We could survive in a world without the Internet but it wouldn’t be the first thing we would give up.
Our daily life revolves around the capabilities and services provided by the World Wide Web. From navigating the streets in foreign countries to talking with our friends and family back home; we depend on the internet. We use Google Docs to write our blog that is published by WordPress. We rent hotels, apartments and cars using online sites and tools. We buy train and plane tickets online and use paper saving electronic tickets whenever we can. We check the weather before going out, review cities we want to travel to and subscribe to online news services in the countries we visit. We would go so far as to say that nearly everything we do is enabled somehow by the online community. Google Translate is a good example.
Google Translate is a lifeline without which our travels would be much more complicated. Foreign language websites and documents can be easily translated allowing us to stay abreast of the local news or understand what it is we are agreeing to or are being asked to do.
We frequently use Google Translate when ordering lunch in a foreign language restaurant – which is always fun. We have never and will never expect English to be spoken in a foreign country but we are grateful whenever it is. We would love to be multilingual and are duly impressed when we meet anyone who is. Still, we are quite prepared to charge forward and do what we can in the local language. Our attempts provide great comic relief and nothing but fond memories have come from it including those “interesting” plates that have arrived at our table.
“Did we order that!?”
Whether or not it becomes lunch is another question, but it always becomes a memory we will cherish.
The 87 apps on our phones and the 122 bookmarks on our laptop represent the tools we use to enable our travels. We agree that some things can be done equally well with nothing more than a book from one of the many travel companies, however, an online book club can provide hours of enjoyment without adding to the weight of your suitcase.
We have dear friends whose life wouldn’t change all that much if they accidentally dropped their smartphone down a storm sewer. For us that would be a transformative event. We wouldn’t go scrambling after the phone but we would consider it. On our surviving phone we would be searching for the nearest electronics store or signing up for a tour of the local storm sewers.
So it should come as no surprise that one of the first things we did when arriving in Europe was to consider our options for connecting our smartphones to this indispensable cornucopia of knowledge.
Alright, joking aside, we did want to make sure we could find each other in a crowd should we get separated. We also wanted many of the other features offered by a smartphone; most notably Google Maps or an equivalent.
The answer to this dilemma is purportedly quite simple; purchase a SIM card good for 30 days in the country you are visiting. If you are staying longer you might purchase two or three, throwing away SIM cards as they expire.
Ultimately this is what you want to do, or at least a version of this, but there is more than one nuance to consider. For those readers that simply want a solution and don’t care how we arrived at that solution then let us explain here.
What We Ultimately Chose to Do
We purchased a fairly inexpensive smartphone in Italy that supports dual-SIM slots. We purchased a SIM card from a Vodafone store and signed up for a €20 a month contract that covers all of the European Union.
That is a very simple rendering of our adequate solution but it is not what we ultimately want to do.
The Devil and All of His Friends are in the Details
If you are interested in the details then read on but first let’s get a few definitions out of the way.
The phone company reserves a phone number for your exclusive use when you sign a contract with them. People use this phone number to reach you. The phone company uses this number and more to identify services you are entitled to use such as SMS (texting). This phone number is reserved exclusively for your use as long as you continue to pay your phone bill (active). Stop paying your phone bill and the number is no longer yours to use (inactive).
There are other ways to keep your phone number when you travel but without firsthand knowledge we are reluctant to suggest them.
SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module )
A SIM card is a tiny device that when plugged into a cell phone (active) identifies that cell phone as belonging to a specific phone number and billing account. When the SIM card is active anyone calling your phone number will be connected to the cell phone that has your specific SIM card installed. If you remove the SIM card from your cell phone the SIM card is no longer active (inactive). It remains so until you plug it back in to your cell phone or another cell phone. The password you assign to unlock your smartphone is written to, and used by, your SIM card.
Without an active SIM card your phone number remains valid but the phone company is not able to establish which services the cell phone [user] is entitled to and therefore will not provide anything other than emergency services.
Phone Company (a.k.a. Cellular Service Provider)
The phone company owns the equipment that establishes a cellular network and the phone numbers used to access their network. The phone company contracts to you the use of their network and provides you with a phone number to enable this service. That phone number and the associated billing information is written to a SIM card which you are given in order to enable your cell phone to connect to the phone company’s network. As long as this contract is valid (active) you have exclusive use of the phone number provided and all services associated with this phone number. If this contract becomes invalid (inactive) then the phone number is recycled and your SIM card becomes ineffective.
