When it comes to traveling and your phone, it’s traditionally been the case that roaming in another country meant paying hefty per-minute costs to your home provider, often over $1 a minute or more for a phone call. There have long been companies offering prepaid international SIM cards, or global SIMs, to compete with the high prices one would pay by roaming on their home carrier. While the per-minute prices of these international SIMs were better, they still came at a premium, limiting you to use the service only when necessary, and often having to worry about your SIM card becoming deactivated if you didn’t top up the prepaid credit every few months.
The alternative to outrageous rates while traveling abroad has always been local prepaid SIM cards. These are of course still a great option, but they getting one isn’t always practical. For example, sometimes you’re only in another country briefly, maybe for a weekend getaway or even a one night stopover. Sometimes, purchasing a prepaid SIM card isn’t easy, or in some cases, simply impossible for foreigners, as is the case in Japan. And finally, while using a local SIM card makes it easier for locals to get in touch with you, it can make it harder for people back home.
Fortunately, things have changed in the past few years. It’s now possible to find international SIM cards that have rates which are often comparable to local prepaid SIM rates, and which have a US, UK or other phone number which your friends, family or work colleagues can easily use to reach you.
I’ve researched many different international SIM cards, and most of them I eliminated based on one more of the following drawbacks:
- They use an Estonian phone number. This would make it expensive for others to call you.
- High upfront cost. Some want $50 or more for their SIM card.
- Price gouging. This was the number one problem. Some SIM cards had reasonable rates in popular countries, but then would charge an extortionate amount (i.e. over $10/MB data) in others.
After the eliminations I narrowed it down to the following two international SIM cards.
Update: due to reports of severe reliability issues, I no longer recommend this SIM.
This is the only SIM card that offers reasonable rates on minutes, texts and data in every country I looked at, in many cases having the best rates by far – typically countries like Fiji or Thailand where others would implement shameful price gouging.
- Includes both a US and UK number on one SIM, so parties can reach you on either.
- Having a US number means it’s compatible with Google Voice (unfortunately a US-only service)
- You can set your outgoing caller ID to appear as another number (i.e. your Google Voice number)
- Free incoming texts worldwide, including the US (a rarity for a SIM with a US number)
- Data use is rounded to the nearest 50kb (some competitors round to the nearest megabyte)
- The rates section of their websites lists the roaming provider in each country
- In many countries they support roaming on more than one provider
- The SIM card costs only £2.50 shipped worldwide (around $3 at the time of writing)
- Credit doesn’t expire until 420 days of non-activity (so just use it at least once a year)
- Reports of reliability issues (not receiving calls or SMS, data not working)
- Reports of poor customer service
- Reports of it taking a long time to get working service when arriving in a new country
- No data package offerings (though this is reportedly coming soon)
The reliability should be a big a concern for anyone wanting to use this is their primary service. However, the low upfront cost and very reasonable rates in all countries makes this a good single international SIM card, even if it’s just as a backup, and the 420 day validity period is well-suited for that purpose. The fact that you can often choose between two or three different providers in a country means that if your primary SIM isn’t getting a signal, you can try your Piranha SIM to see if you can connect with a different carrier in that area.
- Includes a US number (also available with a UK or Australian number)
- Free incoming texts worldwide, including in the US
- Free incoming calls in Truphone Zone countries: US, UK, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Hong Kong.
- The combination of a US number with free incoming calls is exceptionally rare, both among international prepaid SIMs and even domestic US providers, where you typically pay for all incoming calls.
- Low rates of $.09 per outgoing minute, outgoing text or per MB data in Truphone Zone countries
- Reasonable rates in other European Union countries, i.e. France, Italy or Greece: $.25/minute outgoing, $.08/minute incoming, $.09/text, $.25/MB data. (More expensive than Piranha though.)
- Data use is rounded to the near 1kb
- Prices go up drastically outside of the Truphone Zone and the EU. Examples:
- Fiji, Thailand: $1.15/minute outgoing, $.55/text, $2.70/MB
- Canada, Mexico: $.90/minute outgoing, $.45/text, $4.50/MB
- Wander into Ukraine on a European trip and you’ll pay $1.80/minute and $9.00/MB!
- Higher upfront cost: $30 for the SIM with $15 credit (so $15 for the SIM, which is a lot)
- Expires after 180 days of no activity (90 days if your balance is $0)
- No data package offerings
Despite its cons, the Truphone SIM has to be mentioned for its Truphone Zone countries. It’s a uniquely ideal solution for an American working or studying abroad in the UK, Spain, Australia or another Truphone Zone country, but wants to be easily accessible to friends or family back home. Even for calls to local numbers abroad, the Truphone Zone rates are on par with and sometimes even cheaper than local prepaid SIM provider rates. And with free incoming calls in the US, some US users have been known to use Truphone as their primary service (usually combined with Google Voice).
Here’s a comparison of rates between Truphone and Piranha. Note that Piranha’s rates are billed in British pounds which I converted into US dollars, so they could vary with the exchange rate, in addition to possible pricing changes.
|MB||2.25||.07 or .14 (depending on provider)|
|MB||0.09||.11 or .14 (depending on provider)|
|min outgoing||0.09||.11 (T-Mobile) / .14 (AT&T)|
|min incoming||free||.06 (T-Mobile) / .08 (AT&T)|
|SMS outgoing||0.09||.11 (T-Mobile) / .21 (AT&T)|
|MB||0.09||.08 (T-Mobile) / .14 (AT&T)|
|min outgoing||0.40||.11 / .14|
|min incoming||0.40||.07 / .10|
|MB||4.50||.14 / .28|
|min outgoing||1.15||.22 / .29|
Which one is better?
Update: Since I can no longer recommend Piranha, Truphone is the only option here. Costs may be higher in certain countries, but it’s worth it to have a service that works reliably. If Truphone’s rates are high in a country you’re visiting, you can always switch to a local SIM card.