Ensuring your phone has high-speed data when you travel internationally is a confusing and frustrating process for many travelers—in fact, it’s one of the most-asked questions I get from readers. That’s why I wanted to help remove the mystery around international data plans by creating this guide to the best international SIM cards.
Traveling to Europe? Check The Savvy Backpacker’s Guide To Smartphones, SIM Cards, and Data Plans in Europe, my guide to How To Buy A SIM Card For Europe, and my guide to the best eSIM Data Plans For Europe.
International SIM Cards vs Single-Country/Local SIM Cards vs Global SIM Cards
Choosing the best international SIM card can be confusing because there are a ton of options and each has its own positives and negatives. So let’s start by defining the overall SIM card categories:
- International SIM Cards: An international SIM card is typically a card that covers a region of countries. For example, one international SIM card might cover the European Union, another international SIM Card might cover North America, and another international SIM card might cover a block of countries in Asia.
- International SIM cards can often be purchased before your trip so they can be mailed to you before departure or you can download the eSIM if your phone is compatible.
- International SIM Cards will be slightly more expensive than local SIM cards but they’re more convenient—especially if you’re using an eSIM.
- Single-Country/Local SIM Cards: Single-country SIM cards only work in the country they’re purchased in and they’re typically attached to a local mobile provider—so the speeds and coverage are typically the best.
- Buying a Local SIM is often the most affordable option but you have the added hassle of having to hunt down a SIM Card after you arrive, dealing with language barriers, and you may need to register the SIM before activation (which may require you to submit your passport and provide a local address)
- NOTE: By EU law, any SIM card bought in the EU will work in any other EU country with no extra charges.
- Global SIM Cards: Global SIM Cards are designed to work basically anywhere in the world. For example, you can use the same Global SIM card in France, Vietnam, the USA, and Morocco. Global SIM cards work by partnering with local mobile providers but this means that users are typically given last priority.
- Global SIM cards are notoriously bad. They’re often run by faceless companies with no customer support and they seem to always have connection issues—just do a search on Amazon and you’ll see a ton of negative feedback. You also typically pay way more and get way less data.
- However, I am a fan of the Orange Holiday World SIM card since it’s owned by Orange—which is one of the largest mobile providers in the world but data is limited in some countries.
E-SIM Data Plans vs (Physical) SIM Card Data Plans
Up until a few years ago, you had to physically remove the plastic SIM card from your phone and install a new SIM card if you wanted to connect to a new mobile provider.
However, many modern phones now let you download a digital eSIM to your phone so you no longer have to deal with physically removing any SIM cards. eSIMs are way more convenient because you don’t have to track down a SIM card and you can often install multiple eSIM cards on your phone (in addition to your physical SIM) so you can have multiple plans on a single phone.
Not all data providers currently offer eSIM data plans so you might have limited plan options—but I imagine this will become the standard over the next few years.
What To Look For In An International SIM Card
Are you still confused about international SIM cards? Don’t worry.
Here are some common things to keep in mind when researching and evaluating all the various international data plan options.
Some SIM Card Plans Are Data Only
Every SIM data plan has different terms when it comes to calls and texts. Many are data only—i.e. no calls or texts. Or some come with local calls and text but don’t let you make international calls or text. And others let you make worldwide texts and calls.
Data-only plans tend to be the cheapest while plans that offer worldwide calls/texts are the most expensive.
NOTE: Apple iMessage is sent via data so they’ll work with data-only plans (assuming you’re sending an iMessages to other Apple users). You can also use apps like WhatsApp via data so data-only is typically sufficient.
Not All SIM Data Plans Allow Data Tethering
Data-tethering (i.e. using your phone as a hotspot for other devices like your computer, etc.) isn’t allowed on all data plans so keep that in mind when choosing a data plan.
Global SIM Cards Offer Different Data Limits For Different Countries
Global SIM cards often group countries into different “zones” and each zone will have different data allowances.
For example, “zone one” countries might give you 10GB of data, but “zone two” counties could only give you 5GB of data, and then “zone three” countries might only give you 500MB of data. Check the plan details before buying.
Check The International SIM Card Plan’s Validity Period
Most international SIM cards are valid anywhere from seven to 30 days once you activate your card.
This is something you’ll obviously want to pay attention to since you don’t want your plan to expire before your trip ends. Some plans will let you “top-up” your plan so you can add extra time without having to buy another SIM card, but you’re often only allowed one or two “top-ups” before needing to buy another plan.
