Staying connected while abroad can be expensive but for those who really need it price comes as a second thought. The best-known option for mobile access abroad is roaming but it is almost always the most expensive one. If you travel frequently to one foreign country, a region, or even the whole world, rest assured – there are better options for mobile access abroad and one of the least popular for now, but probably among the best, is the practice of using a SIM card rental.
What Is a SIM Card Rental?
A SIM card rental is a relatively new service but it is one more booming mobile industry. As the term itself implies, with SIM rentals you rent a card instead of buying it. And no, it is not a replacement of your traditional SIM-only contract or PAYG you use in your home country, it is a deal you need, if you travel abroad – it’s kind of similar to the rent-a-car concept, only it is much cheaper and you can use the same card in as many countries as you please. In other words, instead of getting a new local SIM card in every country you visit, you use the rented SIM and you pay much less than you’d do, if you were using data roaming from your normal mobile network.
How Do SIM Card Rentals Work?
The process is straightforward: you contact a SIM card rental company where you get your card. There are many such companies, so it makes sense to research a bit in advance, compare prices, and see which countries are covered by the rental. There are global cards that cover (almost) the whole world, cards that cover a continent or a region (Europe, Asia Pacific, Scandinavia, etc.), and cards for a separate country only (which aren’t very useful because it might be a lot cheaper to get a local prepaid card instead).
After you narrow down your selection of potential companies to just a couple that offer decent prices in the region(s) of interest to you, you need to contact them and check if they offer cards for your device. Most likely they will do because such cards are offered for almost all devices on the market today but it won’t hurt to make sure.
Some SIM card rental services work with unlocked phones only, while others work with locked phones as well but the assortment of services is limited. You also need a dual band/triband GSM device because in some countries you won’t be able to use your mobile, unless it supports the necessary frequencies. Even if you don’t have a dual band/triband GSM device, or it is locked, you can still use rentals because many companies allow you to rent a device as well.
After you make sure your phone can be used abroad, you contact the office of the SIM rental company to get your card. Alternatively, you can buy your card somewhere else. For instance, you can pre-order it online, have it delivered to you before you leave for abroad and take it with you there. After that you put the rented SIM in your device and use your phone as you’d normally do.
When you are done with the card, you return it to the company that issued it. The contract usually specifies how exactly you do it but it is common to mail it because this is much faster than going to the office of the SIM rental company in person. If you decide to keep the card as a souvenir, or if you lose/damage it, there is a replacement fee, so you’d better take care of the card while in your possession and return it promptly when you don’t need it anymore.
What Services Are Available on a Rented SIM?
The exact assortment of services available on a rented SIM varies from one provider to the next. The available services also depend on the type of your phone, the country, and the contract you have chosen. Basically, here are the services you can ask for:
- Domestic calls and international calls. It might be necessary to clarify that domestic calls means calls to other numbers in the country you are in, not calls to your home country. Also, be warned that with locked phones you might not be able to make calls, so discuss this with your rented SIM provider in advance.
- Texts. Some providers offer them but it is not an exception not to have them. So, if you plan to text, ask in advance if the offer includes them.
- Mobile Internet Data. This is the most common service you get on a rented SIM. The packages here (and their prices) range from mere 25-50MB a day to unlimited.
- Tethering. If your device supports it, with tethering you can use your cell phone as a modem for another device, such as a notebook or a PDA. You might wonder why you need tethering when you have mobile Internet but the answer is simple – if you want to check something on a large screen (i.e. on your laptop) rather than on the small screen of your mobile device, then tethering comes to the rescue.
Some providers might offer additional services, so if there is something else you need, just ask for it.
How Much Do SIM Rentals Cost?
SIM card rental costs vary from country to country and depending on what your requirements are. For instance, there are daily rentals for under a half a pound but there are also plans where you might pay £10-15 or more a day. You also need to consider setup fees and the deposit you leave when you sign.
In addition to plans with daily, weekly, or monthly charges, there are also plans that charge per minute or per MB. If your device is not compatible with the network in the country/countries you are going to, you might need to rent a handset as well, which also adds to your bill.
If you plan to use your device a lot, your best option might be an unlimited plan. These are more expensive a day (like £15 or more) but the cost per minute/MB is usually lower.
One thing you should be really careful about are the extra charges when you go over your limit. These extra charges can be really frightening, so make sure you check them before you sign the contract.
