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Consider getting a local SIM card

If your carrier doesn’t support international calling (I have T-Mobile, which does), the cheapest way to maintain a functioning phone is usually to purchase a local SIM card, especially if you’re traveling for more than a few days and you can “unlock” your phone (see what that means here). In short, you take out your phone’s normal SIM card (it looks like a small computer chip) and swap in the local one, which you can usually buy for cheap in an airport or electronics store. When you return home, you simply remove the local SIM card and pop your normal one back in.

In a great post for the New York Times, Geoffrey Morrison offers help finding and using a local SIM card. There are a few things to note, including the fact that your phone number is different while the local SIM card is in, but as he writes, once you know how to do it, your international calling and data troubles will be over (or a least lessened):

“For years that’s how I’ve gotten cheap data in dozens of countries all over the world. I’d arrive in a city, head to a local cellphone company store (like Vodafone, 3, or Orange), and buy a SIM and a month of service. These would have different names, like ‘pay-as-you-go’ or ‘prepaid.’ but in every store I’d just say I was traveling and wanted a SIM for a few weeks, and they all knew what I was looking for. Put the new SIM in your phone (make sure you don’t lose your old one, you’ll need it when you go home!) and you’re all set. If you’re not sure how to do that, the store will probably do it for you. You can be in and out with cheap high-speed data in less than 30 minutes.”

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6 Comments On "Consider Getting a Local SIM Card"
  1. rms|

    Or, just go on vacation and forget about the phone for a while. Let incoming calls go to voice mail. return call only if necessary and consider just emailing back. Catchup in the evening or mornings from the ubiquitous free WiFi with email, Skype, social media, etc. while at your lodging. And during the day use free WiFi available at most coffee shops around the world (but sometimes Skype or equiv blocked).

    Call me a curmudgeon.

  2. Li|

    I don’t want my elderly dad, or caretaker of my elderly dogs dealing with an international number, so I carry a second older iPhone with me to use for my European SIM card. That way I can still check my current phone for messages from dad when I’m on WiFi, and use the other for local calls, data etc. Last time I was getting a new iPhone the trade in value of my older one wasn’t that high, so I just kept it and had it unlocked. I travel carry on only but one extra phone doesn’t take up much space.

  3. Mike C|

    Sonetimes you (or your seller) need to change the settings (Mobile Networks) for your phone. Best to write down what they are before changing. Commenrs??

  4. Steve Sorko|

    Make sure you have all the notifications turned off or they will drain the data sending out and in. I experienced this when I went through 2 Orange Sim cards totalling CAD$40, or maybe it was Euro 40, but either way I only got one or two calls out of it. I bought it from an airport gift shop whereas when I went into an Orange store they knew exactly how i made this expensive mistake.

  5. JHB|

    Better than swapping your SIM card—take one of your old phones. Put the local sim card in that so you retain your US phone number on your newer phone. Your local SIM comes with its own phone number — you would have to let everyone know who might want to contact you. I had an unexpected extra 10 days in Delhi India when my travel companion broke her hip. I lost too many functions with the local SIM in my newer phone . I carry my old unconnected phone ( with contacts and calendar) as a back up in case I kill or lose my good phone. At the suggestion of the hospital IT guy, I put the SIM in the old iPhone 5 and it was great to call the doctor, arrange PT, receive local texts and call the Taxi driver every morning and evening. I now take it on EVERY trip. I can use Uber in Santiago Chile with the local chip and text fellow travelers.

  6. Ernest Lane|

    Won’t this work only if your phone will do GSM, the system other countries use? We use CDMA in the US, and they are not compatible. Some phones are GSM capable, but not all.

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