In some cases you may be able to suspend your contract, not having to make payments during this time, but then the phone number is also suspended and the SIM card ineffective as long as the contract remains this way.
In the USA we use Verizon as our carrier. Verizon provides a level of security against SIM card Hijacking that AT&T and T-Mobile did not when we made that choice, unfortunately Verizon’s solution to international travel is limited. Verizon’s customer service is excellent so we consulted them prior to leaving the USA. While they were very helpful they did not have any answers for us other than one offering, which is nothing more than a stop-limit on international charges. We appreciate that even if the employee knew of other options he or she wasn’t going to offer up alternative information that might lose us as customers. Just as well because this road has a few twists and turns.
Keeping Your Existing Phone Number
For most travelers, keeping your existing phone number is important as you, most likely, intend to return home after your trip. You may not want to have to give your friends and family a new phone number each time you return. While you are traveling, if you want people to be able to call or text you using this number, then keeping this number and the associated SIM card active is a must. Unfortunately that means you also get annoying robo-calls in the middle of the night.
There are also services that are attached to this phone number that work better if this number and the associated SIM card remains active; your credit card for example. If you gave permission to your credit card provider to track your location, most likely when you loaded their app onto your smartphone, then they will use this number to locate your phone and presumably you. If your credit card and your smartphone are both present then there is a higher likelihood that the impending purchase is legitimate. However, the criminal that stole your credit card may be interrupted when purchasing that Gucci purse because your smartphone is still with you elsewhere in the city.
WhatsApp is connected to your phone number as well as banking services and more and you need to keep your current phone number and the associated SIM card active if you are currently using, or intend to use, 2FA (two factor authentication) on any of your more critical online accounts.
And therein lies the first curve in the road; keeping your current phone number and the associated SIM card active while purchasing a second SIM card at your new destination.
Purchasing a Second SIM card
Purchasing a second SIM card is a simple matter; you select your carrier of choice and one of the handful of plans offered and pay the associated fee. You can purchase them at the airport upon arrival or at any network provider. As mentioned above, we purchased ours at a Vodafone store in Italy.
Vodafone offers a €20 per month plan that allows you to “top up” your plan each month (rather than continually replacing SIM cards). You can do this online, using your credit card or you can simply purchase one or more pre-paid SIM cards that you intend to use and then toss them when they expire.
Since we were planning to be in Europe for an extended period of time and weren’t certain about pre-paying SIM cards, we thought pursuing a contract with a cellular provider and having access to an online portal would be a better choice; and it has been but there have been issues.
This is in addition to having to purchase a new phone but more on that later.
Beware any Language Issues
It wasn’t until we got back to our apartment that we learned that the customer portal was in Italian since that was the language of our contract. Now every communication with Vodafone was in Italian even though Vodafone’s headquarters are in England. If we had purchased prepaid SIM cards we probably wouldn’t care what language they were in, but that option costs more and is less convenient in the long run. In any case this now created a problem for us as we attempted to get our customer portal setup.
After failing to get through to customer service we had to return to the vendor who sold us the SIM card (and phone) asking for her help. She informed us that there is an option on the phone for assistance in English, however how to select the option for assistance in another language was explained in Italian. Anyway, she connected us to an English speaking person and after twenty minutes we were set up on the customer portal, but still every web page was in Italian.
Normally Google would translate the pages for us but because the pages were mostly text inside graphics this recourse failed. In these cases there is often an option to display the English version of these pages but there was no button that we could find.
In addition, Vodafone began sending us emails that were also in Italian and we had difficulty getting them translated into English in their entirety for all the same reasons.
Struggling with our imperfect Italian and increasing frustration with trying to “top up” our plan in Italian, as soon as we got to Ireland, we purchased a replacement SIM card that resulted in a customer portal in English. Life is now good and we are happy with this outcome.
The Vodafone solution has worked well but when we leave Europe and move on to Asia, we plan to buy the temporary 30-day SIM cards because a Thai or Vietnamese or Japanese portal will be beyond us, especially if there is no translation option.
Utilizing Dual SIM Slots
Installing a newly purchased SIM card into a smartphone is easy enough but it also has the potential to present a few complications.
