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Alternative to SIM cards

I notice a lot of confusion in these forums and others about SIM cards - the fact the number changes, sometimes you need different SIM cards for different countries, where to acquire them etc etc.

I'd like to suggest an alternative method I have been using, which is cheap and simple. Use Skype with wifi, and keep your United States SIM card with the cell service turned off. This is how:
- Download the skype app on your smartphone
- Set up a skype account. Put about $10 credit in the account. Now you can call land lines in the US and abroad. $10 lasted me about 2.5 months in a 3 month trip last year. I think its a few cents per minute to land lines, and - amazingly - they don't charge you for calling 1800 numbers.
- If you want people to be able to call you, get a skype number - would cost $18 for three months*. Now people can call you from any landline or cell in the world. You also get free voicemail (but no SMS capability).

The above steps will take about 10 minutes. Now, when you are in europe (or anywhere), turn off your data and cellular, go to wifi only. Anywhere you are is likely to have WiFi these days - hotel, airport, restaurants, cafes etc - in fact some entire downtowns now are covered in free wireless networks

If you have a true emergency, and absolutely need to use your phone right this second, and you happen to not be in a wifi zone, you can turn back on the cell and spend the few $ a minute to call

To me the pros of this approach are the low cost, the lack of having to mess around with multiple numbers, sim cards etc. Call quality always seemed good. I think there was only one time I really needed wifi and couldn't get it. The cons are you are not 100% connected at all times (if you can call that a con) but that's what voicemail is for. I used this on a recent 3 month, 17 country trip through the Middle East, Balkans, Eastern and Central Europe and had no problems.

Posted by
66 posts

The problem with your suggestion is you need wifi to use it.

Posted by
4686 posts

Or, get a Google Voice phone number and use Google Hangouts to call for free - just like using Skype but free. Google Voice is only available if you live in the US, though (not Canada I believe). And you get SMS capability with the same Google voice number.

Posted by
5288 posts

An even cheaper method, IF you are willing to forego the possibility of "emergency" calling -- have your carrier put your phone on vacation hold and just use wi-first as suggested; this way you are not paying for your regular domestic service while you are not using it, and there is NO chance of running up big international bills.

Posted by
516 posts

Yes, Skype is a "wifi" method and the benefit is that the other end of the call (i.e., folks back home), can be on any kind of a phone (land line or cell phone).

Another "wifi" method for calling is using apps like Viber, WeChat, etc. However, these methods require that the other end of the call also be on a mobile device with the same app.

Posted by
1324 posts

Actually I also have used viber, and like it, in fact I use it every day to talk to my wife who is currently traveling on her own. They have a service called viber out which allows you to call landlines etc. I highlighted skype simply because they also have the additional ability to allow landlines to call in to your phone, which some people might like.

I also liked the comment about turning off the service - I think it is 8-10 month from your provider and then you get to keep the number. That's actually what I did on the 3 month trip. I just mentioned keeping the service on because most people only travel for 2-3 weeks so its not worth turning the service off probably, and its a good fallback / peace of mind thing I would think for some people.

Posted by
823 posts

These alternatives only cover the voice aspect of the phone. To me, the most important reason to have a local SIM in a smart phone is for the cellular data connection. WIFI is not as reliable (or secure) as you need it to be but fast 3G and 4G data is almost always available when you need it.

I traveled with a fully functional smart phone (overseas) for the first time last fall and I will never be without it again. I was able to get walking, bus and train directions on the fly. Google tourist sights and restaurants on the fly. SMS for taxis. It was GREAT!

By the way, some municipal (public and semi-private) WIFI providers require an SMS text in order to get an access code. One more reason to have a local SIM installed.

In some cities in Italy, later in the evening, to get a municipal bus, you must SMS the bus company with the stop number, number of passengers and at least one bus ticket number. (Also a good reason to have QRC reader installed on your phone.)

Sometimes, WIFI alone just doesn't do it...

Posted by
4686 posts

Kaeleku: "I highlighted skype simply because they also have the additional ability to allow landlines to call in to your phone, which some people might like."

Yes, and to be clear, you can call / receive calls from landlines with Google Voice/Google Hangouts too. (Google Voice as an app won't work overseas; Google Hangouts does but, like Skype, uses WiFi/mobile data, not voice minutes.) The big benefit of Google of course is that calling phones is free - at least calling US phone numbers. Like Skype, you have to buy credit and pay a per-minute rate with Google to call phones in other countries.

I've had both a Skype and a Google Voice phone number for years, and I used my Skype number in Europe numerous times in the past. But since Google Hangouts allows use overseas now, I will probably let my Skype number lapse.

Posted by
4686 posts

Todd, I agree that there's not much reason not to get a local SIM anymore - it's pretty cheap and relatively easy. In Bosnia in May I paid a whopping $3 USD (equivalent) for a local SIM card that I used for almost a week. Of course, the cost varies per country.

