Regular readers will know that I’m something of a “making sure my cell phone works when I’m traveling” fanatic. This is partly a very real concern, so I can be reached to help address any technical issues that come up at the office, and partly a fabrication that lets me experiment with different approaches to doing so.
When it comes to getting your unlocked GSM phone working away from home, there are two main approaches you can take: buy a local country-specific prepaid SIM card, or buy a multi-country prepaid SIM that’s purpose-built for travelers.
Country-specific SIMs have the benefit of being cheaper to get (there’s often no up-front cost at all), cheaper to use, and more useful if you need data as well as voice. They’re generally easy to find – any electronics store usually has a wide range, or you can purchase them directly from mobile providers’ shops – and the only challenge is decrypting the information about how to use and recharge them, which is often in a non-English language. Country-specific SIMs are best when you’re traveling in a single country for a longer period of time: they generally offer very attractive rates in-country and very non-attractive rates calling across borders.
I’ve used country-specific SIMs in Portugal, Croatia, Denmark and France and have had a generally positive experience once I’ve figured out the basics of recharging, checking balance, using data and so on.
Multi-country SIMs, by contrast, generally involve a higher up-front cost and a higher per-minute cost, but if you’re traveling to multiple countries you can generally save time and money with these because you don’t need to source a country-specific SIM for each country you visit, you can give out a single number to the folks back home, and the per-minute cost, although higher, is generally less than calling country-to-country with a country-specific SIM.
My first multi-country SIM was from United Mobile, and I bought it at the post office in Geneva, Switzerland when I was in the city for the Lift conference in 2006. It served me well for several trips, in-coming calls were generally free (depending on the country) and it was easy to recharge on the web. Like many multi-country SIMs, it was a “call-back” SIM, meaning that you dialed a call as you normally would, waited, and then received an incoming call connecting you with the number you originally called; this is a little cumbersome, but it generally works as advertised.
Eventually United Mobile went out of business, my number went dead, and I went back to using country-specific SIMs for a while.
For our trip this fall, however, I decided to look into a multi-country SIM again, as our trip was taking us to Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia and I wanted a simple solution.
Telestial Passport US SIM
The Telestial Passport US SIM seemed perfect for my task. The up-front cost of $29 was relatively low, the per-minute costs were reasonable, incoming calls are free in all the countries we were visiting, it provides a U.S. as well a U.K. number, and it was possible to use prepaid data to boot.
I ordered the card from Telestial’s Toronto office the week before we left and it arrived via FedEx two days later. It included complete documentation as well as instructions on how to login to an online service to recharge, check balance, see call history and, interestingly, to set up an automatic travel journal that, much like Google Latitude, lets you leave digital breadcrumbs to trace your travels.
Before we left I set our home phone to call-forward to the office phone, and set my extension on the Asterisk-based office phone system to give callers the option of transferring to the U.S. number attached to the SIM card (calls to the U.S. number incur a 19 cents/minute surcharge, but the total cost of the transferred call worked out better this way than transferring to the U.K. number).
Having a phone proved its worth several times over the trip. It let Catherine and I stay in touch in Venice (I put an old German Vodafone SIM in her phone with enough balance left on it to allow her to send a receive text messages), it let me coordinate visits to relatives in Croatia, helped us locate our hotel from the highway in Zagreb and got us out of a jam when we ended up under a highway underpass in Munich looking for a circus that turned out to be several kilometers away. It also allowed me to work with Johnny back here at the home office to solve a technical issue that came up when we were in Basel.
How much did it cost me?
But this luxury didn’t come cheap, mostly because I over-indulged on the data side. In total I burned through $125 in charges over the 14 days we were away, or about $9 a day on average. These charges broke down like this:
|Charge Type||$US Charged|
|SMS Messages Sent||$11.00|
|Outbound Voice Calls||$16.94|
|Inbound Voice Calls||$7.03|
|Data in Switzerland||$7.76|
|Data in Italy||$26.60|
|Data in Slovenia||$21.00|
|Data in Croatia||$35.00|
The prepaid data service that comes with the SIM is billed by the megabyte with the stipulation that “minimum charge is for 100KB and usage is charged in increments of 10KB.” This seems reasonable until you see how it works in practice.
In Slovenia, for example, my entire data usage took place in during a 34 minute window during which I only transferred 150KB of data in total, for which the nominal rate is $15/megabyte. You would think that the rate I was charged should have been about a dollar. Instead I was billed $21.00 because my 34 minutes of usage was broken down into 14 “sessions” of 10-20 KB each charged a $1.50.
So what looked like a reasonable $15/megabyte ended up being, effectively, $143/megabyte because of the way it was billed.
So, in other words, data isn’t such a good deal with the Passport SIM.
The other issue with data is that, as is explained up front, “you may need to select a different network from the network on which you make and receive calls.” For my Nokia N95 this meant, in practice, that I had to switch from “automatic” to “manual” operator selection, then manually select the right operator for data, use the data, and then switch back. This was not only cumbersome, but didn’t seem to work 100% of the time.
Voice and SMS
On the voice side things worked pretty well as advertised. There were two instances in Munich where, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, the phone simply wouldn’t allow me to make an outbound call. But otherwise I was able to make and receive calls to and front Europe, Canada and the U.S. without problems.
SMS text messages were a little less reliable: I could send text messages without problems and every message I sent was received. But I couldn’t always receive text messages: Catherine’s German Vodafone SIM, for example, could send me an SMS only some of the time, and a Croatian relative could never manage to get an SMS through to me, even though she could call me by voice without issue (she called her mobile operator in Croatia and was told that some sort of inter-operator agreement to allow for this was missing).
The “travel journal” feature, which is opt-in, was kind of cool (you can see the journal that was created here and see the map of my travels here, in both cases because I opted to make mine public; you can also set it to private or to password-protected). While it wasn’t of particular use to me, and while I didn’t use its blog-like features, I can see how this might be attractive to others (and, if nothing else, it drives home the notion that mobile operators, and, by extension, the police, can track you using your phone).
Would I use a Passport SIM again?
Would I use the Telestial Passport SIM again? For voice, yes: it’s simple, cheap and works as advertised. I wouldn’t want to rely on the SMS features given my experiences, and I’d avoid data entirely because of the cost.