If you have a smartphone that supports dual SIM slots there is no need to read further. You can simply install the new SIM card in the empty slot keeping your current SIM card active. Through the Settings option on your smartphone you will have choices as to how your smartphone will utilize the two SIM cards.
If you live in North America, Japan, Ireland or the UK then it is less likely that you have a smartphone that supports dual SIM slots. In this case you must replace your current SIM card with the new SIM card. Doing this presents many complexities so read on.
Replacing your current SIM card
If your smartphone has only one SIM card slot then one option is to replace your current SIM card. If you replace your SIM card then the associated cell phone number becomes a broken link to those who would want to reach you short of leaving voicemail messages. Now that you are utilizing a new SIM card in your smartphone all the features we discussed above that are associated with your previous number will no longer work unless you revisit the requirements of each one.
While this sounds surmountable you are more likely to run into a quagmire of Terms and Conditions when trying to attach your new number to some existing services. For one, an American financial institution doesn’t usually approve of you having an European phone number and probably vice-versa. To them it seems to follow that you might then also have a home address in a different country and that will get your account frozen.
Losing your current SIM card
If you chose to replace your SIM card then it is important to note that the SIM card you have removed is a very tiny device that can easily be lost when it is not plugged in to your cell phone and losing one can bring a host of unfortunate circumstances. We have never lost a SIM card so we don’t know what complications might arise but we doubt it would be a simple matter to replace it and you may lose your current cell phone number in the process.
If you do lose a SIM card that you are currently maintaining (paying to keep active) in order to keep your current cell phone number, you may have also created a massive security issue for yourself. This is also true if your cellular provider of choice doesn’t take precautions to ensure your SIM card can’t be used by someone else.
SIM card Security
As mentioned above your smartphone has increasingly become a source of identity. Since our smartphones are always with us, many companies have jumped on board offering services that make our lives easier. These conveniences however, can become headaches if we lose our smartphone or our (primary) SIM card.
Most likely it will be the vacuum cleaner that finds your lost (primary) SIM card but if it is a person that finds it then it would be easy for them to insert your SIM card into their cell phone. If there is no PIN or password, or a weak password, associated with your phone, and therefore your SIM card, it is possible for their phone to become the end-point of your cell phone number allowing them to make calls, or worse, to who knows where at your expense.
Losing your (primary) SIM card, is not much different than losing your smartphone and the reason why you should always keep both secure.
The good news though is that the (secondary) SIM card comes with fewer worries since this SIM card provides for very limited services and the associated plan is only valid for 30 days after which point the card becomes useless. It is the very nature of this type of cellular plan that puts significant limits on any criminal activity removing any concerns you might have with tossing one away.
Still, it is worth saying that, when purchasing your (secondary) SIM card it is probably a good idea to have some idea of who the seller is since you are going to plug that card in to your smartphone.
To be clear, in the context of this blog, what we are discussing is enabling a cellular phone, for a limited period of time, on a foreign county’s cellular network, while visiting that country. There are many people who have two (primary) SIM cards installed in their phones but that is not in the scope of what we are discussing here.
Having Insurance on your Smartphone
While we were considering our options, one of our cell phones died. When we purchased that phone we also purchased the insurance plan to replace the handset should something like this happen. If we were in the country where we purchased the insurance (USA) it would have been a simple swap for a new phone, but we were not in the USA. Without boring everyone with the sordid details it became very expensive and impractical to ship the replacement phone here and the defective phone back to Verizon so we were stuck. But while one door closed, another opened.
Purchasing a New Smartphone
To resolve this increasing list of issues and concerns, while we were in Italy, we decided to simply purchase a new, relatively inexpensive smartphone (€299) that supported dual SIMs to replace the phone that died. As we mentioned earlier we selected Vodafone Italy as our provider who offers free roaming anywhere in the European Union. We stopped short of putting our second phone on this plan because we were not about to replace the SIM card for all of the reasons discussed above and buying two relatively inexpensive smartphones was not an inexpensive option.
Armed with our new phone and an Italian SIM card off we went, only to find that we couldn’t get Google Maps to operate correctly. Who knew that a brand new but relatively inexpensive phone would not have the necessary chip installed to support GPS? At least all the other aspects of this phone work well enough, albeit slowly. While sitting in a cafe we can look up opening times of museums and galleries without the need of WiFi. More importantly we can stand on the doorstep of an Airbnb that uses an electronic lock and open the door; something that was impossible to do with our previous smartphones.
