local sim card travel guide

Local Prepaid SIMs for Travel: What to Consider

June 1, 2022 - Ralf Beyeler

Using local prepaid SIMs while traveling in other countries can save you a lot of money. Here moneyland.ch explains what to consider when buying local SIMs.

Many people living in Switzerland are now used to their phones being permanently online, and continue to expect unlimited mobile Internet access while traveling abroad. But even with the latest changes to roaming fees from Swiss mobile service providers, roaming remains an expensive option for getting online while traveling. In many cases, buying a local prepaid SIM in the country you are visiting is a much more sensible solution. Here, online comparison service moneyland.ch explains how to go about choosing the right local SIM for your mobile needs.

Where can I buy a local SIM?

At the moment, the easiest way to get a local SIM is to buy a physical prepaid SIM card at a store in your destination country.

SIM cards are often available at these locations:

  • Telecom offices
  • Imported goods stores
  • Airport stores
  • Kiosks
  • Post offices
  • Supermarkets
  • Electronics and mobile phone dealers

Getting your SIM at a telecom office often has an advantage in that you can complete the registration process immediately using your passport or ID card, so your SIM may be activated sooner.

Can I order a prepaid SIM online?

Some mobile service providers do let you order SIMs online. However, they typically will only post the SIM card to an address in their own country. This rules out ordering a SIM online for most travelers.

An eSIM can provide a solution here. This is only an alternative if a telecom company in the country you plan to travel to offers prepaid eSIMs to non-residents, and your mobile device includes eSIM functionality. An eSIM can be downloaded directly onto your mobile device.

Some mobile service providers offer special travel SIMs online. A number of these will sell their travel SIMs to consumers in Switzerland. However, moneyland.ch does not recommend these specialized travel SIMs as a first choice because using local SIMs from your travel country is generally much cheaper. In some cases, using international travel SIMs is even more expensive than using the roaming bundles from Swiss mobile service providers.

How much do local prepaid SIMs cost?

Prices vary between countries. In many cases, you will pay between 10 and 20 francs for a prepaid SIM. Often, some prepaid credit will be included in the price of the SIM. In some cases, the value of the credit included may even be slightly higher than the cost of the SIM.

You can use the prepaid credit you get with the SIM to buy bundles. If the starting credit is not enough to buy the desired bundle, you will have to purchase additional prepaid credits. Mobile bundles typically include both mobile data for Internet access, and call time. The majority of mobile service providers do not offer pure data bundles.

The cost of bundles differs greatly between travel destinations. The rule of thumb: A bundle with several gigabytes of data costs between 10 and 25 francs, and may also include some call minutes. Providers may offer bundles with larger amounts of data – with price tags to match.

Is it possible to get prepaid SIMs from countries which I am not resident in?

You can generally buy prepaid SIMs from local stores without any issues. But a SIM card will not do you any good if you cannot activate it. Depending on the country and service provider, you may not be able to activate a local SIM without residence in that country.

In some countries, you need to provide a social security number to activate a SIM, while in other countries a tax number may be required. It can be difficult or impossible to use local SIMs in these countries. Contacting local telecom companies in your planned destination country and inquiring about this before you travel can help you prepare accordingly.

How do I activate a local SIM card?

In many countries you will have to complete an identification process before your SIM card can be activated so that you can use it. The exact rules are different from country to country, and sometimes between the various mobile service providers in a country as well.

Depending on what the identification process entails, it can take some time for a SIM to become active. Some telecom companies require that you provide a local address in their country.

The quickest way to identify yourself is in person, right in the shop where you buy the SIM. This is the only really sensible option for travelers who only visit foreign countries for relatively short periods of time. Sime telecom providers have the option of identifying yourself by video call, but may not allow tourists to register this way. In some cases, the identification process is done by postal mail, and this generally is not a viable option for short-term visitors.

Which offers are available to travelers?

Depending on the country, you may be able to choose between a huge array of offers from many different service providers. Experience has shown that buying a SIM card at a retail outlet of a major mobile telecom company is generally the least complicated way to get a local SIM as a tourist. Major telecom companies with an international presence include Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile.

Alternatively, local telecom service operators in many countries often run their own mobile networks. Most countries have between two and four different mobile network operators. There may be other mobile service providers, but these companies rent networks from the big network operators. These smaller mobile service providers often do not have experience with foreign tourists and may not have physical retail outlets in which you can buy and activate SIMs or get support.

The most common offers available to travelers are prepaid bundles which include a limited amount of call minutes and gigabytes are widely available. These bundles typically expire after a short amount of time, such as 28 days or even just one day. Some service providers also let you buy pure data bundles with no call minutes.

Are there special fees and rates for travelers?

Most service providers do not have special fees or rates for tourists.

But there are some destinations in which there are special prepaid SIMs just for tourists. Thailand is one example. These offers are usually slightly more expensive than standard offers for locals, but in most cases still work out much cheaper than using mobile roaming. The advantages of “tourist” SIMs is that they usually come with English-speaking customer service, and the terms and conditions are typically also provided in English.

What should I pay attention to when choosing a local SIM offer?

An important point to consider is that not all service providers will activate SIMs for non-residents. Make sure to check into whether the offers you want are available to visitors.

