Ask Lifehacker: How Do I Get Good SIM Data Deals Overseas?

Ask Lifehacker: How Do I Get Good SIM Data Deals Overseas?

Ask Lifehacker: How Do I Get Good SIM Data Deals Overseas?Hi Lifehacker, I’m soon to be travelling, first to Japan then to Europe (6 weeks in total). I am sick of being stung with stupidly high international roaming rates when overseas, and am looking at a prepaid SIM card option, such as TravelSIM or GOSIM. Call rates seem to be much more reasonable, but data is still stupidly expensive. Are you able to advise what’s the best way to go? As I will be travelling through multiple countries, buying a local SIM card when I’m in that country isn’t really viable unfortunately. Cheers, Steve

Picture by mroach

Hi Steve,

The most useful resource we can point most people towards in this situation is the Pay-As-You-Go SIM With Data Wiki, which we’ve talked about before. No matter what your destination, that can help you identify good data-centric deals. On a purely data level, I suspect that buying a new SIM in multiple countries could still prove cheaper than using one SIM with uber-expensive data options, even if you’re only on the ground for a few days. (Europe has regulations controlling roaming charges between countries, so you won’t necessarily need to switch every time you cross a border.)

Of course, that doesn’t deal with the issue of having to let anyone you want to stay in contact with know a new phone number every time you change SIMs. One way to handle that which I often use is to travel with two devices: a simple phone with a fixed SIM you acquire before your trip and use for calls, and a smart phone for data tasks which works between any data-centric country SIMs you acquire and any free Wi-Fi you can locate. (For that purpose, the Free Wifi Wiki is useful.) It’s not the most completely convenient option, but it is often the cheapest.

Another option is to ditch the phone altogether, take a netbook and rely on Skype combined with whatever free and hotel Wi-Fi you can access for your communication needs. I’m sure readers will have other strategies to suggest in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker


  • The UK is pretty cheap for data, but the continent is still excruciatingly expensive in many places. Last time I was in Spain, you paid 30% sales tax upfront for any calls or data, so a 20€ voucher got you 14€ of calls.

    If your main country is the UK, then you can see if they have roaming data packs which you can use elsewhere in the EU. The problem is that you can’t top up online or over the phone if you don’t have a bank account issued in the EU. So your choices are to pay a lot in advance, have someone in the UK who can do top-ups for you, or find a place which has pre-paid vouchers which interoperate with your phone provider’s services.

    Oh yes and beware the Vodafone automatically puts adult-locks on all its SIMs which will lock you out of a surprising number of websites (or iPhone apps). Make sure you have age ID and get it removed before leaving the store.

  • I spent 10 weeks in Israel, Europe and the UK last year, and spent many months prior to my trip researching to find the best available SIM with reasonable data rates so I could check email etc wherever I was on my phone.

    In the end, I came to the conclusion (as Lifehacker says) that no such deals currently exist. Data is just too stupidly expensive on a global SIM, so if you’re changing countries every few days, it’s not going to happen.

    Best bet is to just get a global SIM with decent call rates (I ended up with eKit because receiving calls was free) and ensure your phone never makes data connections over 3G/GSM. Make use of free WiFi wherever you can – friend’s houses, hotels/hostels where you’re staying, and fast food places and cafes.

    I did pay for ‘net access at some of the hotels I stayed at which wasn’t exactly cheap, but combining the cost of the room and the cost of the ‘net it was much cheaper than getting a room at a place that had free wireless (esp. in London)

    I still have no idea why there isn’t a UK-and-Europe SIM you can get with reasonably priced data, considering that’s a region where there’s probably quite a bit of cross-country travel going on all the time.

  • I haven’t tried this so don’t know if it will work in practice but my idea for the issue of receiving calls overseas is to use skype, a smart phone and a sim in each country with low data rates.

    Forward your Australian mobile to your skype number. Then run skype on your smart phone to receive calls. Also works for calling back to Australia. You receive all calls to your Australian number as if you were at home without paying any roaming cost.

  • I found data was reasonably affordable in Italy with a TIM sim card earlier this year. Forgotten the price now, but it was painless for enough data to last a couple of weeks of map access, emailing, browsing on my iphone. (Around $20?). France, on the other hand, was absolutely prohibitive. Didn’t bother in the end. England was cheap, with great deals from Vodafone and 3. Spent about $AU10, and again had more than I needed for a couple of weeks. The USA was also prohibitive. Gotta say, having a working 3G phone in Italy and the UK was fantastic for doing tourist stuff.

    • What I did is to buy a micro sim for my iPad, and then I just asked Vodacom to link it to my main iPhone data plan so that the data I use gets searhd between the 2 devices and comes off my one main account. Hassle-free!

  • If you’re wanting to BYO handset, make sure you check it’s compatibility with your destinations carriers. If it’s not, not even global roaming will help you.

    As another annual traveler to Japan, I’ve often gone the “borrow-father-in-laws-car-and-mobile-and-repay-in-petrol-and-beer” route, however at the end of last trip, I realised that my new Android phone is GSM/WCDMA (read: compatible with Japanese networks). Since I visit there at least once a year, for no more than a month at a time, and I’d like to be able to keep the same number, I think it was Softbank that offered a pre-paid option for monthly credit but also the number remained viable for 360 days after the credit expired.

  • Agree the best deals are to get a local SIM in each country.

    Mobi Passport ( is based in Australia lets you rent overseas prepaid SIMs before you depart that are pre-activated and ready for use. All have generous or unlimited data plan options (~$20/month). Lot cheaper and easier than finding and buying one overseas.

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