Which International Sim Card Should I Get in 2018?
A diagram to help you figure it out
Jan. 1, 2018
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.
Shopping for an international sim card can be intimidating. Should you rent a hotspot? Buy one? Which provider has the best rates? There's a lot to know, and honestly, when international travel is on the horizon, your phone plan is probably the least exciting thing you have to think about. Fortunately, I already did the tedious research for our ultimate guide to buying an International Sim Card in 2018. All that research yielded a massive blog post I know almost no one will have the attention span to read. So I decided to distill the information even further into a diagram (see above).
Which international sim card is right for you will depend on the answer to a few questions:
- Are you a short-term traveler (under 15 days) or a long-term, lifestyle traveler (ie digital nomad)?
- Do you have an unlocked GSM phone or hotspot that you can put a foreign sim card into, or do you need to rent/buy a device?
- Are you looking to just talk, do you need to talk and connect to the internet, or do you want a data-only internet connection?
- Where are you going?
Considering how these questions overlap, it was actually quite challenging to come up with a good diagram to display it, but I hope my triangular bubble blob above does the trick. To find out which international phone or data option is best for you, just figure out which description fits you best, and skip to the appropriate section below.
Who Are You?
Long Term Travelers (digital nomads)
- A long-term traveler who only wants to talk
- A long-term traveler who wants talk & data
- A long-term traveler who only wants data only
Short Term Travelers (vacationers)
Long Term Travelers (digital nomads)
A long-term traveler who only wants to talk
Obviously no international plan will be able to compete with local rates, and you should get a local sim card as soon as you can when you arrive in a new place. But it's still nice to have an all-purpose sim card for emergencies, and for use in places you won't be staying in very long.
Of all the international sim cards covering 150 countries or more, the one with the cheapest talking rates is Sim4Globe or Speeek (two brands, same parent company). According to their rate calculator, the Sim4Globe and Speeek sim cards work in over 190 countries, and phone calls in many countries cost less than ten cents a minute. Their closest competitor is KnowRoaming, which is usually between 11 to 15 cents a minute but sometimes higher, and then their other competitors (OneSimCard and ekit) rank after than, frequently having prices of 25 cents or more per minute.
As is usual for an international sim card, their data rates are quite high, often around $0.15/Mb but sometimes as high a $2/Mb, which is why they are only recommended for people who just want to talk.
A long-term traveler who wants talk & data
If you want an intentional sim card that will allow you to talk and use data without paying way way too much, your jack-of-all-trades (or jack-of-all-places) is KnowRoaming, which covers over 200 destinations. KnowRoaming tends to cost between $0.11 - $0.15 per minute in many countries, but it can get higher, so please consult their rates in the countries you spend the most time in. Their talking rate is neither the lowest nor the highest, but their data rates tend to be lower than other all-purpose international sim cards, with rates around $0.15/Mb. This is of course a much higher price than a local sim, or even an international data-only sim, but at least with KnowRoaming you do also get to cut down on bill shock by monitoring and managing your use with their popular, user-friendly, app.
Second-place goes to a service to watch in the future: OneSimCard. Their site is very confusing and they don't make it easy to figure out exactly how their service works. But when using their data rate calculator, you will sometimes see excitingly low prices, like only a few cents per Mb with a purchased data plan. But then combing through the FAQ to try to figure out how to purchase the data plan is such a chore, not to mention the mess of qualifications, stipulations, and expirations, makes me disinterested in even trying the service, let alone recommending it. But data rates as low as pennies per Mb on an international sim card does deserve a mention, albeit a convoluted one full of qualifiers.
A long-term traveler who only wants data
In the case of long-term travelers who are only interested in a data sim, the recommendation depends on whether you already have a mifi, or need one.
