Over the past couple of months, I’ve left the country twice for work. Being without internet and phone is not an option for me, so I’m forced to plan ahead in these situations; otherwise, I’ll rack up a huge phone bill due to roaming.
During these trips abroad, I’ve used two different methods for maintaining internet and phone service, both of which had their own pros and cons.
The first option was pocket wifi. These are pretty popular, and they’re commonly available at major international airports. I prepaid for mine online for a period of one week.
The cost for this weekly pocket wifi rental was about $100 and it would be delivered to my upon landing by a company rep. I used the free airport wifi and WhatsApp—a useful app for international travel—to text the rep when I landed to set up the rendezvous.
This process was simple, the device was easy to use, and the internet speed was decent. My partner and I both used it throughout the trip and we had no serious complaints. I left my phone in airplane mode during the entire trip and made calls and texts using phone apps.
The only downside was the device’s battery life. The pocket wifi had to be constantly charged, so much so that the company supplied a portable battery backup with it. Carrying around a pocket wifi, a battery backup, and a wall charger ended up being pretty bulky, forcing me to carry a bag around.
The second option I used is only possible if you have an “unlocked” phone. If you do, you can simply go to any local phone store and buy a SIM card to use while you’re in the area.
In my case, my phone was not unlocked, as my provider was very slow in processing the request. Luckily, a friend I was traveling with had an extra phone to use, so this ended up being very easy. We just set up a mobile hotspot on his spare phone using the local SIM card, and I was able to hook my locked phone up to the hotspot.
The cost for this was around $45 for 3GB of data. I had about 1GB left after eight days of using it for most of my internet needs, so it was a good value. If you don’t want to, or can’t, unlock your phone, you could always unlock an old phone and use it as a mobile hotspot.
The benefits to using a SIM card over pocket wifi are potential longer battery life, and a lightening of your load. Plus, it’s usually a little cheaper. If you have multiple people using the same hotspot, however, I’m not sure how long the data would last, which could drive up the cost.
Another downside is that you might have to roam in order to use your phone for directions on your way to get set up with a new SIM card. It helps if you can find a phone store without having to do so.
Both of these are viable options for international travel, and which one I use in the future will likely depend on where I’m traveling to.
May 8, 2017 @ 6:16 pm
As an experienced full-time traveller, I have used both an overseas SIM card and pocket wifi while traveling abroad although I paid much less for those services or obtained it free with the room rental. I would recommend you plan a little in advance for what information you will need prior to arrival where you may or may not have wifi access (driving directions to hotel, rental car info, screenshots of casino locations on a map). Now I’m much more comfortable arriving “blind” even without wifi access. The most important app I use for scouting casinos, Google Maps, can be used in offline mode. If desperate you can usually find free wifi at a coffee shop or even McDonalds.
May 9, 2017 @ 7:53 pm
Great tips. Here’s another one that you may have tried: in some countries, most wifi routers are made by just two or three manufacturers, and it’s sometimes common to keep the default login intact. I’ve had success traveling internationally “blind” and just trying a few default combos on common routers. It’s not ideal, but it works in a pinch, especially if your pocket wifi’s battery is out.
May 10, 2017 @ 8:54 am
I believe that’s a little unethical to use default passwords to access private networks. You may as well build yourself a unidirectional wifi antenna out of a pringles can and aircrack any insecure WEP keys 🙂 Luckily I no longer feel the need to be always connected anymore, and it can be much less stressful that way.
May 11, 2017 @ 11:26 am
That ploy has an added bonus, as there are some great Pringles varieties that you can only find while abroad!
May 10, 2017 @ 12:37 am
T-Mobile provides free data while traveling. I’ve used it in many countries with no issues. No new SIM or special plan needed.
May 10, 2017 @ 1:49 am
Credit where credit is due–phone carriers are getting better about international service. Upon arriving in New Zealand on a trip a year and a half ago, I was pleasantly surprised–amazed, really–to receive a text message on my U.S. phone from my carrier, T-Mobile. The upshot was that I got voice service within New Zealand and to the United States for 10 cents a minute, and data service for no extra charge. And I didn’t have to do a thing–it just worked. This is how it should be in a reasonable designed global communications system, but it’s taking us a while to get there.
May 10, 2017 @ 9:00 am
Google Fi works in 135+ countries and might be a good choice for frequent travelers, especially those requiring a lot of data or text messaging. T-Mobile works great internationally as well and can qualify you for free wifi aboard many domestic US flights.
May 15, 2017 @ 6:22 pm
Good advice all around. Both Google Fi and T-Mobile One Plus plans are excellent, though they have some limitations.
Google Fi is officially only available on phones made by Google (newer Nexus models and Pixels), although once the SIM card is activated it will (mostly)work with any carrier unlocked phone (You need an officially supported phone to activate the SIM). Some non Google phones won’t handle SMS and MMS messages correctly when using a Google Fi SIM.
Google Fi doesn’t offer an unlimited data plan. If you’re a heavy data user (8+GB/month) then Google Fi is not a cost effective plan. The great thing about Google Fi is that you get full 4G/LTE speeds internationally.
T-Mobile’s major limitation is that international data rates outside of Canada and Mexico are capped at 128Kbs for the T-Mobile One plan and 256Kbs for the T-Mobile One Plus plan. If 256 Kbs is enough bandwidth then this plan is a no-brainer; just don’t expect to stream videos or the like. This plan also includes unlimited GoGo-Inflight internet on domestic flights, which is an awesome perk if your fly frequently.
With all that said, if you need 4G speeds and don’t have a Google Fi plan then a local SIM if usually the best way to go.