Global data roaming
One of the headaches of traveling internationally is how to communicate using our cell phones in country to country. Roaming access (as it is known) can be expensive, whether to make phone calls, send text messages, or connect to the Internet.
In the early days of the Internet, we would visit Internet cafes, or borrow the use of an Internet-connected computer from family and friends. With the advent of WiFi, we could tap our laptops into their home or office network systems, assuming they knew the password (some did not!). Today with our phones, we can access the Internet just about anywhere, even on trains and airplanes.
But connecting with WiFi is uncertain. Systems may be very slow (too many people accessing it at the same time), the login procedure onerous (at Beijing airport, you first need to scan in your passport), the terms too much of a fail (around here Telus offers a mere 10 minutes free after handing over your email address, waiting for an email from them from them, clicking on the link they provide...), or the system is tied into the country's spying bureaucracy (as was revealed to occur at Vancouver International Airport).
As a result, I prefer to access the Internet using my phone's cellular data connection when I travel outside Canada. One login for the entire trip, no matter where I am. Here's what I've done about it.
Roam With Your Home Phone
You can use your cell phone in any country it works in, but the charge for roaming is horrendous, as in the old days of long distance phone calls. Hence the horror stories of $1000 phone bills upon arriving back home. Most cell phone services now send warning texts when usage exceeds your normal limits.
You can pay your cell provider an extra amount to use your phone out of country, at a lower cost, but this still is not cheap. Here in Canada, cell providers charge you typically $5/day for USA and $10 a day for international -- but with severe limits. You can do this only if you are on their most expensive monthly plans, and the amount of data is limited to the regular limits of your local plan.
Europe, as of mid-June, banned roaming charges among EU-member counties, although there is a long list of bureaucratic conditions to be met. It is of no benefit to tourists, as the most restrictive restriction is that you have to live in a country for at least six months a year to use that country's SIM card cheaply in other countries.
The advantage to roaming is that you can keep your phone number, and so people reach you easily. If none of the solutions I've listed so far work for you, then read on.
Roam with a Foreign SIM
I live in Canada and travel mostly in the the foreign areas of USA and Europe, and so I have SIM cards with USA and German phone numbers. The US one I got through Canadian firm Roam Mobility, which uses T-Mobile's network in the USA.
Once you get the new SIM card, through the mail or from a retailer, you register its ID number at Roam's Web site, which then assigns you the new phone number. In some cases, you can choose the number. Then you need to set up the access point name (aka APN) on your phone. The APN tells the phone how to connect to the service provider. The provider's Web site will give you instructions for different phone models, as at this page: https://support.alwaysonlinewireless.com/hc/en-us/articles/115001590323-Mobile-data-APN-settings-for-AOW-Data-SIM
To top up the card before a trip, I go to their Web site, select a plan, specify the start date and time, and then pay. Once a plan is set up, I can extend it by a text message, if need be. For Roam Mobility, unlimited talk, text, and data is CDN$5 a day.
Once you arrive in the country, it can take up to half an hour for the phone to connect with the local service provider. This is the only headache I have experienced with data plans. In some cases, you can get help by texting the service provider, such as getting help in setting up the APN, extending the plan, or wondering why there is no connection (yet).
One limitation is that Roam Mobility is meant primarily for calling in the USA and back to Canada. Other countries, not so much. The other is that your phone has to be compatible with the foreign service provider; these days, most are. To check ahead of time, look up your phone's capabilities at this site: https://willmyphonework.net/ . Here are the results for one of my phones:
The German SIM card I got online through Holiday Phone of Sweden. Allow a few weeks for the SIM card to arrive by mail. For Germany, they provide the SIM card from the discount brand Blau.de. Topping it up through Holiday Phone's Web site is, however, cumbersome, as it does not cater to data users. I have to submit sufficient payment, and then contact them by email to specify data use. As they are Swedish, sometimes misunderstandings arise.
As Holiday Phone provides a service, it is more expensive than buying the SIM card and top-up time in Germany directly. The problem with buying the SIM card in Germany is that German law requires you to provide a local address when registering the SIM card. One workaround is to use the address of a friend or relative who lives in Germany. Holiday Phone provides their own address, and so amusingly I receive emails from Blau.de addressed to "Mr Holiday."
To save money, I now buy e15 topup cards from retailers in Germany, and then through Blau.de's Web site specify I also want data (e10 for 1GB for a month). Blau.de's Web site is, unfortunately, only in German and so can be difficult to navigate; Google Translate is helpful here. As a daughter lives in Germany now, I get her to buy me top-up cards before I leave home; she sends me a photo of the topup coupon (often spat out by the local drug store's cash register), and then I have cell service as I step off the airplane.
In both cases, the problem is that I am assigned American and German phone numbers, so now I have three mobile numbers to give people. The advantage is that the talk, text, and data terms are much more generous than what you get through a roaming plan from your local provider.
Roam with a Data SIM
Before I traveled to Japan, I looked at getting a SIM card with data before I left, but what I found would cost me around $100 for a week. Too much! I needn't have worried, as there was plenty of free WiFi where I was in Kyoto. In addition, Kensai airport bristles with booths offering WiFi tethering rentals.
I no sooner arrived back home from that trip when I received an offer from Roam Mobility: their parent company was offering SIM cards for data-only plans in 90 countries (including Japan, ironically) for 75% off, so I ordered two. AlwaysOnline Wireless offers data by the hour (useful for airport layovers), the day, or by the week. Prices vary, depending on the country. For the USA, prices are as follows:
- $1/hour for 100MB
- $3/day for 500MB
- $8 for 15 days for 1GB (plus other plans are available)
For me, these amounts are generous, as I find I go through 100MB-200MB a week when traveling, primarily checking email, using Google Maps, and sometimes visiting Web sites. No Netflix movie watching!
I have a dual-SIM cell phone, so I can put in, say, the Blue.de card for talk and text in Germany, and then use the global roaming card for data. The phone lets me specify which SIM card to use with which service. The data plan can also be used with programs like Skype and WhatsApp to make phone calls and send texts. When I put $5 on my Skype account, I can call regular phone numbers. (Some service providers block use of "free" services like Skype, but AOW does not.)
For my upcoming trip to Prague, I have set up a five-location plan with AOW:
- One day of data for when I switch planes in San Francisco. (For the USA, a day is as cheap as 3 hours; I picked a full-day's coverage, so if there are flight delays, I am covered).
- Two hours data for when I change planes in Frankfurt.
- One week of data in Prague.
- Two hours of data again in Frankfurt.
- On day of data for changing planes in Chicago. (ORD has free WiFi, finally, but it is impossible to stay connected to it.)
The total came to US31, which I consider cheap for peace-of-mind. For each location, I set the date and time when I want the service to begin. I can top up, when when the plan is empty, using the SIM card to access AlwaysOnline's Web site.
It will be interesting to see if it works out.