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International SIM Cards and MiFi Devices for Digital Nomads

8 minute read

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DISCLAIMER - We are going to get technical in this post, as we explore a few of the options available for digital nomads who are looking at ways to get worldwide internet coverage. We’d definitely advise getting a cup of tea.
— WiFi Tribe

In this article, amongst other things, we’re going to take a shot at answering the following:

  • What SIM card should I get for traveling and working abroad?

  • Is there a global SIM card that gives me internet everywhere?

  • What’s the best MiFi device that works in any country?

  • Are those global data subscription plans (like GlocalMe) worth it?

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How digital nomads feel about internet coverage is similar to how human beings feel about air. We need it. Just kidding... Or am I?

All jokes aside, for remote workers, our livelihoods are directly linked to our ability to be hooked into the internet, and although WiFi is common in all the places that we visit, sometimes it isn’t working, or it’s too slow to do anything worth doing. So in an effort to be prepared, we travel with a backup! That backup tends to come in the form of mobile data which is contained within one, small, chip. Enter...the SIM card. The other half of this backup solution is a MiFi device/phone. The two come together in a glorious union of personal mobile WiFi connection.

Researching which SIM and which MiFi device to get can be a little bit daunting, so I caught up with WiFi Tribe Tech Manager, Andrea, and WiFi Tribe cofounder, Diego, to get their thoughts on it, and answer some questions to get you started.

*sips tea*

SIM Cards

In a lot of countries, you will have the option to get a local SIM card. If the place you are visiting enjoys tourists who love to use loads of data, you’ll be able to get some really great deals. This is especially good for those of you who are staying for more than a few weeks in a place. The data is normally very reasonably priced, and the provider should have a decent amount of coverage so you can get a good connection in most places.

Whilst these deals exist however, they aren’t available everywhere, and often, they’re a headache and a half to get a hold of, so you need to know a workaround. Enter…

The international sim card.

An international sim card is designed to allow you to use your (unlocked) mobile devices in lots of different countries in the world, whilst avoiding sky high roaming charges. There are plans that include call time and more importantly, they include internet access, which means that as soon as you are off that plane, you can get connected.

Pros

Convenient - It saves you the hassle of having to hunt down the best value local data SIM card.

No Surprises - You know how much you are spending, rather than the nasty surprise of getting a huge roaming phone bill you haven’t accounted for.

It’s who you know - International Sim Card providers tend to have relationships with the fastest mobile data companies in the countries they are operating in, which should mean: a reliable connection wherever you are.

Cons

Expensive - Even though getting an international SIM card is going to be way cheaper than paying roaming charges, it is likely to be more expensive getting a local SIM card for your data needs.

Home country dependent - Depending on where you are, your options for getting an international SIM card will vary (we’ll discuss that later).

What international SIM card should I get?

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Different countries will have different international SIM cards that are more readily available than others. For some countries, your phone plan may already give you extensive international coverage which means there aren’t loads of options to choose from because it isn’t necessary. Nevertheless, let’s break it down and have a look at a couple of popular options. As we find more deals, we will update the list.

For US based digital nomads

Google Project Fi SIM

One of the best options for nomads who want to stay connected at all times is Google's Project Fi SIM. It lets you roam almost anywhere in the world with very reasonable data prices (instead of the extortionate roaming data fees). Fi's benefits include:

- pay $10 per GB of data

- only pay for what you use (get back $ for any data you don't use)

- pay max $60 on data per month. If you use more than 6GB in a given month, you don't pay more, so if you were to use it to work and managed to use 15GB in a month, you'd be paying $4 per GB, which is cheaper than getting local data in almost any country

- normal data speeds are very good, usually 4G

- Supported in over 170 countries

- you can also use the SIM card to make calls as well.

Notes to be aware of...

You’re limited to 15GB a month (after that it gets very slow as Google caps the speed), so maybe don’t use to watch your shows on Netflix unless absolutely necessary.

There’s a $20 service fee to pay every month so you’re looking at spending up to $80 a month depending on your data usage.

You’d need to get it shipped to a US address which can be a pain.

You also need a google phone to activate the SIM card; you can buy a second hand one quite cheaply which is good news or you might even be able to find a mate who has one who could help you out with that. Once activated, you can put it in most phones and it will work well; we only tried it in the Iphone X though so make sure you find a way to test that it will work in your chosen device.

