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How To Choose An International SIM Card: A Short Guide and The Ultimate Guide.

The World's Shortest SIM CARD Guide: 4 questions, 161 words.

1. Why do I need an international SIM card when I travel?

By inserting the right SIM card into your phone, you will avoid roaming charges, saving 50-90% on talk, text and data.

2. Will my phone work when I travel?

It will if you have a world cell phone (quad band GSM.) If your phone is unlocked, you can insert any SIM card, ensuring you always get the best rates, no matter where you travel.

3. Should I buy a SIM card before I leave home?

Yes. (Local SIM cards are designed for locals; rates back to North America are expensive. The SIM cards you purchase in North America are designed for tourists and business travelers. You get cheap local calls when you arrive and great rates back to the US and Canada.)

4. Do I need a data plan on my SIM card?

If you're going to check email or surf the web, a data plan will save you money.

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Video: How To Avoid Roaming Charges Using a SIM Card

In this short video, three travellers - Domenic Scuglia, Principal St. Maximillan Kolbe Catholic High School, Iain Macmillan, Editor Ski Canada Magazine and Cam Waters, Coordinator of Music Education, University of Toronto - discuss how they used SIM cards and advice they have for others who'd like to avoid roaming charges.

How to choose an international SIM card: the world's ultimate guide

1. Why do I need a SIM card when I travel?

  1. An international SIM card allows you to avoid outrageous roaming fees.
  2. You can avoid an expensive bill which can total hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
  3. You can make - and receive - affordable business calls when you travel.
  4. While on vacation, you can stay in touch with friends and family, without paying a fortune.
  5. You can send and receive affordable texts.
  6. With a small data plan you can affordably check your email.
  7. With a large International data plan you can use your smartphone and tablet, the same way you do at home - surf the web, update your Facebook status, tweet, watch YouTube videos, upload photos and download documents - for a little bit more than you pay at home.

2. Will my phone work when I arrive?

It depends on what type of phone you have, and where you are going. To determine whether or not you can avoid roaming charges with your current phone, you need to answer three questions.

  1. Is your phone GSM or CDMA?

    There are two types of cellular transmission technologies: CDMA and GSM. Sprint - and a number of other US carriers - use CDMA. Most of the world uses GSM. To use your cell phone in Europe, and most countries, you will need a GSM phone.

  2. Do you have a quad band GSM phone?

    Different cell companies transmit on different GSM bandwidths. All you need to know is that a dual or tri-band phone won't work everywhere in the world. A quad band phone will (except in Japan and Korea which have their own unique standard.) Most modern smart phones - like the iPhone - are quad band GSM world phones. Most inexpensive phones are dual band. Frequent travelers with a CDMA phone or a dual band GSM phone should consider getting a GSM quad band phone. For a single trip, investigate if your dual band phone will work in your destination.

  3. Is your phone is locked or unlocked?

    You can NOT use a SIM card in a locked phone. Most phones that come with a contract are locked. Some cell companies will unlock your phone for you. Many will not. You can have someone unlock your phone for you: or do it yourself. Unlocking your iPhone by using a tethered jailbreak, is temporary. (When you upgrade your operating system, your phone will relock.) There are problems with unlocked phones: including shorter battery life. Some people are very happy with their unlocked phone, but many are not.

An inexpensive GSM quad band travel phone is a great option for any traveler who doesn't want to unlock their phone.

3. If I need an unlocked travel phone, how do I choose one?

Purchasing an unlocked GSM travel phone allows you to always use the SIM card that's best for you. (In fact, many companies have a pool of unlocked cell phones they distribute amongst traveling employees, so the company can always pay the lowest voice, text and data rates.) Individual tourists can also afford this extremely convenient solution.

The most affordable travel phone offers voice and text functionality. (It's great for staying in touch and emergency communication.) For $40 you can purchase an unlocked travel phone that works in North, Central and South America, or an unlocked travel phone that works in the rest of the world.

For $99 you can obtain a world phone: an unlocked quad band phone that works everywhere in the world (except Korea and Japan which operate on an unique frequency.)

If you text heavily, or reply to a lot of emails, you'll need a full keyboard. For $99 you can enjoy a quad band world phone which provides the keyboard and software you need.

If you want to run apps, and enjoy a full internet experience, you'll want a world smart phone. You can purchase an Android world phone for as little as $199.

Travel phone functionality Approximate price ($US)
Voice and text $40
Voice, text, email, web browsing $99
Android smart phone $199

Travel phone rentals are also available, although the declining cost of technology makes rental less attractive. (Why pay for return shipping, if you'll be making another trip soon?)

4. There are different types of international SIM cards, which one is best for me?

The most convenient option is a World SIM card. It works everywhere, and allows you to save from 50-80% anywhere. When inserted in your phone, your phone no longer uses your North American number. It uses a foreign number. (Call forwarding is available, so that people who phone your North American number are automatically forwarded to your temporary foreign number.) Most world cards give North Americans a UK phone number that they use to avoid North American roaming charges.