If you need to get a new mfi, allow me to introduce you to the device I unequivocally crowned it The Best International Mifi Device in 2018. In short, GlocalMe is amazing because it offers great data prices, often competing with local sim card prices, but also offers a second sim card slot within their own device, so it's easy to go local when you want to. Not only that, but the mifi also doubles as a power bank. It's an amazing product. I don't lavish praise easily, but if you read my Breakdown of GlocalMe's benefits and drawbacks, you'll see why I praise it so highly.
If you already have your own unlocked mifi, GlocalMe is probably not for you. In this case, you can buy a KeepGo sim card for $49 (comes with 1 Gb credit). KeepGo's data rates don't vary by country, only by the size of the data package, at prices that average between $21 - $40 per Gb.
The reason that I recommend Keepgo over some of their competitors for long-term travelers is that their data packages take an entire year to expire, making it ideal for something you set-and-forget, using only from time to time when you haven't had a chance to buy a local data sim yet. Some of their more direct competitors, like GigSky, sell data packages that are cheaper per Gb, but only valid for 1-15 days. A long-term traveler buying a short-term international data package is kind of silly because, if I'm going to buy and activate a new data package the second I need it, I will buy a local one. I want something like Keepgo for the emergency edge case where I need right now, wherever I happen to be.
A drawback of Keepgo is that they only cover 70 countries. If you spend a lot of time in a country they don't cover, consider KnowRoaming as a replacement. KnowRoaming's data rates are too high to make them the top contender in this category, but they do also offer long-term set-and-forget service that does not expire so quickly. KnowRoaming also sells an unlimited data pass for $7.99, which works in 104 countries (but might be throttled to 2G after 250 MB per day).
More potential emergency plans are UK-based Three, which offers 1 Gb for $15, or the Asian AIS, which offers 4 GBs over 15 days for only $30, valid in 58 countries. AIS also offers 3 Gbs over 8 days for $16, 4Gbs for $20, or "unlimited" data (throttled after 4 Gbs) for $23. Please note that AIS's cheaper plans work in fewer counties than their 4 Gbs/$30 sim card does—mostly just in Asia.
The drawback to Three's and AIS's plans is similar to GigSky's: they all expire after 8, 15, or 30 days. But 1 Gb for $15 or 3 Gbs for $16 is tough to beat. If you tend to spend most of your time in the countries covered by these plans, you might want to buy the sim cards just in case, stick them your bag, and hope they still work (and you can activate them) by the time you find ourself in a tough spot.
As a long-term traveler myself, it's a little painful for me to be recommending plans that cost about $20/Gb when I know local plans are so much cheaper. But the thing is, sometimes unexpected problems come up—maybe the bus driver leaves without you at the Singapore border, maybe you get off the wrong train stop on the last train outside of Rome and don't know where you are, maybe you get on the wrong shuttle to the wrong airport in Turkey (all of these things have happened to me) and in those cases it helps to have emergency service.
Short Term Travelers (vacationers)
A short-term traveler who wants to talk and use data
Short-term travelers who want to remain just connected enough to navigate a foreign country can do so far cheaper than they think, if they only think ahead. Instead of getting international roaming on your home phone plan, UK-based Three offers 9-12 Gb data (12 in UK, or 9 elsewhere), 3000 voice mins, 3000 texts to use in 60 countries. The price of this card is $33, yielding a price of only about $3 / Gb. However, this deal is for a cell phone only; it does not allow tethering. Additionally, it expires after a month, which is why it is not recommended for long-term travelers.
Prior to purchasing this sim card, please confirm:
- Your device is unlocked
- Your device is GSM (not Sprint or Verizon)
- The country or countries you plan to use it in is one of the 60 covered
If any one of these things is not true, it will not work. If your device is locked or CDSM (Sprint or Verizon), you will either have to go with your carrier's roaming or international plan, or rent/buy an unlocked GSM phone. If your destination country is not one of the 60 covered by Three, you will either need to buy a local sim card (very affordable) or see the recommendations for long-term travelers (less affordable).
A short-term traveler who only wants data only & already has a device
Congratulations! You are the traveler with the most options available to you (and the toughest choice to make)!