Your Phone Must Be Unlocked
Some phones are “carrier locked”—i.e. they’re digitally programmed to only work on your mobile provider’s network. This means it won’t work if you install another network’s SIM card until it’s “unlocked.”
Most mobile providers will unlock your phone if you request it so inquire before leaving as it might require a visit to the store or a few emails/phone calls with tech support.
Best International SIM Cards and eSIM Cards by Region
There isn’t a single “best” international SIM card for everywhere in the world but each region has some good options so that’s why I’ve broken this section down by region.
Orange Holiday World (Great SIM Card For Most Countries In The World)
The Orange Holiday World is a very popular choice for world travelers because it covers just about everywhere in the world and it’s backed by Orange—most “world” SIM cards are backed by no-name companies.
The main downside is that the data plan only lasts for 14 days so it’s not ideal for longer trips but you can top up the card one time for €29 to get another 14 days of service with an additional 10GB of data.
- PRICE: $50
- DATA: 10GB
- INCLUDES TEXTS OR CALLS?: NO
- USED AS A MOBILE HOTSPOT?: Yes
- CREDIT VALID FOR: 14 Days
The Orange Holiday World plan includes 10GB of 4G/LTE data in many countries but there are a few “zones” that have a lower data limit.
Zone 1 (10GB data included)
Europe: Andorra, Azores, Aland islands, Austria, Balearic islands, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canary Islands, Corfu, Crete, Croatia, Cyprus, Cyclades islands, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France mainland, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guernsey, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Jersey, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madeira, Malta, Isle of Man, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Rhodes, Romania, Spain, United Kingdom, San Marino, Sardinia, Serbia, Sicily, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Sweden, Ukraine, Vatican
Other countries: Algeria, Armenia, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Cameroon, Chad, Chile, China, Congo, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Ivory Coast, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Korea (south), Kuwait, Liberia, Macao, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, New Zealand, Uganda, Peru, Qatar, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, USA, Vietnam
Zone 2 (5GB data included)
Albania, Argentina, Bahrain, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Polynesia, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, Nicaragua, Oman, Panama, Dominican Republic, Uruguay
Zone 3 (1GB data included)
Afghanistan, Belarus, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Paraguay, Philippines, Sri Lanka, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Togo, Venezuela
Zone 4 (50MB data included)
Rest of the world
AIS eSIM2FLY Global (eSIM that covers much of the world)
After the Orange Holiday World SIM, the AIS eSIM2FLY Global is another good option that doesn’t quite have as much data but it has the benefit of being an eSIM (so you don’t have to deal with shipping fees).
INCLUDES TEXTS OR CALLS?: NO
CREDIT VALID FOR: 15 Days
Asia & Middle East
- Bangladesh, Bahrain 5G, Brunei, Cambodia, China (incl Tibet) 5G, Hong Kong 5G, India, Indonesia 5G, Israel 5G, Japan 5G, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar (Currently Blocked), Nepal, Oman 5G, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Philippines 5G, Qatar 5G, Saudi Arabia, Singapore 5G, South Korea 5G, Sri Lanka, Taiwan 5G, United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Dubai, Abu Dhabi 5G, Uzbekistan, Vietnam 5G
- Chad, Congo (Democratic Republic Of), Congo Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar Republic, Malawi, Nigeria, Reunion, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda
- Åland Islands, Albania, Armenia, Austria 5G, Azerbaijan, Belgium 5G, Belarus, Bulgaria 5G, Croatia 5G, Cyprus (Northern), Czech Republic 5G, Denmark 5G, England 5G, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland 5G, France 5G, Georgia, Germany 5G, Greece, Hungary 5G, Iceland 5G, Ireland 5G, Italy 5G, Kazakhstan, Latvia 5G, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg 5G, Malta 5G, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands 5G, Norway 5G, Poland 5G, Portugal 5G, Romania, Russia 5G, San Marino 5G, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia 5G, Spain 5G, Sweden 5G, Switzerland 5G, Turkey 5G, Ukraine, United Kingdom UK 5G, Vatican City 5G
- Canada 5G, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico , Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, USA (incl Hawaii), United States Virgin Islands
- Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay
Oceania and Pacific Islands
- Australia 5G, Fiji, Guam, Nauru, New Zealand, Tonga
Orange Holiday Europe eSIM and Physical SIM (Two Great Options For Europe)
The Orange Holiday Europe SIM Card and the Orange Holiday Europe eSIM Card are probably the best all-around options for European data because you get a good amount of data for a reasonable price—and it includes worldwide calls and text.