A regional SIM card is a great option if you're traveling to multiple countries in the same region. For example, a European SIM card allows you to save 55-85% on "the continent."

Country specific cards allow you to save 60-90% and are the most cost effective option. For example, a France SIM card gives you a French number. While in France, you would probably be calling many French numbers. Obviously, calling France is less expensive with a French number than a UK number. People in France, would also be able to call you for less than if you are using a French SIM card instead of a world SIM card.

Frequent travelers have a World card, one or two regional cards, and a SIM card for specific countries. They carry them all in a convenient wallet size SIM card holder.

5. Should I buy a SIM card before I leave?

In most cases, the answer is Yes. (Local SIM cards are designed for locals; rates back to North America are expensive. The SIM cards you purchase in North America are designed for tourists and business travelers. You get cheap local calls when you arrive and great rates back to the US and Canada.)

6. Where do I purchase an international SIM card in North America?

A number of North American companies provide international SIM cards. A good one should have:

  1. Strong customer service: You will probably only need customer service once or twice, but when need it, you really need it. Look for 24/7 support. If English is the only language you speak, make sure the support is in English.
  2. Have a large customer base: Large distributors will be able to negotiate better rates, and as a general rule, will be able to offer you better rates.
  3. Offer voice, text and data options. The world is changing. Even if you just want voice on this trip, on your next trip you may want to surf or check your email.

7. What's better prepaid or a pay as you go SIM card?

If you don't have good credit, a prepaid SIM card is your only option. The main advantage of prepaid is the card stops you when you spend a certain amount. Many people, however, consider that a disadvantage. (They don't like having their calls interrupted.) Especially since all prepaid SIM cards give you the option of "topping up" your account with more money. So, in reality, there is no spending limit on a prepaid card.

The main disadvantage of prepaid is that they're almost never refundable. (The telephone company keeps the amount you don’t use.) The advantages of pay as you go International SIM cards are: your calls are never interrupted to top up and you pay only for what you use. Also, most pay as you go SIM card providers will give you a detailed statement of all your calls, text and data, which is important if you want to expense your business usage.

8. Do I need a data plan on my SIM card?

If you're going to check email or surf the web, an International data plan will save you money. A small data plan gives you the piece of mind that comes from knowing you'll always be able to affordably use the mobile apps you need. (Google Maps can be extremely handy when you're traveling in a foriegn city. Especially if you don't speak the local language.)

Most data plans are monthly. A growing number of international SIM card data plans are designed for iPads, Playbooks, Android tablets and PC datasticks. They are data only. (No voice.) Most data plans do NOT support Blackberry Enterprise Service (BES) or Blackberry Internet Service (BIS) You can learn more about International Blackberry Service plans here.

9. How to Choose the International SIM Card Data Plan that gives you the best value.

  1. Understand the types of data plans available.

    There are three types of plans:

    1. Heavy usage: 500 MB plus.
    2. Convenience: 40-200 MB.
    3. Pay per use.
  2. Match your usage to your plan.

    You will be shocked how much data a one minute video uses. To avoid an surprising invoice, match your usage to your plan.

    • Heavy usage plan: If you're going to watch video, stream music, upload photos or download files you must get a plan of at least 500 MB.
    • Convenience: International data plans work everywhere in the world, but the price of convenience, is less data. Do not watch video. Check email; try to download files only when connected to WiFi. Tweet, visit select web pages and get directions from Google Maps.
    • Pay per use: Emergency usage only. For example, checking Google Maps if you're lost, or email when there is no WiFi available.
  3. If you don't have a data plan, turn data off.

    Smartphones access data automatically. (They "push" email and other updates to your device without asking permission.) So, without a plan you can end up paying a surprising amount for data you didn't even know you were using. Turning data off is usually: Settings, Network, Data Roaming. (Check your device's user guide for more details.)


  1. Simply by changing SIM cards when you travel, you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars in roaming fees.
  2. Frequent travelers should have an unlocked world phone. If your North American phone is locked, or isn't GSM quadband, you can buy an affordable unlocked world phone.
  3. The most convenient option is to buy an international cell phone, and a World SIM card, before you leave.
  4. A regional SIM card is the best choice for you if you're visiting multiple countries in a region.
  5. Purchasing an in country SIM card - i.e. a France SIM card if you're going to France - is the best choice if you’re visiting one country.
  6. Buying a SIM card before you leave, will get you the best rates on calls and text back home.
  7. Pay per use SIM cards can be cheaper than prepaid, because you only pay for calls and texts you actually make. Because you receive an itemized bill, pay per use is usually better for business travelers.
  8. Data roaming rates are even more outrageous than calling rates. An international data plan can save you thousands of dollars. A data plan is essential if you want to travel with an iPad, you need to check your email frequently or you want to use Google Maps to make sure you don't get lost.
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