Communicating with SIM cards is deceptively simple. A SIM card is a small chip that goes into most mobile phones and allows the phone to connect to the local network. SIM cards can be ordered and activated from local mobile service providers or travel companies that specialize in mobile communications abroad.
How does it work?
Most SIMs are pay-as-you-go (except for many prepaid US SIMs, which we will discuss below); you buy credits either online or at convenience stores in your host country and each call/text/megabyte costs a few cents. This is a convenient option for many travelers and international students because getting a mobile phone contract or a postpaid plan often requires a credit check, which often requires that you have had a credit history in that country. Because they are not based on a contract, you can simply stop using the card whenever you want, and you are not being charged when you’re out of the country.
Advantages and Disadvantages of SIM Cards and Mobile Phones
- Use services without an internet connection
- Receive a local number to connect with local friends
- Avoid roaming charges
- Unlimited call, text & data plans available at economical rates
- Call in an emergency or in a power outage
- Provides a call forwarding number from your VOIP
- Provides a data plan for use with mobile apps mentioned above
- Might be cheaper than a post-paid plan, especially if you combine your mobile usage with free VOIP options
- Can be cancelled any time
- Can’t call or text if you run out of credit
- Can be expensive if you do not have an unlimited plan but use a lot of data and minutes
- Requires an unlocked, out-of-contract, GSM-compatible phone OR a rental phone
- Options are somewhat limited in the US
To top-up online you usually need a credit card or local bank account. This can be an issue for short-term study abroad students who may not have a local bank account. In this case, you will need to go to a store and pay with cash if the SIM card company does not allow for international credit card purchases. Once you have the SIM and you have purchased credit, simply put the card in a mobile phone once you arrive in your host country, follow the instructions (you may have to key in a PIN number), and start calling.
Putting a foreign SIM in your call might automatically change the menu to the local language. If you don’t speak the language, make sure to get help from the salesperson or hope that the SIM comes with instructions in English. Additionally, certain settings on the phone may need to be changed (such as the APN) in order to get it working with a local SIM. A quick Google search usually solves the problem.
Where do I buy SIM cards?
As an international student, you will probably want a SIM card that is specific to the country where you’ll be living. Country-specific SIMs usually provide the best rates. However, if you’re a short-term study abroad student and plan to travel a lot, a regional or even world SIM may be your best choice. Where you get your SIM depends on whether you want it before you get to your host country or not. If you want to be able to call as soon as you land, you can have a SIM delivered to you before you leave through one of the many online stores. Some of the stores include:
If you know which carrier you want to use, SIM cards are also available on sites like Amazon and Ebay.
You can also purchase a SIM once you get to your host country. Depending upon your location, it may not be easy to find places that sell SIMs without a phone. This wikia site is a wealth of information from travelers and expats on where to find SIMs in practically every country in the world, as well as rates and carriers.
To find SIMs in the US, the following are the most popular prepaid options:
SIMs can be purchased directly at a carrier’s store, online, as well as at Walmart. Be aware that most of these prepaid SIMs are paid monthly with a talk, text and data package, rather than buying pay-as-you-go credits. Some of them offer strict PAYGO rates, but this is probably only economical if your usage is very low. Also note that unlike most other countries, US prepaid SIMs do not include free incoming calls and texts. Each company offers its own deals on mobile phones, which you can consider if you don’t have a phone that will work in the US. However, many of them also have “bring your own device” programs; you need only confirm with the carrier that your device will be compatible.
What’s the Catch?
The difficulty with using SIM cards abroad starts with the mobile phone. Many people want to continue to use their phone even after moving abroad because their contacts are stored on the device, as well as tons of other personalized apps and data. However, there are several obstacles to bringing your current phone abroad with you.
- Cancelling a contract can be expensive, and you don’t want to be paying a monthly fee for a service you’re not even using while studying overseas. Some countries are more forgiving when it comes to getting out of a contract. In Europe for example, carriers are required to let you out of your contract if you can prove that you’re moving out of the country.
- Device is Locked.
- Many phones are originally sold with a lock on its software, which means it can only be used with a certain carrier. If your phone is locked, it won’t work with a new SIM card from another country installed. It is possible to unlock your phone, but the ability and legality of doing so varies greatly by country. In some places, getting an unlock code for your phone is easy and even required by law, and in others, unlocking your phone may actually be illegal (until recently, unlocking was technically illegal in the US). Buying an unlocked phone, especially a new smartphone, can be expensive. If you’re not sure if your phone is unlocked you can borrow the SIM card of a friend who is on a different network and if it works then it’s unlocked.
- This is a concern mostly for Americans. Until recently, the US used a network called CDMA while most of the rest of the world uses a cell network called GSM. CDMA phones generally won’t work with GSM networks, because CDMA phones don’t use SIM cards. Fortunately, AT&T and T-mobile now use GSM. You need to make sure your phone will work with a GSM network before attempting to take it abroad.
Where can I get an international phone?
If your current phone doesn’t meet these criteria, you will need a different phone while studying abroad. Getting a cheap, unlocked cell phone in many parts of the world is relatively easy, if you’re willing to settle for an older model. Anyone trying to sell a cheap unlocked newer model phone might be trying to sell you a stolen phone.
Unlocked phones were once a rare commodity in the US, but they are becoming more and more easy to find- especially if you shop around for deals. A newer unlocked phone may cost you more than $500. Cheaper, older models can be found in used cell phone stores and of course, sites like Amazon and Ebay.
An easy way to get an unlocked smartphone is to take over a phone from someone you know that is upgrading. Many carriers in the US offer their customers the ability to upgrade their phone on a regular basis. Because carriers are more open to unlocking out-of-contract phones, and you know the phone isn’t stolen, this is a great way to get a newer phone to use abroad.
Another option is rent a phone for use in your host country. Many companies that sell SIM cards also offer daily or monthly cell phone rentals. This option may not make sense for those students who will be abroad on a long-term basis because cell phone rental companies usually charge per day.
Some companies that offer international cell phone rentals are:
Tip: Once you return from studying abroad, you no longer need your SIM card, and chances are that there is a small amount of credit still loaded on the card. Don’t throw them away! You can donate the remaining balance to JustTextGiving, or if you use an Android device, you can use your credit towards a purchase in the Google Play store.
How would you use a SIM Card? If you were a …
Long-term Study Abroad Student
You are a Russian student who will spend one semester in Germany and one in France. Before you leave you purchase a SIM card that provides prepaid text, talk, and data, and even includes good rates to Russia. When you get to Germany, you put the SIM card in your unlocked mobile phone and you can immediately call your roommate in Berlin to let him know you’re on your way to the apartment.
International Student in the US
You are an international student who will live in the US for at least four years. You are already paying a monthly fee for VOIP service (like Skype), and plan to use that as your main source of international communication. However, you plan to use your cell phone often for domestic calls and texts. Luckily, you already have an unlocked GSM phone from your home country. You shop around and find a data plan with unlimited domestic text, talk and data at a reasonable rate.
Short-term Study Abroad
You are an American who will spend one semester in Tanzania and want to do some traveling as well. You are not sure how stable your Internet connection will be and therefore don’t want to rely on VOIP. You are currently enrolled in a mobile contract in the US, and don’t want to cancel, but your carrier’s international roaming package is too high. You read that phones and SIMs are difficult to find in Tanzania. You opt to rent an international phone that will work in every country you plan to visit, bundled with an international SIM that offers a local access code for calls to the US at local rates. In the meantime, you call your American carrier and they allow you to put your contract on hold while you are gone.