Which SIM card is best for traveling in Europe and Asia?

Which SIM card is best for traveling in Europe and Asia?

Lonely Planet’s Central Asia and Indian Subcontinent Destinations Editor, Akanksha Singh, weighs in on which is better for mobile phone users on the go in Europe and Asia: physical SIM cards or eSIMs.

Question: I will be traveling to Europe for a month and then backpacking through Asia. I usually use WhatsApp and FaceTime to call friends and family back home, but I don’t want to pay the ridiculous roaming charges. Does it make more sense than an eSIM card or do I have to get a physical (local) SIM card at every place I visit?

Answer: Technology is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I remember being a kid and thinking about a banana phone (you know, like in The matrix) was the pinnacle of technology. Nowadays, however, we have these rectangles in the palms of our hands where we can do everything from streaming to setting up a second SIM before the trip.

A woman uses a mobile phone on a Paris street with the Eiffel Tower in the background
eSIM is a digital version of a SIM card that you can purchase before arriving at your destination © FJ Jimenez / Getty Images

The difference between physical SIM and eSIM

SIM stands for Subscriber Identification Module. An eSIM is an embedded SIM card – essentially a digital version of a SIM card that can be programmed remotely. In other words, you don’t need to open your phone’s SIM card slot to insert it. However, you need an unlocked and compatible device to use the eSIM – unfortunately it won’t work on the banana phone, for example.

Which phones support eSIM?

This depends on a number of factors. iPhones, for example, have supported eSIMs since 2018. A good way to check your phone to see if it’s eSIM compatible is to check the compatibility (handset) requirements of the eSIM provider you’re using. HolaFly is a popular option for Europe; Airalo is the preferred choice for parts of Asia, but also check all the eSIM plans offered by your mobile service provider (here’s a handy list for iPhone users).

eSIMs offer flexibility and are easy to set up

For multi-destination travel, eSIM providers offer plans that cover multiple countries. As with physical SIM cards, it pays to do your homework and see which plans and providers suit your needs – data, voice calls, etc.

The main advantage of going the eSIM route is that you can purchase your plan before your travel date (or even a few hours before departure), saving you both the time and hassle of buying a physical SIM card. What’s more, you can activate your eSIM the moment you land, meaning you’re ready to go as usual when you’re at your destination. (Just remember to switch from your country’s SIM card to the eSIM provider to avoid paying roaming charges!)

Two people on a boat are looking at mobile phones and smiling
In some places, rates and connectivity may be better with a physical SIM card © Image Source / Getty Images

eSIMs do not contain plastic

As a slight added bonus: if you skip a physical SIM, you’ll avoid even the tiniest bit of plastic waste – no nano SIM and packaging waste to worry about. Plus, unless you have a second physical SIM card slot, you won’t have to worry about removing one awkward SIM card and inserting another!

Physical (local) SIM cards may offer better rates and connectivity

Depending on where you’re traveling, physical SIM cards may be the cheaper option (and if you don’t have an eSIM-compatible mobile device, it’s your only option).

eSIMs require stable wi-fi to activate at your travel destination, and depending on which eSIM carrier you’re going with and where, connectivity can be spotty. With a physical SIM, there’s a certain level of guarantee when it comes to connectivity – you just plug in your new SIM and you’re good to go.

All that aside: the future certainly points to eSIM (with some phone companies making eSIM-only models). If you have the option at your destination and have done your homework, try an eSIM.

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