I can't imagine anything drier than writing an article about how to purchase and utilize a SIM card abroad, and yet here I am, because while this is Yawn City USA, it's helpful information that will definitely be worth having if you are traveling for a long period and want to stay connected without relying on wi-fi.
Going forward I will be talking specifically about iPhones because that's what I use and have experience with, though most of these principals apply to most phones and devices in the U.S.
So, if you want to have access to cellular service while in another country, you basically have three options, which are as follows:
- Enable international roaming with your carrier here in the U.S. and use your regular U.S. phone/device abroad.
- Buy a cheap pay-as-you-go phone in whatever country you are visiting.
- Unlock an eligible device here in the U.S. and then buy SIM cards in whatever countries you visit.
Option 1 freaks me out because you can still easily go over your allotted cellular data use without realizing it and come home to a $500 cell phone bill (true story), and with option 2, you are probably ending up with a really shitty device that can't do all the things you'd like and is only really good for emergency calls. So on my month long trip in Europe, I opted for #3, for which you need an unlocked device. Now, more on that.
What is an unlocked device??
Well, Timmy, an unlocked device is basically a smartphone or tablet that you can use with any cellular provider.
How do you unlock a device?
Well, Bobby, typically you purchase a device with a U.S. cellular carrier at a "discount" in exchange for which you are tethered to their network for an allotted period of time, usually two years. Once that time is up, you can request that the device be unlocked, and you can usually do it online or over the phone. Contact your carrier for more details. This process is often annoying, because they don't want you to patronize another carrier, but it's worth it. All that said, if you plan to travel extensively, it's worth hanging on to your old devices when you upgrade for this purpose!
How much is a SIM card and data?
Most places I went, a new SIM card with a prepaid amount of data (ranging from 512mb - 2gb) cost from $18 - $40 US. Often texts and calls within the country were free, so data use would be used for getting online, facebook messenger, maps, etc.
Where do you buy a SIM card?
That depends on where you are, but most European countries sell them in convenience stores (including 7-11) or you can go to a dedicated phone store - Vodaphone, Orange, T-Mobile, etc. I found prices to be cheaper at convenience stores, and people were generally accommodating when I had questions and needed help choosing a SIM card, prepaying for data, and getting everything set up; but if you're unsure, you can just go to a cellular carrier or phone store and they will take care of everything for you (though it'll probably be a little more expensive.)
How does the SIM card work?
Inserting a new SIM card in an iPhone is easy - you'll just need a pin or paper clip to open up the little card slot and then simply remove your old card insert the new one. Activating the card differs from brand to brand, and if you're in a country where you don't speak the language, it'll behoove you to do this part with someone who can translate the text instructions that'll start coming through (or, get salespeople to help you.) Each SIM card will come with its own new phone number that's local to that country, which means you can no longer use this device to make or receive calls from your U.S. number! Once you get it up and running though, your phone will function just like it did at home, which also means that additional charges and rates will apply for using the SIM card outside the country in which you bought it, and for making long distance calls. That is, unless, you buy an international use SIM, which I believe exists but I have no experience with.
I bought a new SIM card in every country (except Iceland) because I was traveling by myself and having that connection for me was a huge weight off my mind. I knew that if I needed to make an emergency phone call or access a map, I could do it almost anywhere. For a solo female traveler, I think it's absolutely worth the cost, and now I have a handy little souvenir collection of SIM cards from 5 countries.
For long-term travel outside the U.S., I absolutely recommend this tactic for a high-quality, low-cost, and worry-free way to stay in touch with people back home and new friends that you make. Also, Instagram, obviously.
For more, super detailed info and FAQ about using SIM cards internationally, check out this TLDR article on CNET.