NOTE: Buy the Orange Holiday Europe eSIM Card if your phone is eSIM compatible since you’ll save on shipping fees and eSIMs are more convenient than physical SIM cards.
Additionally, Orange is one of the largest mobile companies in the world and they have great coverage throughout most of Europe.
- PRICE: $50
- DATA: 30GB
- CALLS: Unlimted in Europe and 1200 minutes worldwide
- TEXT: Unlimted in Europe and 1000 worldwide
- CAN BE USED AS A MOBILE HOTSPOT?: Yes
- CREDIT VALID FOR: 14 Days
Orange Holiday Zen eSIM and Physical (Cheaper Option For Europe)
If you need less data and want to save a little money, check out the Orange Holiday Zen SIM and the Orange Holiday Zen eSIM—both are great all-around options for European data because you still get a solid amount of data for a reasonable price. Both plans also include worldwide calls and texts.
- Price: $29.90
- Data: 15GB
- Service Speed: 4G/LTE
- Calls: Unlimited within Europe and 30 min outside of Europe.
- Texts/SMS: Unlimited within Europe and 200 outside of Europe.
- Credit validity: 14 day
- Data tethering allowed
- Usable on any device (phones, tablets, hotspots…)
- Cards come with a French phone number
Travel SIM World (Multi-Country Coverage)
- Price: $39.90
- Data: 6GB
- Credit validity: Lasts up to 15 days from the first point of activation.
- Calls/Texts: Does not support any calls or SMS. You are not able to receive any calls or SMS.
Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Macao, Malaysia, Malta, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tibet, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA, Vietnam
AIS SIM2FLY SIM Card (Covers Much of Asia)
- Price $19.90
- Data: 6GB at maximum 4G/3G speed in Asia (wherever available)
- Credit validity: 10 days Credit Validity
- Coverage: 24 Asian countries (see below).
Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China (including Tibet), Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Vietnam
China Unicom Asia 12 Days Data SIM (Multiple Asian Countries)
- Price: $22.90
- Data: 4GB
- Credit validity: 12 days Credit Validity
- Coverage: 14 Asian countries (see below).
Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam
MORE TIPS ON USING YOUR MOBILE PHONE INTERNATIONALLY
BUY A PORTABLE BATTERY CHARGER
Using apps like Google Maps and taking photos kills your phone battery so a portable battery is a must-have. I use Anker PowerCore 10000 because it’s tiny and affordable but there are multiple options.
USING FREE WIFI WHILE TRAVELING ABROAD
I think people overestimate how easy it is to find free wifi in abroad. Yes, free wifi is becoming more prevalent throughout the world—however, it’s hard to rely exclusively on free wifi since it can be a pain to actually find a free network when you actually need it.
The best places to find free wifi are McDonald’s, Starbucks, cafés, coffee shops, and hostels/hotels — but getting connected is rarely super convenient, reliable, or fast.
Relying on free wifi fails when it comes to day-to-day stuff like using Google Maps, looking up restaurant reviews via Google/Trip Advisor/Yelp, using random apps, using Uber, booking e-tickets, using email, etc. because these are things you typically do spur of the moment. That’s why I prefer to have the option of having mobile data because having to seek out a coffee shop every time I want to use the internet gets tiring very quickly.
HOW TO LOWER YOUR MOBILE DATA USAGE
Data can be expensive and it’s extremely easy to unknowingly burn through a lot of data because many apps use data in the background. Facebook, email, Instagram, Snapchat… those all constantly use data throughout the day without you knowing it. That’s it’s important to know how to limit your data usage.
USE AIRPLANE MODE AND BLOCK DATA TO SPECIFIC APPS
I’ll put my phone in Airplane Mode because that disables all data (but GPS still works in Airplane Mode). You can also go into the settings and disable data access to each individual app. I’ll go in and turn every off except for things like Google Maps or others that I’ll use more frequently — this way when I turn off Airplane Mode only those apps that will use data. Then I’ll turn Airplane Mode back on when I’m done.
DOWNLOAD OFFLINE MAPS
Google Maps lets you download entire city maps so they can be used offline. As an added bonus, GPS doesn’t use data so offline Google Maps works fairly well (but not all functionality works). Here is a good YouTube video that explains everything.
MAKE CALLS OVER WhatsApp
WhatsApp is an excellent app for free calling and text messages—I’ve found that most people outside the US exclusively use WhatsApp to communicate (including many Airbnb hosts).
MORE TRAVEL ADVICE FROM THE SAVVY BACKPACKER
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This article was originally published by Thesavvybackpacker.com. Read the original article here.