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Local SIMs, Travel eSIMs, or Roaming?

Which is the best option for connectivity when you travel?

· 6 min read

In today's hyperconnected world, staying connected while on the go is more important than ever. Whether you're a frequent traveler, a digital nomad, or simply someone who relies heavily on their mobile device, having reliable mobile connectivity is crucial. When it comes to accessing data and making calls abroad, there are three main options to consider: local SIM cards, travel eSIMs, and roaming.


Getting a local SIM card

When traveling abroad, one popular option for staying connected is to purchase a local SIM card. A local SIM card is a physical card that you can buy from a local mobile network operator in the country you are visiting. By inserting this SIM card into your smartphone, you gain access to local mobile networks, allowing you to make calls, send texts, and access the internet using local mobile data plans. It's like having a temporary local phone number that allows you to stay connected with ease.

Advantages of a local SIM

One of the biggest advantages of using a local SIM card is the cost savings, since getting a local SIM is typically the most cost-effective option with local networks offering connectivity at lower prices.

Additionally, one of the strongest cases for getting a local SIM is so that you can have a local phone number, which can be useful for local contacts and businesses during your stay. Having a local number can make it easier for you to communicate with locals, whether it's for work or personal reasons.

Disadvantages of a local SIM

On the downside, purchasing a local SIM card requires finding a physical store and can be a hassle, especially if you're short on time. While many countries have SIM card kiosks or shops conveniently located at airports or popular tourist areas, making it easier for travelers to get a local SIM card, some destinations require you to make a trip down to the stores in the city center to obtain a SIM card.

While there is also the option of online ordering and delivery services for SIM cards, allowing you to have a local SIM ready before you even arrive at your destination, this would often require some advanced planning to make sure you receive the SIM card on time.

Getting a local SIM often also comes with the need to go through identity verification - especially if you are getting a SIM that comes with a local phone number. Local network operators will usually have to make a copy of your identification documents before they can issue you with a local SIM.

In addition, if your device doesn't allow you to have more than one physical SIM card in your device, you will have to replace your primary SIM with the local SIM. Aside from the fact that you might lose your primary SIM card, this could also prove to be troublesome if you needed your home number to complete some transactions (like receiving an OTP) while on your travels.

What about local eSIMs?

With the advancement in technology and a growing take-up rate of eSIMs (read more to find out what an eSIM is), some carriers are also starting to offer that as an option for travelers. While this might reduce the hassle of carrying around a physical SIM, it should also be noted that the local eSIM might not always come with a local phone number. And in the event that you need an option comes with a local phone number so that you can make calls, you will usually still need to head down to a physical counter to get your identity verified before the eSIM can be issued to you.

It is important to note that eSIM coverage might not be as extensive as traditional SIM cards. While eSIMs are becoming more widely supported, not all mobile operators offer eSIM functionality yet - especially not for tourists. And for those that do, eSIM support might not be available for all devices. It is a good idea to check the availability of eSIM services and device support of the local telco operators at your destination.

Internatioanl Data Roaming

There is also the good, old option of roaming. When you roam, your mobile device connects to a foreign network, allowing you to access voice and data services. While roaming can be convenient, it's important to note that it usually comes at a (much higher) cost. Your home network provider charges you for the usage, often at higher rates compared to the other options available.

Advantages of roaming

Roaming provides simplicity and familiarity. You can continue using your existing phone number without needing to change SIM cards or worry about losing connectivity. This can be especially beneficial if you have important contacts who need to reach you on your usual number, or if you rely heavily on certain apps or services that are tied to your home SIM card. Roaming allows you to seamlessly transition between countries without any disruptions in your communication.

Local SIMs and travel eSIM plans typically also come with either a fixed volume of data or a fixed duration. On the other hand, if you were to go with the option of roaming, you typically would not constraint by these factors. Instead, you will be charged by your actual data usage — so if this flexibility is important to you, then roaming might be an option to consider. (But different operators offer different roaming packages and charging models, so be sure to check with your carrier on any limitations and exclusions of their roaming offerings.)

Disadvantages of roaming

However, the downside is the exorbitant costs associated with roaming. International roaming charges can quickly add up, resulting in hefty phone bills upon returning home. It's important to be aware of the roaming rates of your mobile operator and to consider whether the convenience of roaming outweighs the potential financial burden. Some mobile operators offer roaming packages or add-ons that can help reduce the costs, so it's worth exploring these options if you frequently travel and rely on roaming.

Getting a travel eSIM

An option for mobile connectivity that is increasingly popular is to get a travel eSIM. Unlike a physical SIM card, an eSIM is a digital SIM card that is built into your device. This technology eliminates the need for physically swapping SIM cards, making it more convenient for frequent travelers who like to switch between different networks.

Activating an eSIM is a simple process. You can remotely activate it by scanning a QR code or using a mobile app provided by your network operator. This flexibility allows you to easily switch between different mobile plans or networks without the hassle of physically changing SIM cards. Whether you're traveling for business or pleasure, having an eSIM can offer you the freedom to choose the best mobile plan for your needs, even while on the go.

Advantages of travel eSIMs

eSIMs offer the convenience of not having to physically swap SIM cards. Instead of dealing with the hassle of finding a store and changing SIM cards, you can simply switch between different networks and plans instantly with just a few taps on your device. Travel eSIMs also often have data plans at near-local prices — while it might be slightly more expensive than getting a SIM or eSIM from a local network provider, it is often a much cheaper option than if you were to rely on international roaming.

Providers of travel eSIMs like Nomad also have an extensive coverage that covers many destinations worldwide, and is a good option especially in destinations where the local networks do not offer eSIM solutions for travelers.

Furthermore, the advantage of travel eSIM over getting a local eSIM is magnified when you are traveling to different countries. A local SIM (or eSIM) usually only works in the home country, whereas providers of travel eSIMs usually offer regional or multi-country packages which allows you to remain connected as you hop across countries — all using a single eSIM.

Disadvantages of travel eSIMs

One of the main drawbacks of getting a travel eSIM is that they usually do not come with a local phone number. While travel eSIMs are convenient and a good answer to your data and connectivity needs, if you expect to be making calls during your trip, then perhaps a travel eSIM is not the best option. That said, even without a local number, there are actually still a few different ways that you could make calls.

Get a Nomad Travel eSIM

Nomad offers data plans in over 165 countries, and you can be sure to find one that is suitable for your travel needs. And if you will be traveling across multiple countries, there are also regional plans available so you can stay seamlessly connected as you hop between countries. Data plans are available from as low as $1.50/GB.

So, should I get a local SIM (or eSIM), a travel eSIM, or just roam?

TL;DR: It depends, really, on a few factors; but ultimately, it comes down to what is important to you.

Get a local SIM if…

Get a travel eSIM if…

  • You value convenience of being able to quickly switch lines while also keeping your primary line active
  • You don't need a local phone number
  • You are cost-sensitive
  • You are traveling to multiple countries
  • Your device doesn't have support for physical SIMs and local carriers at your destination doesn't have eSIM support for travelers

Just roam if…

  • Cost is not really a concern to you
  • You value convenience more than anything else
  • You need to keep your primary line active while you travel and your device doesn't support multiple SIMs (or eSIMs)