Why I don’t buy SIM cards when I travel

The question came up casually the other day, while discussing Snapchat habits. I had mentioned in passing that since I rarely buy SIM cards, I usually only post snaps when I find wifi.

“Why on earth don’t you get SIM cards?” Cailin asked, horrified at the Luddite monster that I was.

I forget that this is other people’s normal: you sit on your phone at home, you have internet. You travel to a new country, you buy data and have internet.

My phone, on the other hand, sits on airplane mode 95% of the time. If it does have a SIM card, it’s usually from a different country than the one I’m currently in, and useless.

Sunset in Neyagawa by Expat Edna

See, when I first moved abroad, flip phones were the norm. It was 2008 and the first generation iPhone had just been released the previous year; smart phones were too fancy for a cash-strapped 18-year old to care about.

Then across my years in Singapore, Paris, and Italy, I was plagued by broken phones, stolen phones (twice in Paris!), and employer-provided dumb phones. Wifi-Only became a way of life.

In eight years of travel, having data never became my norm.

Of course, as a travel blogger I do have to buy SIM cards occasionally — mostly for Snapchat, if we’re being honest — but in general, I enjoy being the odd man out whose first stop in a new country isn’t the telecom booth at the airport.

Here’s why.

It keeps me present

The number one reason, by far, that I stay offline is because when I have data, my phone and I become one. It never leaves my hand. Even if I try to put it away, even if it’s on silent: I still check constantly, like a nervous tic, to see if new notifications have come in.

If I get a text, I want to respond immediately. If we’re having a disagreement about French camels, I want to Google the answer right then and there, instead of having a lively conversation about it.

My poor boyfriend (who would live in a hut in the woods with no technology ever, if he had his way) only gets half my attention — because the other half is on all the things I could be snapping/gramming/tweeting at that moment, or whether or not I should respond to that message I just felt come in.

When I take away the ability to be connected, my mind is at ease, and I’m able to fully focus on — and appreciate — the people and places around me.

My map-reading skills stay sharp

Now I’m not saying I don’t use my phone’s map app at all. I’m a travel blogger, not Bear Grylls.

But being data-less means I have to cache maps and directions before I leave home. If I take a wrong turn while out and about, I can’t just click “reroute”; no voice pops into my ear sighing, “Recalculating…”

I have to be my own Boy Scout when it comes to navigation, and let me tell you: it feels good to be able to rely on my own skills instead of being dependent on technology. 

It holds me accountable to plans 

Remember back in the day, like ten years ago, when you couldn’t text to bail last minute or push plans back an hour? If you said you’d meet at Sbarro at 5:30, well then you had to show up at 5:30 — there was no easy ‘out’.

These days I’m amazed if 100% of my friends show up to an appointed event on time. It’s like cell phones have excused tardiness to the point where it’s pretty much socially acceptable.

When I know I can’t message someone to say I’m running late, I try my damnedest to show up to places on time.

Sunset over Seattle by Expat Edna

Saves me time and hassle

Last week I finally broke down and got a SIM card in Taipei. It took two forms of ID, two 7-11 employees, faxes (who still faxes?!), multiple calls to the phone company regarding registration, minor bits of hair pulling, and a return trip to 7-11.

You know how long it takes me to set up wifi on my phone? The 4.5 seconds it takes to type in the password. 

Of course Taipei is the worst of the lot; most countries haven’t been as bad. But the effort required to find carriers, compare rates, locate a seller, and get a SIM card is time and mental energy I’d much rather spend eating, or drinking, or doing almost anything else.

Makes my wallet a little happier 

Even if it’s just twenty bucks here and there, throwing down Jacksons (soon-to-be Tubmans!) in each country adds up quickly.

In the past year I’ve spent around $200 on SIM cards and data, and that’s only for a handful of countries.

If I’d purchased them in each country I’ve visited in the past year, that cost would have more than tripled. I’ve saved at least $400 in the past year by sticking with wifi-only.

My phone isn’t constantly on the brink of death

My iPhone lasts for a full day when I just have it on airplane mode with wifi. On data, especially on heavy Snapchat days, I’ve had to recharge it thrice in one day.

It’s nice to look at my phone and not see it go down 1% a minute just by existing.

Downsides

Of course, being offline most of the day has its disadvantages: I’ve lost countless Snapchat stories; I’ve been stood up because I never received the cancellation message. I’m that annoying person who walks into a bar and immediately asks, “What’s your wifi password?”