Advantages of SIM Card Rentals
If you have been reading carefully, by now you might have already figured out some of the advantages of SIM rentals. Anyway, let’s sum them up:
- SIM rentals are cheaper than roaming. With roaming you pay for incoming calls as well and this is what makes it so expensive.
- You can use one card in many countries. If you will be visiting many countries, you can do it with one card, provided that the card covers them all. When you go prepaid, you need to get a new card for each country.
- The incoming calls to most destinations are free. This is the major reason why SIM rentals are times cheaper than roaming.
- You call local numbers at much lower rates. The second big money saver comes from your local calls. Though prices here vary, the rates of many rented SIMs for local calls (i.e. calls to numbers in the same country you are now) are close to (or slightly higher) than the calls local operators have.
- You know in advance what services you get. Unlike prepaid, which in some countries is voice only, while in others it includes data as well, with rented SIMs you know what you will be getting – voice only, data only, voice and data, etc.
- SIM rentals are more flexible than prepaid. When you get a prepaid card for each of the countries you visit, before you depart, you might be left with lots of unused minutes, texts, data you have paid for. If it is for one country, then it is not a big loss but if you leave £10 or more in prepaid in the 10 countries you visit, this becomes a lot of wasted money.
- You can rent a SIM when you can’t get a SIM only or a standard contract. If you don’t like prepaid and you want to get a SIM only, or even a standard contract because you plan to stay for weeks, or even months, most likely you won’t be allowed to. The reason is that in many countries SIM only deals and standard contracts demand you are a resident of the country. With SIM rentals you don’t have to worry about these legal matters because they are simply irrelevant.
- Rented SIMx are great for short visits to foreign countries. You can use rented SIMs for visits of any duration but their main advantages are present for shorter visits, especially to multiple countries. For longer visits (like months), consider pre-paid or SIM-only, if available, though still it is possible that they can’t beat rented SIMs.
The advantages of SIM rentals are so numerous that it is really surprising not many people use them. Well, probably this is partially due to the fact that not many people know about them, otherwise there is no logical explanation why they go with roaming that simply robs them.
Disadvantages of SIM Card Rentals
With all the huge advantages of SIM card rentals, it is only fair to notice their disadvantages as well. The disadvantages of rented SIMs aren’t as numerous as their advantages and here they are:
- SIM rentals can be very expensive. In 99 percent of the cases SIM rentals are much cheaper than roaming or prepaid cards but this doesn’t mean it is always so. Sometimes roaming might be a better option and local pre-paid could be way cheaper, so before you rent a SIM card, check the other options for the countries you are going to.
- You may need to leave a refundable deposit that can be £100.00 or more. The refundable deposit is a huge expense, especially if you rent a SIM card together with a phone. In case you lose the card or fail to return it, you lose the deposit.
- SIM rentals might not be available for the countries you want to visit. While there are SIM rentals for more than 200 countries in the world, there are countries where such deals are not offered for. This isn’t a very likely scenario but if you are travelling to a country that is not a major destination, you need to check availability in advance.
Basically, the only major disadvantage of rented SIMs is their potential to be just as expensive as normal data roaming on your contract SIM or mobile phone but since there are enough cheap SIM rentals, with some research you can find a decent deal.
What Companies are there to choose from?
Some of the most popular rental companies are:
Alternatives to SIM Card Rentals
SIM card rentals aren’t the only option to stay connected while abroad. Here are the other alternatives you have:
- Good old roaming. This is the easiest alternative but as already explained, almost always it is the most expensive one as well.
- Local prepaid cards. For longer stays, local prepaid cards could do, especially if they offer both voice calls and data transfers.
- Free wireless. The availability of this option depends on the location. In some countries and areas you might not be able to find free wireless for miles around. Also, free public wireless usually comes bundled with security issues, which in many cases makes it not an option at all, if you need to exchange sensitive data.
- Your own hotspot. You can carry your own hotspot and use it for wireless Internet while abroad but its prices aren’t lower. It makes sense to have your own hotspot if you travel in a group, so it can be used by many individuals, or if you go in a country where free wireless is not easy to find.
- Wireless at the hotel. Many hotels offer wireless. Sometimes it is free but in many other cases you have to pay $10-20 a day, which isn’t cheap. Speed could also be an issue.
SIM card rentals are still not very popular, which probably is due mostly to the fact that travellers don’t know about them. SIM rentals are great when you travel abroad and they are a huge way to cut your expenses, while staying connected. So, the next time you travel abroad, don’t put up with good old data roaming, but search for rented SIMs instead. This will not only save you money, but will also provide you with a better service.