Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

We Like: Pre-paid international SIM cards

I’m going to Europe shortly for two weeks. A few friends are also headed over, at various points, because a friend of ours—a prominent Apple-related podcaster—is getting married there.

The other day I was talking to Casey Liss, co-host of the Accidental Tech Podcast, about his options for connecting his iPhone when he’s over there. It turned out that his best option and my best option were different, so I wanted to review both. (Apologies to people outside the United States; the details of your best options will probably be quite different.)

My family and I are going to be in Europe for 15 days. For us, the best buy was prepaid European SIM cards from Three, which I have generally purchased from a vending machine in Heathrow airport’s baggage claim, but which are also apparently available on Amazon. For $30, a single device gets access to 12GB of data that’s good in all European countries. It’s a good deal. There’s a catch: Your iPhone needs to be unlocked in order to receive a SIM card from a carrier other than your usual one. Call your carrier, but these days it’s a lot easier to get your phone unlocked—and if you just buy your phone outright or are a participant in Apple’s iPhone upgrade plan, your phone is probably already unlocked.

If you’ve never popped a SIM card out of an iPhone or iPad before, you’ll need a SIM removal tool (it looks like a tiny dagger, and used to come with every iPhone) or a bent end of a paper clip. On the side of your device there’s a little slide-out drawer that’s opened by pushing the tool or paper clip into the tiny hole in the drawer itself. Inside you’ll find an extremely small chip, which is the nanoSIM (they’ve gotten smaller and smaller over the years). The SIM is what connects your phone to your wireless carrier; put in another SIM and your carrier and phone number can change immediately.

Anyway, I bought three of the Three SIM cards, so for $90 my wife, my daughter, and I have essentially limitless data when we’re on vacation. I traveled enough times to Europe without an international data plan to know that not being connected to maps and text messages when you’re roaming is a level of stress that I’m just not interested in experiencing. (Yes, the downside is that if someone calls your phone number, they’re not going to get an answer. My philosophy here is that people who know me, know where I am and how to reach me via other means. Everyone else can leave a voicemail and wait until I get home for a response.)

Anyway, back to Casey. Turns out, he and his wife are only going to be in England for a handful of days. What’s more, they’ve got a bunch of relatives who don’t have iPhones, so they have to communicate via text message. Putting in a new SIM card is bad for them for several reasons, namely that their phone number will change and the Three SIM cards don’t support international texting. The good news is, they have AT&T as their American carrier, and recently the company replaced its ridiculous roaming rates with a “Day Pass” policy that charges you $10 for each day you use your phone in a covered country. For a three or four day trip, it’s probably a better option, since you get to keep your phone number and send text messages back home. A bad deal for us, a good deal for them.

So if you’re convinced that your phone carrier is going to charge you a fortune to use data internationally, you may want to check—it’s possible that they’re offering more reasonable plans than they once were. And if you’ve got an unlocked phone, always consider the possibility of buying a cheap local pre-paid SIM instead. I wish this was easier (and cheaper) than it is, but the situation is a lot better than it was even five years ago.

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