But overall, I’m pretty content with my few offline hours every day — even if it means losing a few snaps.

Japanese SIM card by Expat Edna

For reference, these are the cheapest and easiest pre-paid SIM cards and data plans I’ve found (and thus the only ones I bother getting):

Three, Ireland: One month, 15 20 euro, all you can eat data. Took five minutes to set up in store. We were running six devices and live-streaming Rugby World Cup games off this thing! Every telcom should have this.

NTT, Japan: Data only; 3218 yen for 7 days or 3780 yen for 14 days. Order before your trip and get it delivered to your airbnb/hotel or pick it up at the airport. Again, everyone should make it this easy.

England/Wales/Scotland: I use EE, but from what I’ve heard Three/O2/Vodafone are even better. With EE I just buy a SIM card at WH Smith, it usually runs me 15 pounds for 2gb or one month.

What do you prefer? Do you like to stay connected at all times, or do you connect via Wifi only when you travel? 

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Comments

  1. I hear you on the map reading… I used to be able to check a map before departing for somewhere then on arrival jump on a city bus from the airport and somehow get off in the right area and find my accomodation. (I have no idea how I succeeded at this, and I don’t actually recommend this approach!!) Now I usually have a smart phone with data with me, and when I don’t I can barely work out where I’m going even if I have a full printed map in my hands.

    • My boyfriend is like that with maps! I can just show him a map of a place and he’ll know exactly how to get where we’re going without seeing it again. Phones have turned it into a lost art when everyone used to be able to do it!

  2. I’ve never purchased a SIM card while traveling. When I was in Italy for a semester, I actually left my smart phone at home and used a flip phone the whole time. I was recently thinking about SIM cards and isn’t it funny, Snapchat was actually my number one reason for wanting one too. I guess that means I can get by on wi-fi. As long as I don’t get too mad at lost stories. ;)

    Have you ever NOT been able to find wifi for a period of time? As a blogger that tends to stress me out!

    • Yay I’m not the only one! And looking back on it, the ONLY reason I’ve bought SIM cards in the past year has been for Snapchat. There’s nothing else so urgent that can’t wait for the next time I’m in wifi range.

      The only time I haven’t been able to find internet for a while was camping in Wales; even though I had a SIM card the reception was non-existent half the time. I definitely got a little twitchy then.

  3. ugh i wanted to read this but i didnt because i knew i fell into the ‘buy simcard’ file. but i haven’t done that much this year- only two locations out of many. so i am pretty proud :) and i can say my most relaxing trips have been the ones without.

    • It’s not a bad thing to have a SIM card either, but always nice to have balance! :)

  4. I understand both sides. When I was traveling last summer I had a SIM card for the majority of the time (in Italy and England) and it was nice to be able to find directions to hostels when I forgot to screenshot them or navigate home at night after a few too many drinks but…

    When I didn’t have a SIM card I spent much more of my time reading instead of constantly checking my email or Facebook and, like you said, I became a kick ass map reader.

    Strangely enough I don’t remember having trouble buying a SIM in Taipei, but I did it at the store of the service provider and they luckily spoke English.

    • Yeah, 7-11 was a mistake. Service provider would have been much easier!

  5. I am secretly very jealous…I can’t leave the airport without getting a local SIM card.

  6. I am with you on the not buying a SIM when traveling, for all the reasons mentioned above but most of all because I’m lazy. And it’s an exercise in proving to myself that I can resist technology, even though the majority of my actions indicate that I cannot.

    And did you ever use the A to Z in London? Sometimes I think about how that’s probably an app now and it makes me so sad. It was (is?) such a magical little book.

    • Oh you just get me. Laziness is a bigger factor than I’m proud of but I justify it with the saving money thing ;) Didn’t use the A to Z in London but had something similar in Paris!

  7. Great post! I love taking the opportunity to disconnect when travelling – I mean, isn’t that part of the point of travelling, to experience a new place?!

    Kate x http://www.petiteadventures.org/

  8. I admire you for being able to do that! I totally get the points that you’re making. However, I don’t think I could survive very long like that :-D

    • Haha like most things in life, once you get used to it it’s not so bad.

  9. I LOVE this new perspective on things. Great post!

  10. Who needs Google maps when you have Joe!
    I’m a wifi only person – it’s nice not to have to worry about the internet world until you’re back in the hotel or a cafe where you can quickly answer everything then switch off again! xo

    • Right? The man is a walking GPS. And yeah, I love coming back into wifi and seeing all the notifications come in at once, instead of dealing with them one at a time throughout the day.

