The 3G/4G International SIM Card Collection of a Digital Nomad

It’s now de rigeur, the first thing I do in any given country is buy a prepaid data SIM card for my phone. If I can I do it before I even walk out of the airport, all the better.  When I arrive late at night and walk out of the airport when everything is closed, it’s still the first thing on my agenda in the morning is to find a phone shop.

There is a lot of variability to the plans, rules and costs between the countries. All of the non-US countries I’ve traveled to though is still closer to one another, when it comes to prepaid SIM cards than they any are to the mess that the US is for prepaid mobile. The US remains by comparison outrageously expensive and makes purchasing prepaid plans outright punitive compared to postpaid plans.

International SIM CardsI bought that little sim card case and ejector tool on Amazon. You can find it here, however while I like it I will probably soon replace it with a bigger one that holds more nano sized sim cards like this one here.

3G Prepaid Data in Spain

In Spain it took some hunting to find an affordable plan. In the end we bought Yogio 2GB data only prepaid sim cards. I think 30 Euros each, valid 30 days. It was OK, but probably should have bought Tuenti/Movistar. That’s one thing, sometimes in hindsight you realize there was a better option. Still, something is ALWAYS better than nothing.

3G Prepaid Data in Bulgaria

In Sofia, Bulgaria two providers (VivaCom and Max) refused to sell a prepaid data plan to a foreign national. Strange. Just to be clear, I could buy a SIM with voice only service from them by showing my passport, I just couldn’t get data added to it or by itself. Thanks to a tip from friends at WordCamp Europe I found a Globul shop that would sell me a PrePaid 2GB Data only SIM valid for 7 days, for 10 Bulgarian Lev (5 Euros). Perfect! It rocked. Most of the time getting about 10Mbps up/down throughout Sofia.

Data Only

A note here. I say I buy data only plans, but there us usually some remaining balance on the SIM after doing that and that remaining credit can be used for pay as you go voice minutes and text messaging. There is just no reason for me to buy even a 100 minute voice plan when I’m unlikely to use 2 minutes of voice calling so data only works fine.  Usually whatever we do is data based anyway, ie. iMessage, Viber, WhatsApp or Skype. Oh, and FYI pay-as-you go texting is usually pennies outside the US. In the US my AT&T pay as you go text messaging in $0.25/message and $.50/multimedia message.  Gizmodo has quick article on AT&T’s SMS pricing here.

3G Prepaid Data in Italy

In  I’d initially planned on getting a TIM or Vodafone prepaid data plan in Italy, but out of convenience (shop actually open) and at someone’s suggestion (whom was nice but non-techincal and I should not have listened to) I ended up getting us 2 SIM cards from Wind. That was a big mistake. 30 Euros for each for a 10GB plan and the coverage is horrible… We often had no signal in Rome, when we had a signal it would often it drop from 3G down to Edge, which is too slow to even check bus arrivals times. So after a few days I sucked it up and bought another SIM Card, this one from TIM, 10GB of 4G/LTE for 1 month, 30 Euros, plus 10 for the sim card which includes 5 Euros credit. After a month in Italy I can say Tim was better everywhere, but we managed to make use of Wind.  Hopping between the two we managed decent coverage we can tether our computer too when off of WiFi and I was reminded why I like Elena and I to get sims from different carriers whenever possible.

3G Prepaid Data in Poland

Rather spontaneously I went to Poland for the weekend from Italy.  If you know me, you know a WordCamp was obviously involved.  At the airport in Warsaw I got on Wifi and asked a friend already at WordCamp Warsaw if there was a recommend data sium provider.  I got impatient for his reply though and quickly bought a 2GB Data only sim from Lycomobile for 10 Zloty (US$4).  It’s been great throughout Warsaw, often seeing 10-20Mbps.

Understanding Prepaid Data

The plans are always a little complicated to understand. Sometimes you pay for the SIM, but get credit on it from the start, sometimes the SIM is free but only with an activation fee. Whatever, it’s usually 5 euros or less. Then you buy whatever data allotment you want.


Many thanks to Sam in the comments for reminding me to mention this important tip!

Often you’ll slip a new sim card into your phone and the vendor will tell you that it can take 10 minutes or an hour for it to start working.  This is true and not unusual.  There is one thing you want to check though before you walk away, the APN.

Typically the APN is auto-configured on your phone, sometimes however it doesn’t work on foreign phones.  The APN is unique to each provider though and that’s why you want to check it and find out what it is before you walk away, just in case yours isn’t auto-configured.  Your data won’t work at all until it’s set either manually or via the auto-detection routines.  It’s something you should get familiar with just in case, but the vendor will almost always know how to check it for you and set it for you if necessary.  You’ll almost always have to ask the vendor to do that though as they’ll assume the auto-configure will work.  More than once I’ve had to make a trip back to the phone store to find out what the APN is because data hasn’t started working hours later.

Digital Safety Nets

When we’ll be somewhere more than a week I generally choose the highest allotment available.  I know in those scenarios will eventually want to tether out computers while riding a bus or train and we’ll often end up staying somewhere where WiFi is so weak or sub-par that tethering is far preferable.

I remember in Indonesia (Bali) 3G data was delightfully inexpensive. However, we would have to go top up every few days because we burned through data so fast tethering all the time and could only top up with 1 or 2 GB at a time.

It’s one of our many “digital safety nets” that let us work and roam the world at the same time.

I’ve talked a lot about the contingency plans for being a digital nomad, I’d love to hear some of the things you do and think about in the comments. I ‘m already working on a post for “What happens when hardware dies in a foreign land”


  1. I think it’s worth mentioning the trick you taught me yesterday about APNs

  2. I’m so used to that I can buy in Poland prepaid sim with NO problem at all (you can buy this in grocery stores sometimes) that I thought that this is simple in the rest of the world. Imagine my surprise…

    • Poland was one of the easiest places (cheap & easy to find and buy)!

      Small phone shops are on practically every corner in Europe and Asia compared to the US/Can because because the pre-paid market is so much bigger than in US/Can.

      It also goes without saying that not being a native speaker in the country you’ve just stepped off a plane into doesn’t help the situation. Often vendors will look at you funny when say you want “data only” for your phone for example and it used to be very hard to find nano sized sim cards (although that’s changed in the last year and most places either have them or cutters to cut down micro sims to nano sized).

  3. Hey Jon –

    Although I know reception in Hawaii may be an issue, consider moving to T-Mobile when your AT&T contract runs out. I have unlimited 3G data, in-country calls and text messaging worldwide, $125 a month for two iPhones. Calls to the US, when I have to, are 20 cents a minute.

    It has worked great down here in Mexico, where I can select four different networks including Telcel which has very good coverage.

    Between that account, staying in places with wifi and sniffing out good coffeehouses, I haven’t needed to bother with data sims at all.

    PS – I like your snazzy SIM case.

    PPS – the HooToo TripMate you referred is amazing. It has saved my ass so many times (both as a wifi extender and phone charger), I have lost count. I don’t miss traveling with an Airport Express (four times bigger) one bit.

    • Long planned leaving AT&T. Verizon has better coverage at home in Haiku, T-Mobile and Sprint are awful. Thankfully at home with AT&T I have a microcell that grabs my cellphone and send it over broadband. That kept me with them last year, but I’m done… done done done with AT&T.

      Awesome that your still loving the HooToo. It’s the swiss army knife of digital nomads.

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