Why Sim Cards Matter More Than Mifis
Your device is only as good as the service it connects you to
May 6, 2018
Oct. 15, 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.
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Someone got annoyed with me the other day because she asked which mifi or hotspot to get for international travel, and I started talking about sim cards. She said I didn't answer her question. She's right. I wasn't answering the question she had asked—I was answering the question she should have asked.
Mifis don't really matter because as long as it's an unlocked GSM device, it will work in any country you go to, and they only vary in fairly trivial things like appearance, battery life, and how many devices you can connect to it (usually 5). In other words, as long as your mifi is good enough, it's good enough.
Service providers, usually in the form of sim cards, on the other hand, matter a lot. What sim you have will determine how much it costs to connect, how fast your connection is, and whether or not it even works in the country you're traveling to.
I've got a joke for you. What do you call a mifi whose sim card doesn't work in the country you're in?
I guess that's not very funny, is it? That's sounds like a pretty crappy position to be in.
Usually making the wrong choice in service providers is not that big of a deal, because in most places it's pretty easy to just buy a new sim card. I know this is hard to fathom for US Americans who are accustomed to paying over $100 a month for their service and being locked in for more than a year, but most of the time, in most countries, you can buy a local sim card for between $10-30 and it will give you service, including several GBs of data, for a whole month. There have been a few times where I bought a sim card before I knew that service didn't allow me to tether from my iphone (so I could use the internet on my laptop as well, without using a mifi), and had to buy another one. Those were cheap mistakes, only costing me about $15, and just giving me way more data than I normally use on my phone alone. In fact, some people recommend getting 2 sim cards from 2 different providers, in case they vary in terms of location coverage.
A time when making the wrong service provider choice can be awful, is when you've put up a big financial investment on a locked device, like if you're spent $150 on a SkyRoam Solis. If you buy a Solis you are forever obligated to pay for their service, which is more expensive than their competitors in almost every conceivable way. The Solis is more expensive than a GlocalMe device, even though the GlocalMe offers a second sim card slot so you are not locked into their service, lower data rates, and also doubles as a power bank. The Solis is also more expensive than any standard Huawei hotspot device, even though the Huawei will work with any provider, and Solis only works with Skyroam. Buying a locked device limits your choices and usually results in you paying a lot more for it, because they know you're stuck. If you stop using their service you're stuck with a $150 plastic brick, so they can overcharge for service and there's nothing you can do. It sucks.. There is just no reason to buy a device that locks you into a service provider; it's a flat-out bad choice.
So, next time you're trying to figure out how to stay connected while traveling, don't waste your time on the fine points of a mifi or hotspot device. Find one that's good enough—and that "good enough" might be your regular everyday unlocked mobile device, if it's just for you and, maybe one other person. Often I'll just get a sim card that will allow me to tether from my phone, and I'll only get a data-specific sim to put in a mifi/hotspot if I'm going to be using it so much it would drain my phone battery.
Then spend the rest of your time asking yourself the important questions:
- How much data you actually think you'll need—do you really need "unlimited" internet, or just enough to send mail, post pictures, and use maps?
- Which sim cards work in the country or countries you're traveling to?
- What kind of traveler are you? Do you need long term options, or is a 7, 10, or 30 day tourist plan good enough?
If you want to get the right information, you need to ask the right questions. in this case, you should not ask, "which is the best travel hotspot to get", you need to ask, "which is the best travel sim card for where I'm going?"