
Most companies use an automated texting system in a format called short code. Short code text messages currently are not compatible with KnowRoaming numbers, unfortunately this means that your verification SMS can not be received cannot be received on our platform.
There is no workaround for this at the moment.
I have to say, when I was browsing their country-by-country data rates, I commonly saw $0.15/Mb, which is quite high (about $150/Gb), and as high as $0.30/Mb in Thailand—to the degree I'm surprised I didn't see any angry reviews about the high data price. In my very unsystematic browsing, the lowest price I saw was $0.10/Mb in the US, and the highest I saw was $0.65/Mb in Morocco, which puts Knowroaming on par with the ekit sim card I've been using for years (reviewed above).
In the same unsystematic rate search, I found their talking rates to be right in the middle—often cheaper than ekit and OneSimCard, but higher than Sim4Globe, and Speeek.
Recommendation: If you don't need to receive text messages, and you're somewhat technically minded and don't mind reading the manual or watching a few videos to figure out something new, or otherwise want to reward innovation even if it doesn't necessarily come with an improvement in performance or pricing, Knowroaming is the provider for you. But Knowroaming pricing is pretty mid-range talking-wise, and actually one of the most expensive options, data-wise, so if you're a heavy user you're going to want to replace it with a local sim immediately.
I really wish I could recommend Mobal because they guarantee that the majority of profits go to charity, but I can't. Yes, okay, their international sim card is only $15, but they offer no data and their phone rates are insanely expensive, $1-2 per minute, and only slightly less per text message sent. They do claim it's free to receive a text message, but the number they offer is a UK number, and as an American I often want an American number to verify things with.
Recommendation: If you feel like upping your karma and don't need any data, feel free to pay a ton of money for your phone service, knowing most of it will (supposedly) be donated to charity. Otherwise, skip Mobal.
OneSimCard recently purchased the Telestial website, which was previously affiliated with ekit. OneSimCard is similar to Sim4Globe & Speeek, in that it is a callback service, which means that you will place a call with your phone, and the phone will call you back a few seconds later when the call is connected.
It is important to note that your US, UK, or AU phone numbers expire after 30 days, unless renewed every month for $4.99 per month or $11.99 per year. If you want them to be able to receive text messages, you need to order that service separately; the ignorance of this accounts for many, many, many negative reviews on Amazon. Relatedly, if you want to be able to receive confirmation texts from banks or other financial institutions, you will need to order a special Personal Extra Number (PEN), which costs $9.95 to setup fee and another $49.95 per year. Lots of unexpected details like this are spelled out in their fourteen-page FAQ.
According to their data rates, most of the the time their data is $0.25/Mb on their International Plus and Data & Roam sims (two cards, often same price), but rates can be as low as $0.02/Mb with a purchased data plan (that they don't link to and provide no info on). Very rarely data rates can be as high as $15/Mb (Myanmar)—so make sure you check rates for the country or countries you plan on using it in!
Recommendation: Skip it for now. Honestly it looks like they are a corporate provider that is not ready to sell to the individual consumer. Their site is not user friendly, Their general talk and data rates not significantly better than their competitors, though they do advertise low rates for a data topup that they don't link to or tell you much about... Consider them for 2019, if they fix these problems. For now, nothing makes them stand out among the others.
Sim4Globe & Speeek
Sim4Globe and Speeek are a callback service, like OneSimCard and ekit, which means that you will place a call with your phone, and the phone will call you back a few seconds later when the call is connected. Data rates for Sim4Globe and Speeek are slightly lower than their similar competitors, tending to be around $0.15/Mb in common destinations; but there are some surprises, like $0.59/Mb in Mexico, or lack of service in Thailand. The highest rate I found in my unsystematic, fairly-random rate check, is $2/Mb for Switzerland.
A point well to their credit, when I was browsing their rate to send and receive phone calls, Sim4Globe and Speeek were consistently way cheaper than their competitors. I frequently found prices under $0.10 or even lower than $0.05 per minute, compared to over $0.11-$0.15 for Knowroaming, and $0.25 or more for ekit and OneSimCard.
The services claim that it's free to receive text messages, but multiple negative Amazon reviews claim otherwise, that they were unable to receive confirmation texts to the US number. Additionally, their service does not support MMS.
For some reason, Sim4Globe and Speeek can only be paid for with PayPal on the vendor site, or on Amazon.
Recommendation: Sim4Globe and Speeek are consistently cheaper than their most similar competitors—slightly in data but significantly in talking rates. If you're okay with being unable to receive MMS and not being completely sure if you can receive SMS, they are the best choice for an all-purpose international sim card. Confirm by checking rates in your target country before purchasing.
The International/Local Hybrids
Local sim cards are almost always the best, but the next best thing is international offers from large local providers; plans which in essence a mix between an international sim card and a local sim card. This will probably only work in one region—use it for your European tour only, not the round-the-world-trip—but it can give you prices that more closely resemble a local sim card, without the inconvenience of trying to figure out how to but a local sim card in a foreign country on limited time. The second-best part is (after the low rates), you can order the sim card from Amazon.com and get it delivered to you before you go, so you'll be ready and connected the second you arrive at the airport.
