How to find a SIM card for your next European Vacation
Thrifty Traveler reader Nick asked me on Facebook:
I’m headed to Amsterdam and London and I’d like cheap cellular data service. Can I buy a data SIM card in advance of my trip?
Great question Nick! Buying a SIM card (data only) for use abroad is a little complicated but not impossible. Let me tell you what you need to know.
International data on a typical Verizon or AT&T plan is not cheap. T-Mobile has free international data and Wi-Fi calling, which is why I switched to T-Mobile in 2014. If you have T-Mobile you can stop reading right now as you have free international data so you’re already good to go. Everyone else keep reading!
- Thrifty Tip #1: T-Mobile is the gold standard for a thrifty traveler. You not only get free international data but also free wi-fi calling to the United States.
If you need data on your phone or cellular iPad I recommend purchasing a data SIM card on eBay before your trip. It is important to note that you will typically need a different SIM card for every country you visit. I’d only recommend buying SIM cards for countries where you will be spending more than a couple days, otherwise it’s not worth the cost and hassle! Just use your hotel Wi-Fi for shorter trips.
- Thrifty Tip #2: Purchase country specific SIM cards ahead of time on eBay to ensure you have data wherever you go. If you are going to the UK you won’t need to purchase a SIM card ahead of time because they are available in vending machines. It’s awesome.
If you are flying into Heathrow on a trip to London you will see prominent vending machines with SIM cards. I’ve never seen this in any other country. You just put in 15 or 20 GBP ($20-30) and it spits out a SIM card. For someone who likes to stay connected it’s like Christmas. So easy and simple. Every other country should take notes.
Rest of Europe
You can research online and there will be plenty of SIM cards which supposedly work in every country but they all appear to be a rip-off. My preferred method is to buy pre-paid data SIM cards on eBay. Try to buy a SIM card from one of the large European providers such as Vodafone, Orange, 3, or T-Mobile. For example, I went to Germany and Austria on my Honeymoon back in 2013 and picked up SIM cards for both countries on eBay. When I landed in Germany I popped in the SIM card and followed the instructions and I was good to go. I was even able to use Skype with the data service to make phone calls.
Thrifty Tip #3: Use Skype to make phone calls from hotel Wi-Fi or your data SIM. Don’t buy a SIM with actual phone service, just data only.
If you can’t find any options on eBay do a little research and determine if you can get one when you land at a local phone shop. They are everywhere around the city centers so it shouldn’t be too much work!
Make sure to look for SIM cards which are already pre-loaded with 5GB or 10GB of data. Then you don’t have to worry about running out of data on your trip and having to “top” them off, which basically means going online and adding more money to the card. Trust me you don’t want to run out of data in Austria and try to top off your account on a website that’s only in German. I’ve been there and it sucks.
Also make sure the SIM card fits your phone. If you have an iPhone 5/6 you need a nano-sized SIM card. Just buy a SIM cutter on eBay for around $7 and you can turn any size SIM card into a nano size. It’s cheap and easy.
You may be able to purchase a SIM card on your arrival but again every country has their own rules. It’s much easier to buy it online in advance and not have to waste time on your vacation in a phone store. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!
For other great tips for your next vacation check out Thrifty Tools for Eurotrip Planning!