The complete guide to SIM cards, WiFi Hotspot Devices & Data Roaming. For travellers and Vanlifers.
As you might have guessed, Nadia and I both have remote jobs. They give us a ton of freedom, but as you also may have guessed – require us to be online and working — gotta pay those bills yo — no matter where we are in the world. The minute we head overseas with our phones and laptops, we want to make sure we’re online and can roam without worrying about colossal data fees or a slow internet connection.
As vanlifers, data while travelling is a huge consideration, but one that can be quite confusing at first glance. So we wanted to create this guide so that you guys will know all of your options when it comes to buying and using the internet on the road. It’s detailed, but not too complicated, and will save you money, time, and plenty of frustration – trust me, we’ve tried pretty much all of the options!
We want you to be working in true vanlife style – by the beach or perhaps on top of a mountain after a breathtaking hike.
So here are all the ways to get online when travelling full-time:
You might be surprised to know that the SIM Card in your phone might do the trick, especially if paired with a quality MiFi device. Sometimes the simplest solution is the one that is most overlooked, and your current provider may just give you all the coverage and data you need on your travels without you having to do a thing!
That super scary switch in the settings of your phone that could send you a huge data roaming bill. Can it really be that bad? The answer is yes and no. There are three main considerations when looking into data roaming with your current provider:
The best thing to do is to check with your provider and only switch on data roaming when you know you won’t be charged through the roof! We’ve all seen those articles of people falling into the data roaming trap, just like this couple who just got back from a luxury cruise around Asia.
If you’re in Europe, then EU law means that your SIM card allows you “roam like home” in all EU countries with no additional charges or hidden fees. If you’re super lucky, that provider may also throw in a few additional countries.
Some examples of travel-friendly plans include:
One of our favourite devices in our bus is our TP-Link Mifi which has a UK EE Sim Card in it for our European travels. We prefer this for our laptops as it allows us to connect multiple devices and usually has better signal than our phones and a much faster connection than a Phone to Laptop hotspot. We certainly couldn’t do our remote work without one.
We also love the fact our MiFi device shows us how much data has been used, allows us to set caps for max data per month and fits easily into your pocket.
Here is a brief breakdown of the pros and cons of using a SIM Card from your home country to help you compare all options in this article.
If using your own SIM Card is not an option, then buying SIM cards while you travel can be the next logical step. Most airports stock local SIM cards or have a phone provider store in the arrivals hall. However, this isn’t always the case and can leave you with no internet once you land – so save all your travel details offline just in case and make sure that your phone is unlocked!
When it comes to changing SIM card as your primary source of data when you travel, then an unlocked phone is essential.
If you got a free or discounted phone by signing up for a contract with a network provider, the likelihood is that your phone is locked. Meaning, you can only put SIM cards into your phone from that specific provider.
With an unlocked phone, you can put any SIM card into your phone and have it work right off the bat. Giving you unlimited options when travelling as to who you use for your service provider.
Locked phones are common if you’re from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, and less so in Mainland Europe and Asia.
Getting your phone unlocked is not as hard as you may think. The bad news is – it’s often expensive, but it can be very simple to do.
The first step is to contact your phone provider. Policies vary widely, so you may wish to read up on yours before wasting your time on the phone, however, in the US, companies are required to unlock your phone after a year, and contract phones after they’ve been paid off in full.
The best thing to do in our opinion — and we’ve even tried it ourselves with success — is to take your phone to an independent phone store and utilise their unlocking services. It’s pretty quick and depending on where you live not too expensive considering the upsides of having an unlocked phone when travelling, even if it’s just for a backup option. After all, you can still keep using your current SIM.
Buying SIM Cards as you travel may not be the best option here, but it certainly has some up-sides. Here is a quick breakdown for you of the pros and cons.
If you can’t use your current SIM Card and you’re not really looking for the adventure of trying out the local language to get yourself a SIM Card as you travel, the final option with SIM Cards is to purchase a universal travel SIM Card. Companies like Knowroaming and World Sim offer these clever little cards with 4G LTE 3G coverage worldwide.