For Non-US Digital Nomads (and US digital nomads too)

First things first…

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Check your existing phone plan. In the UK for example, most phone plans include free roaming and 4G data usage in Europe at least. For some networks like Three, you can continue using your minutes AND your data in up to 71 different countries across the globe which would negate the need for any additional faffing depending on your travel plans. (I love that British word, faffing. It just means ‘fussing’.) So always check it out before spending on things you don’t need.

If that’s not an option and you know that local SIM deals aren’t viable for you, read on...

Diego recommends that if you can get a Google Fi Sim, it’s worth doing but as we’ve just read, it’s not easy. We love it because the business model is so simple. Pay $20 for a base fee and then $10 per 1GB of data. But until Google catch up and make Project Fi more accessible, you may need an alternative.

KeepGo Sim Cards

If that all sounds a little bit complicated, have a look at Keep Go. Benefits include:-

- Free shipping to 38 countries worldwide. (If you are a prolific traveller, there is a massive chance that at some point you’ll land in one of the countries listed to take a delivery of this SIM card. You can get the card delivered to an apartment, a hotel, an amazon drop off point, a house...gotta love it for the flexibility.)

- 4G LTE speeds

- You get a year to use your data

- You can refill your data as you go or activate the ‘auto-refill’ function.

- Can be used in over 65 countries (there’s a good amount of coverage for the South American countries where getting a local SIM is a bit tricky)

- Unthrottled data - (new benefit, hot off the press)

- No SIM Card expiry date - you can use it for all of your future trips provided you get coverage there

Notes to be aware of:

You won’t be able to make conventional calls and texts using this SIM but that’s not a huge problem because most of us use WhatsApp or Skype to make calls and send messages anyway.

This little guy is not what I would consider to be cheap. The lifetime SIM card is $49 and then you have a range of top up data options which can get a little pricey. 500MB will cost you $19, 1GB is $39. The website says the best value option is to buy 3GB of data for $85. It is quite expensive but you take the rough with the smooth; they don’t throttle your data regardless of how much you use, unlike the Google SIM. BUT for the same 15GB of data you’d get for $60 dollars with Google, KeepGo will charge you a LOT more. The good news is that you get a year to use it which resets every time you top up.

BIG DISADVANTAGE: You can’t tether (set up a hotspot using your phone) with this data SIM; check out the small print with any SIM you’re looking at because there’s a few of them that say tethering is not allowed. In this particular instance, if you want to be able to tether, you have to get their mobile WiFi hotspot which gives you a different set of benefits.

It looks a bit expensive...should I just get a local SIM card?

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That depends on how long you plan to stay in a place, what the local data deals are, and what your time is worth to you.

Things to consider:

Your Time - Getting local SIMs can be easy in some countries and stupidly tedious in other countries. You can waste the best part of a day trying to figure it out.

Data Deals - Some countries will give you great data deals that make it worth it to get a local SIM, while others can even be more expensive  than just running your Project Fi data for example. Also consider how much data they give you. In some countries, such as Argentina, you are limited to a very low amount per day as a tourist/non-resident. Diego has often found himself running out of data while trying to get to a place in town. For countries like Argentina, it's worth sticking to your Global data plan/MiFi device.

Data needs - Think about what you'll be using the data for. If you will be doing a lot for work on it, then you probably want to get a local SIM if prices are good. If you'll just use it to browse and get around the city, then you're better off not wasting your time.

How long you stay - As a ballpark figure, I usually get a local SIM if I stay somewhere for 3+ weeks. The beautiful thing about Project Fi, GlocalMe and other global data services is that they make life a lot simpler and save you time. Of course, this usually comes at an up-price compared to local SIMs, but I find that when I'm moving from country to country frequently, it's definitely worth the convenience. If I'm somewhere for a longer period of time, I'll get the local SIM card.

So that’s the SIM Card side of things sorted then. Let’s move on to the other piece of the puzzle then, which would be MiFi devices.

Let's talk...MiFi Devices

First things first…

*Sips tea*

Understanding Frequencies

Mobile data devices (including both MiFi devices and your phone) are built to receive certain data frequencies. We’re not talking about Edge, 2G, 3G, 4G, LTE... There are different/bands within each of these networks that most people who buy phones aren't aware of. That's because most people buy a phone in their home country and just expect it to work – as they should – and it does. But often, when they go abroad, they are surprised that their phone doesn't work there, even if they’ve been promised it’s' unlocked'.

If it is 'unlocked' and it still doesn't work in a foreign country, it's probably because it doesn't receive the frequency of a provider in that country.