The lowest price to get online abroad is from UK-based Three, which offers 1 Gb for $15, 3 Gbs for $24, or 9-12 Gbs for $50. These plans expire after 30 days, but you'll be home by then anyway, so what do you care? They claim to work in any unlocked GSM 3G/4G tablet, dongle, or mobile wifi device, in 60 countries worldwide.
Another option is Asian telecom company AIS, which offers 4 GBs over 15 days 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.
If you're going somewhere not covered by Three or AIS, your next bet is to look at GigSky's international data sim card for only $9.99. GigSky has the next lowest data rates of the international data options in North America, Europe, and Latin America, with rates around $20-$30 per Gb. However, do take note that their rates are not as good in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where they can be as high as $50 per Gb.
If you're going somewhere not covered by Three or AIS, and also too expensive for GigSky, you should really consider taking the time to find a local sim card, or letting us do it for you. In most places it's not hard to find a local sim card that charges less than $10/Gb. Otherwise, you could buy a KnowRoaming international sim card or sticker that you apply to your home regular, home-country sim card. With KnowRoaming you can buy an unlimited data pass for $7.99, which works in 104 countries (but might be throttled to 2G after 250 MB per day). The great thing about KnowRoaming is that they have coverage in over 100 countries, so their data passes may cover a lot of countries that Three, AIS, and GigSky do not.
Just like when buying a talk/data combo sim card, prior to purchasing this sim card, please confirm:
- Your device is unlocked
- Your device is GSM (not Sprint or Verizon)
- The country or countries you plan to use it in is covered
If any one of these things is not true, it will not work. If your device is locked or CDSM (Sprint or Verizon), you will either have to go with your carrier's roaming or international plan, or rent/buy a device (explained below).
A short-term traveler who only wants data only & needs to rent or buy a device
If you are planning an international trip and want to get online wherever you are, but don't have your own mobile hotspot device, there are many rentable "unlimited" hotspots on the market. However, none of them are truly unlimited (they all throttle, usually after 500 Mb/day), and they all cost between $8-$11 per day, which can really add up. Considering that you can buy a basic hotspot dongle for about $25 and buy a 60-country 1Gb data sim for $15 or 4 GBs over 15 days for only $30, renting a mobile hotspot is only the most economical option for trips that are shorter than 4 or 5 days.
If you are going on a short trip and want to rent a hotspot, you could rent a Tep or a SkyRoam device. As long as you are traveling for only 4 or 5 days, you could rent one for somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 or less, depending on how long you rent it. This may feel easier than buying a local sim card, but keep in mind that you still need to deal with (and pay for) shipping the device back.
If you're traveling for a week or longer, and don't already have a hotspot, it's actually cheaper to just buy one, over renting one for that long. If the basic dongle isn't burly enough for you, consider buying a hotspot from KeepGo for $99. With Keepgo you essentially get a free sim card with a free 1Gb of data, because the same hotspot they are bundling with the sim and data sells for $99 by itself. Then it's up to you if you want to continue with Keepgo, or put a different sim card in the hotspot.
If you are going to many places, maybe some that KeepGo does not cover, another option is a GlocalMe. It is slightly more expensive than KeepGo, starting between $120-$150, but it covers over 100 countries, compared to KeepGo's 70, and has some really great features I outline when I named it The Best International Mifi Device in 2018.After you have your own hotspot, you have tons of options to get online, the best of which are reviewed above.
It's Easy To Get Online Abroad
If you're feeling overwhelmed by all these options, relax! It's easy to get online pretty much anywhere you go. You don't need to know everything about international phone plans (that's my job). Only focus on the four most important questions:
- How much time do I need? (ie how much time before it expires?)
- Do I need to rent or buy a new mobile hotspot device?
- Do I need to talk and text or only data?
- Does this plan cover where I'm going?
Answering those questions will narrow your search considerably to only a few options, the best of which are reviewed here above. Just choose which situation best describes you, which option you like best, and then get on with the more fun travel planning!