If you do not speak the language of the country you are traveling to, then the SIM activation process can be challenging. That is another reason why registering your SIM and purchasing the bundles you want immediately at the store which sold it to you is recommended.

It may be difficult to believe, but some prepaid service providers require that you deactivate your prepaid bundles when you leave the country or no longer need them. The consequences for not taking this additional step are often unclear, because the foreign service provider can hardly bill you for services. But to be safe, make sure to inquire about the exact terms and conditions at the store when you buy the prepaid SIM and bundles.

Are prepaid SIMs suitable for mobile Internet access?

Prepaid SIMs from local service providers are an ideal solution for getting online while traveling in foreign countries. When buying a data bundle, make sure that it gives you the Internet speeds you need. You can find out which Internet speeds you need for the things you do online in this guide. It is also important that the data bundle includes enough data for your needs.

Some service providers give you the opportunity of buying additional data bundles at lower prices when your original data allowance runs out. Other service providers charge you a lot more for additional data bundles.

A few telecom companies have prepaid offers which give you unlimited Internet access over a predetermined term for a flat-fee. But these unlimited data bundles can be very expensive.

Are local prepaid SIM cards a good option for phone calls?

Most prepaid SIMs let you make phone calls, and using a local SIM is generally the most affordable way to make calls within your travel country. In many cases, prepaid SIMs already come with a limited amount of call minutes for local phone calls.

Be aware that calling Switzerland using local prepaid SIMs can be very expensive – depending on the country and offer you use. For example, calling Switzerland with some German SIMs can cost up to 1.49 euros per minute.

Using a messaging app with a local Internet connection is in almost every case a much cheaper option for international calls.

Can I use local SIMs for mobile hotspots?

In many cases, SIMs from local service providers can be used for mobile Internet hotspots. This can be beneficial if you want to get online using laptops, tablets, or other devices while you are mobile.

Just note that connecting other devices to the Internet through your SIM can result in large amounts of data being transacted. Because of that, using your local SIM for a hotspot primarily makes sense in countries where unlimited data bundles or very affordable data bundles are available. Current operating systems generally let you exclude automatic updates and other data-intensive tasks from mobile data, so that they only occur when you are connected to a Wi-Fi network. On the iPhone and iPad, you can activate the low data mode. In Windows and Android, you have to select the metered connection option.

Can I use foreign SIM cards with my Swiss mobile device?

SIM cards are typically sold with a 3-in-1 model which lets you resize them to fit your phone’s SIM card slot. So the same card can fit a standard, mini, micro, or nano SIM slot.

You can simply remove your Swiss SIM card and replace it with a local SIM card. You can then change it back when you return from your trip.

If your device has more than one SIM card slot, you can keep using your Swiss SIM and simply place the local SIM card in the second slot. This lets you use both SIMs simultaneously.

The situation is more complicated if your multi-SIM device only has one SIM card slot (in addition to eSIM capabilities). In this case, at last one of your SIMs must be loaded to your phone as an eSIM. That is the case with Apple’s iPhones, for example.  

If you have this kind of device and want to use both a Swiss and foreign SIM, there are two options: Either you replace your Swiss SIM card with an eSIM, or you get a local eSIM for your travel destination. The problem is that eSIMs are not yet widely offered.

Will I lose data when I exchange my phone’s SIM card?

You do not have to worry about losing information when you change your SIM card for a local SIM. Even apps like WhatsApp will continue to work as normal after you replace your SIM. Apps installed on your device will also continue to work normally. So you can continue to write emails, use maps, or read the newspaper while traveling.

How much could I save by using local SIMs?

Using local SIM cards while traveling is much cheaper than using mobile roaming from your Swiss service provider.

For example, in Germany you can get a prepaid SIM card with 8 gigabytes of local mobile data for 15 euros – just under 15 francs. By comparison, 8 gigabytes of roaming data for Germany costs around 60 francs at Swisscom, 95 francs at Sunrise, and around 100 francs at Salt. So roaming in Germany with your Swiss SIM costs between four and six times more than using a local SIM.

In Thailand, you can get a tourist SIM with 35 gigabytes of local mobile data valid 15 days for 600 Thai baht, which is around 15 francs. By comparison, using just 1 gigabyte of roaming data in Thailand will cost you around 20 francs with Swisscom and 40 francs with Sunrise or Salt. The tourist SIM sold in Thailand is not only much cheaper, but you also get 35 times as much data.

What kind of travelers can benefit from local SIMs?

In principle, using local SIMs is advantageous for anyone who wants to use mobile services while traveling outside of Switzerland. The only exception is if your Swiss mobile plan already includes sufficient roaming allowances for the country you will travel to, or if you only need very small amounts of mobile data.

The savings potential of using local SIMs instead of data roaming is very high in many cases. This is especially true if you use large amounts of mobile data while traveling.

In many far-away countries, using a local SIM is the only realistic option for using mobile data.

If your Swiss mobile plan includes roaming allowances, check whether or not these really benefit you. The cost of plans with significant roaming allowances is typically much higher than that of using a Swiss plan with low or no roaming allowances in combination with local SIMs.

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Expert Ralf Beyeler
Ralf Beyeler is the telecom expert at moneyland.ch and also covers other areas of personal finance.
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