If you want to "keep" your US phone number or at least receive calls from it while traveling overseas but also buy a local SIM, there are tricks to do that. One is to forward calls to a Google Voice or Skype phone number while you are traveling. Most cell plans offer an option to forward all calls to another phone number, sometimes for free.

Posted by
1324 posts

Andrew - I hear what you are saying if you are staying in one place, but many of us travel through multiple countries. Your Bosnian sim card likely will not work in Albania, or Greece, or Kosovo or really any of the neighboring countries. Or maybe it will. Or maybe it will but charge a huge rate. Depending on the plan, depending on the network, depending on the bilateral agreements between providers and countries etc. Sounds like a lot of work to me. And with Wizz Air and the other discount airlines flying random routes all over the place, personally my itineraries are getting increasingly bizarre. Last year I had a leg that was Bulgaria > Israel > Jordan > Israel > Cyprus > Bulgaria. My wife has an upcoming trip Bulgaria > Switzerland > Lichtenstein > Iceland > Ireland > Italy > San Marino > Bulgaria. To me its too much work dealing with a SIM in these situations.

Thanks for the info on some of the other providers....

Posted by
4686 posts

No one says you have to buy a SIM in every country, right? On my last trip, I didn't have one in Slovenia (barely there for one day) but I bought one in Montenegro ($5 for a data SIM) even though I was only going to be there two days. I was in Bosnia five days and was driving and wanted a working phone just in case. It wasn't that much trouble.

You're right that SIM cards won't always work to roam in other countries. My T-Mobile SIM from Montenegro did not work in Bosnia at all - but my Bosnian m:tel SIM worked in Croatia. I've roamed in Europe numerous times with SIM cards bought in Poland, Slovenia, Italy, etc. in other countries, and today roaming rates within the EU are capped, so it shouldn't be that expensive to roam.

Anyway, travelers can decide as they go what to do. If they can get by with just WiFi and Google Hangouts, Skype, etc. then they don't have to buy a SIM. If they find they want to buy a SIM, buy one.

Posted by
516 posts

For multi-country trips, there’s another SIM option; the global SIM. There are some companies out there that offer a global SIM that you can use in multiple countries. The rate will be more expensive that what they would be for any one country-specific SIM card, but lower overall than if you were to just roam with your home number/home SIM, and more convenient that purchasing a different SIM for each country, especially if you’re only going to be in each country for a few days. These cards are usually based in an eastern European country, such as Estonia. Two companies that I’ve used are Telestial and OneSim, with good results for both.

Before the iPhone/smartphone, there were phones that offered dual-SIM capacity. I think Nokia had offered one such phone. Whenever you make a call you can choose which SIM you wanted to call with. Such a phone would allow you to use a local SIM and your home SIM all on the same phone.

Posted by
4686 posts

There are still phones with dual SIM slots. I am not planning to buy one, however.

If having one constant number while you roam to different countries is important, keeping your US number and using international roaming may be the best bet if it's worth the cost or the reduction in hassle. T-Mobile's plan is the least expensive but doesn't cover every country (on my last trip, when I still had T-Mobile, they didn't cover Slovenia, Montenegro, or Bosnia.). I think all of the carriers will soon follow T-Mobile's lead and offer cheap international roaming, to the point where buying local SIM cards will be a thing of the past in a few years.

In the meantime: buying a SIM is not that hard, and as noted, you don't have to buy one in every country. If you visit five countries on one trip, maybe you buy one or two SIM cards at most and roam in the other countries until your credit runs out. And you can use Google Voice/Hangouts or Skype if you want one US phone number where people can reach you in every country on your trip. If you make your phone calls to/from the US mostly while you are WiFi and use your local SIM only for short voice calls confirming hotel reservations, your local SIM credit may last a long time. If someone from home calls you on Google Hangouts when you aren't on WiFi, make it a quick call and ask to call them back in a few hours when you get back to the hotel's WiFi, etc.

Posted by
1 posts

Yeap,someone suggested the Wifi connection with internet call.But when you outside for a trip,what if there's no wifi in that area like Africa..
And for different countries,you can check the frequency at : http://maps.mobileworldlive.com/

Posted by
544 posts

Hi Kaeleku,

Very clear and well written instructions.

This is exactly the solution I have personally used successfully to connect while abroad.

Highly recommended!
Nordheim

Posted by
30932 posts

This wouldn't work in all situations, as I've found that the Wi-Fi service can be very "erratic" in some locations in Europe. In some places, even when a connection can be made, the data speeds are very slow and can sometimes drop-out unexpectedly. Even in hotels which provide Wi-Fi, service can be good in the Lobby but just about non-existent in the room.

I never bother to "mess around with multiple numbers, sim cards etc." I use one SIM card for multiple countries and never have to worry about finding a Wi-Fi Hotspot.