Say Goodbye to Expensive Roaming Charges: How to use a cheap eSIM for mobile data while traveling abroad

Introduction

In preparation for going away on holiday, I was thinking about the cheapest way to access mobile data whilst abroad. Before you read on about eSIM's, no doubt you'll want to know whether this is worth your time. So, consider a holiday to Spain. With O2, you will typically be charged £6 a day for roaming charges – for a 1 or 2 week holiday, this will cost you between £42 to £82. Factor in several family members with their phones and it can be quite costly.

Comparatively, you can buy an eSIM with various data allowance and duration, such as:

  • £3.60 providing 1GB for 7 days
  • £5.20 providing 2GB for 15 days
  • £9.10 providing 5GB for 30 days
  • £20 providing 20GB for 30 days

Background

Previously I've used a few different options:

  • Enable roaming on your physical SIM and take the daily charge or fixed rate - whilst this is convenient, it can be expensive, especially for a long trip - for example, the charge from mobile operator O2 can be around £6 to £8 a day. Okay for a weekend away, but quite costly for longer trip.
  • Buy a physical SIM card at your destination - this isn't as convenient, but definitely an option for cheap local data. Notable pain points are the inability to access mobile data until you get hold of the SIM itself, and not being able to use your other SIM card, unless you happen to have a dual SIM phone. Also, you need to physically remove and replace the physical SIM card (who remembers to pack that SIM removal tool on holiday?)

For this trip, I also needed to consider my mobile data hungry daughter. After some Googling, I came across eSIM's. I was sceptical at first but found it to be the way forward.  The benefits I found:

  • Substantially cheaper mobile data compared to daily roaming charges from your home operator
  • Ability to use your physical SIM card for calls/texts alongside an eSIM for mobile data
  • Being to access mobile data from the point you arrive in the country without incurring roaming charge fees from your home mobile operator - Really helpful when you want to browse the web for an address, load up Google maps, or contact somebody on WhatApp on arrival
  • Being able to install multiple eSIM's for different countries
  • Ability to track your mobile data usage for your eSIM in a real time state (for most of the eSIM's anyway)

How do you do it?

I was using Android devices. The process will differ for iPhone but the premise if still the same. The eSIM provider I used was Airalo, but there are other providers. Here are the steps...

  • Setup an Airalo account.
  • Determining how much mobile data you’ll need
  • Purchase an eSIM for the Region/Country you're visiting
  • Download and install the eSIM (timing of this can be key)
  • Switching to your eSIM for Mobile Data and Roaming (just before or when you arrive at your destination)

Setup an Airalo account

An easy step. Download and install the app from your app store, and register an account. As a note, it’s not a requirement to install the Airalo app on the device you’re going to install and use the eSIM on. It just makes it easier to check your use and buy more data if needed etc.

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mobillium.airalo&hl=en&gl=US

https://apps.apple.com/us/app/airalo-esim-phone-internet/id1475911720

Determining how much mobile data you need

Worth spending a little time on this.  If you're travelling somewhere where you're likely to have WiFi at a hotel for example, then your need for GB's of Mobile Data is probably minimal.  However, if you have no WiFi available, then it could be likely that you'll end up using more data than normal, especially if you're doing things like downloading films for flights etc. If you get your prediction wrong, it's no big deal.  You can track how much Mobile Data you're using and if need be, you can easily top up your eSIM with a top up.

Purchase and eSIM for the Region/Country you're visiting

You can purchase an eSIM ahead of time. There are a couple of things to consider here though:

  • The amount of mobile data your require
  • The period you want the eSIM active for – they typically come as 7-day, 15-days or 30-days

If you're visiting just one country, then it's simple.  You select the country and the available data package you want and the period. If you're visiting multiple countries, it may be worth looking at whether a regional eSIM could cover all of your destinations. In my case, there wasn't one regional eSIM which covered the locations I was visiting, so I purchased individual eSIM's for each country visiting.

Download and install the eSIM

You typically want to install the eSIM before you travel to your destination. However, be careful about the timing due to different eSIM activation types. For example, there are two types of activation and when the clock starts ticking.

  1. When you install the eSIM onto your device
  2. When your eSIM connects to the regional mobile network

Details are provided in the Airalo app on which activation type it is – so be sure to check those.

You can use the app to install the eSIM, or alternatively you can scan a QR code to import the QR code for installing the eSIM. Note: to install an eSIM you will need an internet connection.

For activation type 1, I would recommend installing the eSIM on the day you leave. For activation type 2, you can install the eSIM well ahead of time.

Switching to your eSIM for Mobile Data and Roaming

Before you arrive at your destination, I recommend switching off Mobile Data and Roaming for your physical SIM. Be aware that some providers try to charge you for text messages or calls received, so I recommend that you consider disabling your physical SIM altogether.

When you arrive at your destination, enable your eSIM. The instructions on the specific settings are provided from Airalo, but these are typically enabling Mobile Data and Roaming for your installed eSIM. You should then have an established mobile data connection and can go ahead and use WhatsApp, Google Maps and general internet access.

To keep an eye on things, it’s typically possible to check the Airalo app or add a widget to check your mobile data usage, although it’s not possible for some eSIM’s.

Summary

Although this can be quite fiddly, I think it was definitely worth the effort and I would definitely use them again.


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