The good news is that most phones are now built to cover a very large number of frequencies across many countries, but even the iPhone has many different models that work with different frequencies. Always try to get the 'international' version of your phone.

The other good news is that if your phone (or MiFi device) doesn't work in a country for a certain provider, you can still try with other providers. Often, the different providers have different frequencies.

So, the bottom line is: When you're researching what MiFi device (or mobile phone) you want to buy for your travels, make sure to check what frequencies it supports. Generally, the more frequencies supported, the better it will do globally, as it will be compatible with more providers across different countries.

If you want to dive a bit deeper, you can research the frequencies of the countries (or more generally, the continent) you plan to travel to, and then find a device model that covers these frequencies.

MiFi Devices - Subscription vs Non-Subscription

There are so many different devices on the market - here are some links of some listicles that will give you some ideas. As this article is very long and you may well be running out of tea, what we’ll do is give you our recommended MiFi devices i.e. the ones that WiFi Tribe uses as backups for our members when their WiFi connections go down for whatever reason. We’re nomads at the end of the day; the last thing we want is not being able to work because of a ‘gimmick’ back up MiFi device that didn’t deliver. So let’s get to it!

Just a note…

You need to make a distinction between a global data subscription service (like GlocalMe) and a standard MiFi device without a subscription (like our Huawei hotspots). We use both and some of the devices are hybrids (GlocalMe has devices you can use with their CloudSim technology or you can use a different SIM as well). We’ll look at non-subscription devices first.

Non-Subscription

The way these devices (the hardware) works is very similar to your phone's hotspot feature; you put in a SIM card and the device creates a WiFi network with a password that you can join with your phone or laptop to get online.

We're currently using the Huawei E5885 and the Huawei E5577. We did a LOT of research until we finally decided on these devices.

E5885 is definitely a more expensive device, but it's been incredibly reliable. We chose it as our main data backup device for WiFi Tribe because:

- it allows for 32 simultaneous devices to be logged into the WiFi network.

- it works in more countries than any other device we've tested (so far it has always received 4G data). This is important, as different providers in different countries have different frequencies for their 3G/4G networks. If your device doesn't work with the local frequencies, you have a useless device.

- it has awesome battery life - folks have reported up to 20 hours of usage

- it has a screen display showing you how much data has been used and the password + network of the device (definitely a nice nice-to-have)

- it even allows you to connect it to a router in case you need to amplify the broadcasting.

We chose Huawei E5577 as a second backup because:

- it's significantly less expensive than its golden E5885 counterpart

- it covers most international frequencies/bands (but failed to get 4G data in some countries where E5885 did)

- it also shows you how much data has been used so you can monitor consumption and know when yo top up

- it's a lot smaller and lighter than the chunky E5885

- it allows for 10 simultaneous devices

Subscription devices

In the last 5 years, a new breed of MiFi devices have emerged. These combine the MiFi/mobile hotspot service with a global data plan.The concept is awesome, to say the least, because it literally means you have one SIM card (or one device) that gives you affordable internet almost anywhere in the world.

This convenience does come at a higher price than most local data plans, but it's worth it for frequent travelers, especially those who spend less than 3 weeks in a country.

These devices usually also allow you to put in a local SIM card, giving you the full flexibility to decide when you use their data plan service and when you use the cheaper data you can get with a local SIM card.

We've been working with GlocalMe in the past, which has been a good and reliable service so far (except for one GlocalMe device that suddenly stopped working). This company has different tiers of pricing for different countries or areas, but all are pretty reasonable. Their subscriptions also vary in the amount of data. With GlocalMe devices you have the choice of putting in a local SIM or using their global data plans whenever you want. We've found GlocalMe to be very reliable when it comes to connecting to 4G data in most countries.

There are alternatives to the devices that we’ve listed - check out some of the reviews to see what you think.

And that’s everything I think…

*sips tea...oh wait, there’s none left…*


This blog post was brought to you by "A Queen and two Super Nerds" i.e. WiFi Tribe Blog Editor Amanda (left), WiFi Tribe cofounder Diego (centre) and Tribe Tech Manager, Andrea (right). Please note that some links posted above are affiliate links so if you click through and purchase the linked item we get a small commission. Brands mentioned aren't paying us to write nice things, these are all recommendations from personal experience and/or research conducted by us. Post comments below if you've got any info to add that will help your fellow nomads near and far. Until next time folks, take it easy.