  11. I’m with you. In all my travels I have only purchased a SIM card once in Morocco for $5 and it was for emergencies. Needless to say, the data lasted me about 2 days because I was constantly online when I never was before! I prefer not to have a SIM card when I travel and am actually quite surprised that most people so have one. The only negative thing is when locals and other operators ask me for my phone and I can only say “Can you just email me?”

    • Haha I know that struggle. “Oh I’ll just text you the address later” NO YOU CAN’T.

  12. Your experience in Taipei sounds like mine in Laos. SUCH a hassle.

    I prefer to stay connected (for better or for worse), but I’ll agree that there are definite trade-offs.

    • Totally. I’m grateful for my disconnected dumb-phone days at Etown, they really helped me prepare for this haha

  13. I never buy sims when I travel – but I totally love your thought that it keeps you accountable for being on time/showing up. It’s SO TRUE that people basically can be late/change plans now that we’re always reachable. Great post.

  14. Fair play to you! You make some awesome points about being in the present – I love my phone, and I am definitely guilty, but I get so sad when I look around and all I see are people staring at their phone screens. When did we become so oblivious to people around us? And, like you, I hate the way that phones have become an excuse to be late (also guilty of this I am ashamed to say).

    I am fairly new on Snapchat and I love it, but some days I have to make an effort NOT to film what I am doing. I felt like I could no longer simply enjoy what I was doing.

    Having said all this, I am still that person that rushes straight to the SIM card counter at the airport – but I do remember my first travels fondly. 7 weeks in India with no phone or laptop. It was definitely more adventurous!

    • Thanks! I know what you mean, having data means I feel like I have to constantly be ‘on’ all the time, and can’t enjoy or focus on things as much because my attention is so divided!

  15. Hi Edna!
    I had no idea so many people were buying SIM cards!! It never came to my mind that I could even do so because I had the idea that it had to be super expensive anyway and also, there is WIFI almost everywhere you sit nowadays, right?
    And as your mentioning Snapchat a few times, I think there’s another advantage in the Wifi-Only thing. I have the feeling that posting only when we get Wifi helps filtering a bit and coming up with probably more interesting stories. I personally sometimes remove some snaps that made sense to me at the moment if at the end of the day I realize that they’re useless or redundant with the rest (and even doing so, I always think my stories are too long!).
    Anyway, I’m enjoying your stories a lot so it probably means you’re doing it right and you should stick to the Wifi-Only way of life :D

    Cheers!

    Mo

  16. Jia Yi says:

    Going overseas is the time i give myself time off the internet world.. to really spend my time with the people im travelling with.. time off my everyday chores

  17. I’m exactly the same! I never do SIM cards for all of the reasons you’ve mentioned. I’ve been living in Turkey for 5 months and haven’t even gotten one here! The cost and hassle of registering my phone with the government just wasn’t appealing, so I get by with an affordable Turkish dumb phone and wifi whenever it’s available.

  18. I love this! I never buy SIM cards when I travel- unless like in France I was living there for an extended period, and even then I dont have a smartphone so I dont have data. In order to go online I have to use wifi- and I love it! sure, theres the occasional time when it would be super useful but hey, Starbucks always has wifi!

  19. My first three years in Paris, I made do with a flip phone which wasn’t even equipped to receive MMSs, because I just couldn’t justify shelling out €700 for a phone when I was struggling to make ends meet. I finally caved and adopted a friend’s used smartphone when she got a free upgrade from work, so I have data now and have discovered the joys of Instagram and having access to Facebook 24/7. It’s great in some ways but like you said, I don’t like the way I’ve become addicted to my phone or how it always takes me out of the present moment. I recently travelled in China, where most of the sites and apps I used are banned and went two weeks without checking in to anything… It was annoying but at the same time, I felt so liberated!

    p.s. Hey, how are you?! It’s been forever since we met for ice cream that one afternoon on Ile Saint Louis! :)

  20. So comforting to read this! I’m a newbie blogger and I always feel guilty not buying a sim card. I don’t because after hearing all the annoying hardship stories I never want to join the club. I agree completly, when you have wifi, you’re on, all the time. It’s nice to hear you can be an awesome blogger and not be connected, ALL THE TIME. :)