Of course, if smartphones with dual SIM slots were more prevalent in North America, this might have been a much shorter blog. We would only have noted that having to maintain our cell phone plan in the USA in addition to our European plan was a workable, if pricier, solution.
Alternatively we could have brought two phones with us if we hadn’t turned in our older smartphones for a credit against our new smartphones. This has the added advantage of keeping the phone with the most critical data on it in the hotel or apartment while bringing the less important phone with us into the crowds. If the less important phone is lost or stolen the impact is not as great but smartphones have been stolen from hotel rooms too.
And you are back paying for two cellular plans instead of one. For short-term travel this is not an issue but it gets pricey when you are traveling long-term.
Depending on the length of your trip, you can simply accept the limited capabilities available to you by not connecting to the local cellular network and get on with it. When it comes to keeping in touch with friends and family while you are traveling, there are many inexpensive options that don’t require cellular connectivity.
We use WhatsApp extensively for texting and calling with our family. This works well when everyone you want to communicate with has a WhatsApp account and access to WiFi but the voice capability has deteriorated since Facebook purchased the company. Nowadays we experience lags and dropouts during the call which is annoying. The texting feature works well.
Video Calling Software
In the past we have used Skype (purchased recently by Microsoft) FaceTime and WhatsApp to chat with friends and family while we were traveling. Recently we have been introduced to Zoom. All offer face-to-face calls with our family and friends with the use of WiFi. With the call quality of WhatsApp in question we have been trying Zoom and have not experienced any issues with the quality of those calls although we are concerned about the security issues that have come to light.
There are plenty of other ways to utilize WiFi and the internet to inexpensively stay in touch. The bigger issue is when WiFi connectivity is not available. This is especially true when you are out in the city visiting museums and galleries where we have found WiFi lacking or connectivity to the internet iffy.
Having a Phone on the Local Cellular Network
While having your smartphone on the local cellular network may not be considered vital, we think it is important. Not every restaurant, museum or gallery offers WiFi and when they do the service is often limited and very local, usually dropping as soon as you step outside. In a world of cafe dining on the street this is an issue.
Not having access to WiFi or any cellular network becomes a problem if you want to split up for a few hours, yet stay in touch via calling or texting. The ability to locate needed shops and services while you are still in the area is of great value and looking up opening times of your next stop or calling an Uber or Cabify requires internet connectivity.
Just as important, the real-time information you get when using Google Maps online is more helpful than what you have available to you when using the off-line version.
Going forward we hope to mitigate all of these issues by choosing Google Fi as our cellular provider thus enabling worldwide coverage without roaming charges, eliminating the need for a second SIM card (almost (?) everywhere).
If this proves out we would then purchase a Google Pixel smartphone that still only supports one SIM card but with Google Fi that shouldn’t be an issue. This solution offers one consolidated payment and cost savings over having two cellular plans to pay for.
However, a good question to ask will be what happens if the phone dies while we are elsewhere in the world. Will we be able to get our Google Pixel smartphone fixed or replaced wherever we are or are we going to be stuck buying a relatively inexpensive smartphone?
Depending on what we learn, another option would be to select a compatible Samsung Galaxy Dual-SIM smartphone still using Google FI as our cellular provider. This might be a more flexible option but we like the Google Pixel platform and especially the camera.
We have heard that Apple might be coming out with a Dual-SIM smartphone so that is another option. We are unaware if Apple phones will be compatible with Google Fi but you will at least have dual-SIM slots.
Where the issues are hidden with these choices is still to be learned.
We believe that smartphones and the Internet not only make our travels easier, we are certain we couldn’t do what we do, as easily as we do, without them.
We think purchasing a (secondary) SIM card in the destination country is a good idea if you have a smartphone that supports dual-SIM slots; otherwise consider bringing a second smartphone with you.
Or try Google Fi (which we have yet to do) if you don’t want to purchase a new SIM card at each destination.
Whether you choose a cellular plan like we did or simply intend to discard SIM cards as they expire is your decision. It probably only matters on how long and where you intend to travel.
Whatever you choose, we hope we have shed light on some of the issues and options available. If you think we have missed anything please let us know; we would love to hear from you.
Cheers from these travelers,
Ted and Julia