Which Travel SIM Is Best? Local SIM vs. International SIM vs. eSIM (Digital SIM)

If you're planning your next international adventure, you know one thing is true: Data roaming is not the way to go. So, how do you stay connected during your trip?

We've rounded up the three most popular ways to keep your phone connected when you travel. Here, we'll explore the ins and outs of local SIM cards, international SIM cards, and eSIMs (digital SIMs) to help you choose the right option for your trip. Let's dive in!

Using a Local SIM Card for Travel

One way to stay connected when you travel is with a local SIM card. A local SIM is a physical SIM card you buy at your destination. It's a prepaid bundle that gives you access to a fixed amount of data, calls, and texts for your trip. 

The price of a local SIM will vary depending on the country you're visiting and the local telecom company you choose. It's a good idea to research your options before you leave to get the best value for your money.

Where To Get a Local SIM

You can buy a local SIM card at the airport, newsstands, convenience stores, telecom and mobile shops, electronics stores, and sometimes even vending machines. Keep in mind that SIM vendors at the airport may charge inflated prices for SIM packages. It's always best to buy from a local network provider or reputable reseller to get the best deals and avoid scams and faulty SIM cards.

To purchase a local SIM, you'll need an unlocked phone, passport, and, in some cases, a local address. Some countries place restrictions on the type of service non-residents can access with a local SIM (e.g., data-only). Others may require additional documentation and/or a KYC (Know Your Customer) check to make a purchase. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Local SIMs

If you're traveling to a single country, a local SIM can be a great way to stay connected. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of using a local SIM card to help you decide if it's right for your trip. 

Advantages of using a local SIM card for travel:

  • You get a local number to make calls and texts during your trip.
  • You aren't tied to a contract and can switch providers anytime.
  • It's a proven option that plenty of travelers rely on to stay connected.

Disadvantages of using a local SIM card for travel:

  • You'll need to find a SIM vendor and wait in line to purchase a package.
  • You'll need to eject and keep track of your regular SIM card.
  • Topping up your SIM package usually requires re-visiting a SIM vendor and purchasing another bundle. 

woman using a smartphone while travelingUnsplash

Using an International SIM Card for Travel

An international SIM card is another way to stay connected when you travel. This type of SIM card is programmed to work across multiple networks in different geographical regions. Unlike a local SIM that works for a single destination, an international SIM covers several countries and regions worldwide. 

This is a great choice if you're traveling to multiple countries and want to avoid buying a local SIM at every destination. International SIM cards are also designed for long-term travelers (e.g., a month or more) and individuals who travel for work (e.g., seafarers and flight crew), so they often come with larger data packages.

Where To Get an International SIM Card

You can purchase an international SIM card from a third-party provider. Usually, this requires that you register and buy a SIM card online. The provider will mail the SIM card to you, and you'll manage and top it up remotely. 

You'll need an unlocked phone to purchase an international SIM card. This means your device isn't locked into a contract with a mobile provider, and you can switch networks as you travel.  

Advantages and Disadvantages of International SIMs

An international SIM card could be a great fit if you travel for work or are off on a worldwide adventure. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of using an international SIM for travel. 

Advantages of using an international SIM card for travel:

  • You get global coverage and can use a single SIM card for multiple countries.
  • You can choose from longer and more robust data packages.
  • You can manage and top up your SIM online rather than through a physical vendor.

Disadvantages of using an international SIM card for travel:

  • You need to purchase an international SIM card in time for it to arrive before you travel.
  • It's a physical SIM card – you'll still need to remove and keep track of your home SIM.
  • If your phone gets lost or stolen, you'll need a replacement SIM delivered to you (tricky when you're already abroad).

Traveler taking a photo of the Great WallUnsplash

Using an eSIM (Digital SIM) for Travel

Using an eSIM is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to stay connected when you travel. An eSIM is a digital SIM that's built into your device's hardware (the "e" stands for "embedded"). Getting online is easy – you can download an eSIM plan, install it on your device, and instantly connect to a local network at your destination. 

eSIMs eliminate the need to contact your mobile provider, purchase a new SIM card, or juggle multiple SIMs when you travel. You can buy one before you leave or while you're on the go, switch up your plan at any time, and top up your package remotely. Plus, most eSIM plans are prepaid, meaning you don't have to worry about going over your data allowance or paying exorbitant roaming fees while you're abroad. 

Where to Get an eSIM for Travel

You can get an eSIM from a third-party provider (like us!). Airalo gives you access to local, regional, and global eSIM plans for 200+ countries and regions worldwide. Our eSIM plans come with a data allowance (e.g., 1GB, 3GB, 5GB) that you can use over a fixed period (e.g., 7 days, 15 days, 30 days). If you run out of time or data, no worries – you can track and top up your eSIM right from the Airalo app.

Your phone must be carrier-unlocked and eSIM-compatible to use an eSIM. That means it can't be tied to a contract and has to support eSIM technology. We recommend checking with your mobile provider to ensure your phone is unlocked. We've also put together this handy list of eSIM-compatible devices to help you determine if your phone is eSIM-capable!

Advantages and Disadvantages

eSIMs open up a world of possibilities for travel connectivity. If you're looking for a convenient, affordable, and flexible way to stay connected, an eSIM is ideal. Here's a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of using an eSIM to stay connected when you travel. 

Advantages of using an eSIM for travel:

  • It's 100% digital. You can purchase and download an eSIM plan from anywhere.
  • You can easily switch plans and providers (no SIM removal required).
  • You keep your phone number, making it easy to stay in touch with friends and family and manage two-factor authentication notifications while you're away.
  • You can stay connected in multiple countries and regions worldwide without worrying about where to find your next SIM card.

Disadvantages of using an eSIM for travel:

  • Not every device is eSIM-compatible. However, more and more device manufacturers are making the switch, and Apple is leading the charge with the eSIM-only iPhone 14
  • Your device must be unlocked. If you're tied to a contract with a mobile provider, you'll need to make arrangements to use an eSIM. 
  • Activating an eSIM plan is a bit more complex than inserting a new SIM card into your phone. It takes a few extra minutes to install an eSIM and set your phone up for travel. 

Traveler looking at a smartphone under the Eiffel TowerUnsplash

Why Airalo?

If you've decided to opt for an eSIM, kudos! It's a great choice to keep you connected whenever and wherever you travel. Here are a few reasons why travelers around the world swear by Airalo as their preferred eSIM provider.

  • Instant connectivity. Use the Airalo app to download and install eSIM plans on the go.
  • 200+ countries and regions. Choose from local, regional, and global eSIM plans for hundreds of destinations worldwide.
  • The best local rates. We work with local providers to get you the best prices and mobile coverage for your trip. 
  • Available in 22 languages. Browse the Airalo app using the language you're most comfortable with. 
  • No hidden fees. Airalo eSIM plans are prepaid. You'll only pay for the data you purchase upfront or top-up as you travel.
  • Easy to manage. Manage multiple eSIMs from the Airalo app. You can track your eSIM usage, top up your plan, and more.
  • Contact us 24/7. Our support team is available around the clock. Get in touch anytime for eSIM support while you travel. 
  • Refer a friend, earn US$3 Airmoney. Share the eSIM magic with a friend and earn Airmoney for your next eSIM if they make a purchase.

Ready to get started? Visit the Airalo store to browse eSIMs for 200+ countries and regions worldwide. 

Ready to try eSIMs and change the way you stay connected?

Download the Airalo app to purchase, manage, and top up your eSIMs anytime, anywhere!

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