Data abroad: eSIM or wifi hotspot?

Using the Internet on your cell phone abroad has become a necessity, and is horrendously expensive. But there are ways of making the bill acceptable. These include, but are not limited to, the esim.

What was a useful but not essential faculty a decade or so ago is now vital: traveling abroad without using data and therefore Internet on your cell phone is if not impossible, at least uncomfortable.

Use your GPS to find your way around, find and book a restaurant at the last minute, order an Uber, check-in for your next flight, buy tickets for an exhibition, find information, stay in touch via Whatsapp…for all these and more it’s getting harder and harder to do without internet.

But this comes at a price: anyone who has ever turned on their phone when arriving abroad and forgotten to deactivate roaming (the ability to use data abroad) has seen their bill rise by several dozen euros in just one or two minutes. But now there are ways to get by at a good price.

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Stay at home

After all, it’s the simplest solution: no travel abroad = no out-of-plan data. And at home it can be large: since 2017 roaming is now free within the European Union for holders of a plan in a member country.

There are even exceptions: for example, Switzerland or the UK despite the Brexit.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the same is true in the United States. The United States is a large country and you can see a lot of beautiful things without setting foot abroad.

Free wifi

Free wifi hotspots are on the increase, and from your hotel room to the local bar, it’s easy to find a place to connect to the internet for free.

It’s not free, but it’s not convenient in emergencies and, above all, it’s complicated in less urbanized areas or at certain times of the day.

And I’m not talking about security issues. Preferably use a VPN, and obligatorily so if these are your professional devices.

Your carrier’s optional plans

Virtually all mobile operators offer you the possibility of buying options when you travel abroad, so that you can continue to use data almost as usual.

And it’s the almost that’s important: it’s usually just a back-up solution, to be used sparingly. You can reactivate roaming punctually for a specific need, and deactivate it immediately so as not to consume the entirety of the small package allocated to you.

Impractical and often much more expensive than the solutions that follow. To be reserved for very occasional needs.

Prepaid SIMs

For a long time, the best way to use the Internet on your phone abroad was to buy a pre-paid SIM card on the spot. It’s simple: you go to one of the many sales outlets that offer them to travelers, buy a SIM card that includes a certain volume of phone calls and data, and put it in your phone in place of your usual SIM.

But this is not without its drawbacks, starting with the fact that you must not lose your old SIM while you’re away, only to reinstall it on your return.

But it also means that you will temporarily change your phone number. You will no longer be reachable on your usual number. And there’s another side-effect: while users of Apple’s iMessage won’t notice too much difference, those of Whatsapp, which only works with one number, will lose all their contacts and conversations for the duration of the vacation.

Of course, some phones are “Dual SIM” and allow you to install two cards at the same time, but this is far from the case for all of them.

Wifi hotspots

It’s a small box that connects to the 4/5G network via fairly affordable prepaid plans, and you then connect to your box via wifi.

This has been our preferred solution for years with Solis Skyroam.

Highlight: no more roaming charges, a controlled budget (from $8 per day, but that’s what you spend per minute otherwise…) and the possibility of sharing your connection when traveling with several people.

Weak point: the size. Even if the new generation of cameras is much smaller than the old one, you’d better have a bag with you, or don’t be afraid of deforming your (large) pockets. Not ideal for a stroll around town.

The eSim card

In simple terms, this is a virtual SIM card that behaves just like a normal SIM, but whose installation is software-only. When you buy it, it is set automatically or manually in your phone’s settings, at which point all you have to do is change some settings, such as using your normal plan for voice and the eSIM for data, or both on the eSIM if it also offers a voice plan.

The advantage is that you can keep your old number active at the same time, so you can use it without losing your Whatsapp account, for example.

There are a multitude of eSIM suppliers on the market, and the only thing to do is to look for the one that offers you the most attractive package one or two days before your departure, then buy and install it online. On a recent trip to the USA, I bought mine from the lounge at the airport a few minutes before boarding.

You can find really great prices: for example, I ended up paying $15 for 5 days of unlimited data in the USA.

Depending on operators and destinations, you’ll find eSIMS with a data-only plan and others that also include voice, which is perfect if you need to call local numbers or be reached by them. In this second case, which I tried out last year in Australia, you’ll have a local phone number, and for each call you can decide which one to use. Of course, if someone calls you on your usual number, it won’t be free for you.

eSIM vs. hotspot: an unbalanced battle?

After reading these lines, you’re probably thinking that eSIM is by far the best solution, and that a device like Skyroam is a thing of the past. Well, that’s what I thought until recently, because I have to admit that mine is now gathering dust on a shelf.

The first reason not to bury the Skyroam is that it can be used as a back-up power bank to recharge your other devices. Indeed, there have been times during a day when I’ve had to use its battery to recharge my phone. Of course, these days, such a battery is one of the essential electronic tools to have in your travel bag, without needing a wifi hotpot, but it’s good to know. Beware, however, of the power limits authorized on airplanes…

And there’s a second reason, which I observed on a café terrace no more than ten days ago. Two parents, three young children, the Skyroam in the middle of the table… Unlike eSIMs, hotspots enable connection sharing! So if you don’t want to take an eSIM for each member of the family, the hotspot lets you share the connection and share a data plan with several people.
But to say that it’s a better option than eSIM…let’s just say that it’s complementary in certain circumstances.

Bottom line

It’s now possible to use the Internet on your phone abroad without breaking the bank, and eSIM is undoubtedly the best option. But in certain circumstances, especially for family vacations, a hotspot can be a useful addition.

What about you? Do you use data abroad? In what way?

Image : esim by Buravleva stock via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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