One of these such offers is through Orange, which is not some no-name sim you've never heard of; it's the 7th largest carrier in the world with 263 million customers. Orange offers 10 GB Internet in Europe on 4G networks (Data tethering allowed) sim card for $50. This deal is definitely only for vacationers, not digital nomads, as it expires 14 days after the first use, however you can top up for more data at topup.orange.com.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for European vacationers that use a lot of data. At $5/Gb this is significantly lower than any all purpose international sim cards. Skip it If you are a long term traveler, not going to Europe, or not requiring 10 Gbs of data.
Another offer is from UK-based provider, Three. This deal is more territorially expansive than Orange—it covers 60 destinations including Europe, USA, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore—however it is cell phone only, it does not allow tethering. It gives you 9-12 Gb data (12 in UK, or 9 elsewhere), 3000 voice mins, 3000 texts to use, in a more generous 30 days. The price of this card is $33, yielding a price of only about $3 / Gb.
Recommendation: Three is highly recommended for short-term vacationers that use a lot of data and are going to one of the 60 destinations included. At potentially $3/Gb this is significantly lower than any all purpose international sim cards and the absolute lowest price of anything reviewed here. Obviously, skip it if you are not going to one of the countries listed, and probably if you are a long term traveler, as it will expire in 30 days (so doesn't make a great set-and-forget emergency option).
If you're going to Asia you're going to want to look into AIS, which offers 4 GBs for only $30, valid in 58 countries. Both AIS and Three cover Europe, USA, New Zealand, Israel, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, but otherwise AIS has much more varied coverage, especially in Asia. Countries covered by AIS but not by Three include Argentina, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Colombia, India, Israel, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and The United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, Three is the only of the two that covers Cyprus and Sri Lanka. AIS also offers 3 Gb over 8 days for $16, 4Gbs for $20, or "unlimited" data (throttled after 4 Gbs) for $23; but those sim cards work in fewer counties than AIS's 4 Gbs/$30 sim card—mostly just in Asia.
Considering that their competitors are offering data rates at prices 5-10 times higher, one wonders why I spent so much time talking about anyone but Orange, Three, or AIS. Well, the drawback is that all of these plans are short term, expiring after 8, 15, or 30 days. They are really for vacationers only, not long-term international travelers. A person can buy a sim card from ekit, Knowroaming, OneSimCard, Sim4Globe, and Speeek, and use it almost never, but always keep it handy, just in case. You need different tools for different jobs.
Most specifically international sim cards are pretty much the same as far as data rates are concerned, but they did vary in prices to talk. In the case of Sim4Globe and Speeek, they are exactly identical, and just branded differently. Even with KnowRoaming, I expected it to be very different because there were so many tech bloggers raving about it. But when I compared Knowroaming data rates in various countries I found that they were almost identical to ekit, OneSimCard, Sim4Globe, and Speeek. Not only that, but Knowroaming failed to have the lowest talking prices (they tended to come in second).
In my very unscientific sampling of rates in various countries, if I were to make a rough ranking for phone call rates, I'd say Sim4Globe, and Speeek had lowest prices (less than ten cents a minute) most often, followed by KnowRoaming, which was usually between 11 to 15 cents a minute but sometimes higher, and then OneSimCard and ekit in last, frequently having prices of 25 cents or more per minute.
If you are going on a short trip, or travel a lot but tend to bounce between the same countries, you need to check the rates for each of these companies in those countries before committing to a sim card. If you want an emergency international sim card that will probably work anywhere you are, any of these will be fairly similar to any other, right down to all having difficulty (or downright inability) with receiving texts. The only differences are that Sim4Globe, and Speeek tend to be cheaper to talk, and that Knowroaming has the unusual sticker application, and a user-friendly app. And with Knowroaming, you can purchase multiple phone numbers in multiple countries. Other than that, ekit, Knowroaming, OneSimCard, Sim4Globe, and Speeek are all pretty similar.
If you've ever read any of my other blog posts (or all of this one) you know where I stand on the question of local versus international sim cards. It's great to have an international gadget that can connect no matter where you are, but if you're going to use it a lot you need to be either exquisitely rich or abysmally stupid. Most people who are not James Bond don't need something that will work in 200 countries; you only need something that will work where you plan on using it. Even the slightly price-inflated hybrids like Orange and Three show that the price difference is astronomical: $3, $5, or $10 per Gb with them, compared to $200 or more with the international sim cards. Do you see now why I don't mince words on this issue? Figure out what you need and don't waste your money!
As far as data-only options are concerned... There's no question that GigSky has the lowest prices, outside of a local sim card, in North America and Europe. Their data prices in those regions are comparable with Orange and Three. However, their packages expire after 1-15 days, making them only really viable for short term vacationers. Additioally, GigSky's prices are less competitive in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.
Keepgo has the next-lowest data rates, and their data takes an entire year to expire, making them a better option as a backup for long term travelers. Plus, pretty much all international data sim cards have an offer with the same Huawei hotspot, but Keepgo offers it for the lowest price, making their sim card and 1 Gb of data essentially free. In other words, short-term travelers who already have their own hotspot device should probably opt for GigSky. Short-term travelers who want to buy a new hotspot should consider KeepGo, and then evaluate whether 1Gb is enough, or whether they need to compare data rates between KeepGo and GigSky, to see which offers them the best price. Long-term travelers looking for backup emergency data should opt for KeepGo, regardless of whether they want to buy a new hotspot or keep their old one.
Nobody should ever buy ChatSim or Mobel. There is just nobody for whom either of those is the best option.
So go buy whichever of these options works best for you and your travel style, taking care to make sure your country is covered. But also, you're traveling; don't spend all your time online!