Universal Travel SIM Cards are designed to provide you with all the benefits of having a local SIM card while removing the annoyance of having to switch SIM cards everytime you cross a border. They are designed to work in as many countries as possible, providing you with data, calls and texts.
They’re usually partnered with an app so that you can manage your data and spending on the move. Having features like auto-top-up and spending caps.
They usually come with grand statements like “Save up to 85%” and “no bill shock!” effectively they are trying to eliminate the roaming fees that your current provider may charge you for roaming abroad.
This varies a lot depending on the universal SIM card you purchase. Most companies are quoting “200+ countries”, and that seems very impressive when you consider the fact Google tells me there are only 195 countries in the world. So I guess you can consider the universal SIM Card to have 102.5% coverage! I really hope that math is correct!
Now, all things considered, these things look to be the best option, 102.5% world coverage (maybe they include the moon?!), 4G LTE and you can manage your data via the app. As someone that has owned one of these in the past I’ll give you a little more insight:
These are the new kids on the block. They are devices dedicated to providing fast, world-wide WiFi with high speeds to full-time digital nomads. They are used by the majority of digital nomads today and seem to tick all the boxes with speed, coverage and most of the devices also doubling as power packs for your phone and tablets. A few examples of these devices are the hugely popular Skyroam and products like Tep, GeeFi and Roaming Man.
These devices are similar to a MiFi, however, rather than purchasing the device and then having to find a SIM Card to partner with it; these devices come ready to rock – providing both the hardware, data management apps and SIM Card to simply turn it on and enjoy fast internet on the move from any of your devices.
Just like the universal SIM Cards these devices offer coverage worldwide, Skyroam for example quite elegantly says “WiFi Anywhere”. Which gets the point across nicely!
The main attraction to products like Skyroam and GeeFi is the fact that they provide an all in one solution. Rather than tracking down the best universal SIM Card and the best MiFi device for your needs, they offer a package deal. Providing a beautiful product that handles everything you need. The other main attraction with these devices is that they are SIM-free, hassle-free, and have no overage charges.
We’ve been watching these products for years, and until recently they were unaffordable due to being priced daily. Skyroam, for example, is $9 for a day pass. Seeing as there are 365 days in a year that would cost you a massive $3,285 per annum. However, they’ve recently brought out a limited time monthly fixed rate of $99 for unlimited data.
The cheapest option by far from the bunch is to purchase local SIM Cards on your travels. Sure, it comes with the downside of the occasional easter egg hunt around a new location. However, it does have the upside of a more stable and likely faster connection – seeing as it’s a local!
So if you’re a budget traveller, or just trying to watch the pennies, this one’s for you.
The best coverage is a tough one as many products say that they have global coverage (even if some seem suspicious with their math!) so I would have to say that a Wifi Hotspot device like Skyroam or Tep would be the right solution here. Not only do you get the full global coverage, but you also get added benefits like customer service, the device doubling as a power pack and it’s a snazzy looking all-in-one solution with no need for SIM Cards.
If you’re not sold on the idea of a Wifi Hotspot device then your next bet here would be a universal SIM Card (but keep your local one handy as it’ll be cheaper for you at home).
With the new pricing we mentioned earlier, Skyroam looked so good when writing this article we ordered one ourselves. So it’s not surprising that this little orange circle is our top pick.
Here are the top features that made this our pick:
We are currently in the process of switching solutions. Until recently, as we mentioned above, Skyroam was unaffordable due to daily pricing. Now that they have a limited time offer for monthly passes – we’ve purchased their device and will be switching from our current setup to save some money.
Our current setup pre-Skyroam is the following:
This helps provide us with all the data we need to perform our remote jobs, and also the flexibility of having the USA and European SIM Card so that no matter where we travel at least one of the providers has a lightning fast connection.