In the seemingly unending quest to remain connected while traveling abroad, we recently decided to try yet another option when departing the US for a lengthy amount of time: iPhoneTrip. In a way, it sounds like the perfect solution. A single rental SIM, mailed to your address anywhere in the world, that you don't even have to return when you're done. There are claims of supporting "200+ countries," and if you don't have a smartphone or mobile hotspot at the ready, the company will rent you one of those, too. Of course, we've long since learned to take grandiose claims with an adequate amount of salt. Care to see how iPhoneTrip's rental SIM service stacks up against similar alternatives from Tep Wireless and XCom Global? Read on.
iPhoneTrip makes it relatively easy to understand what you're getting. The gist here is easy to grok: if you're planning a trip overseas where you'll need access to mobile data, you can rent a SIM from these guys that'll get you online from your destination without any nasty roaming charges. Despite the company's name, its rental SIMs will function in non-iPhone devices -- any unlocked smartphone or tablet that accepts SIM or micro-SIM cards can take advantage, while iPhones locked to AT&T can also indulge without jailbreaking. (One can only assume that nano-SIMs will pop up on its soon in the very near future in order to serve the blooming iPhone 5 market.)
You've got a few basic options. If you'll be staying put in one foreign nation, you can select a single-country SIM. If you're headed to multiple nations in Europe, there's a European SIM. Similarly, those heading to Asia-Pac have a SIM to choose from. And finally, the "global" SIM covers a staggering 200 countries, and is undoubtedly the wise choice for those who want to keep their options open when enticed by an unexpected border crossing. Frustratingly, there's no running list of supported nations on iPhoneTrip's website -- at least not one that's easily discoverable -- but you can tell if the nation(s) you're interested in are covered by "faking" the purchase of a one-nation SIM and spotting the names in the list of selections.
If you'll need mobile data while overseas, you can rent a SIM from these guys that'll get you online from your destination without any nasty roaming charges
Pricing starts at $5.99 per day to rent a single-country SIM with 50MB of daily data, with $7.99 each day ramping that up to 100MB per day. The "unlimited" option is -- predictably -- not as awesome as it sounds, and it rings up at $14.99 a day for a single country. iPhoneTrip's terms and conditions make it quite clear that "unlimited SIM card plans are subject to fair use terms of 500MB per day," and if you choose to exceed that, you risk having your SIM disabled. Lovely. Granted, "unlimited" hasn't meant "unlimited" in the cellular data world for some time now, but it's still pretty silly that the company's labeling this as such when "500MB/day" would be entirely more accurate.
The Europe SIM runs $15.99 per day for "unlimited," while the Asia SIM is inexplicably priced at $22.99/day for the same. Frankly, there's no reason to choose that over the World option, which is priced at daily rates of $9.99 for 50MB, $11.99 for 100MB and $16.99 for "unlimited."
If you need to rent yourself an iPhone 4S, one of those can be had for an extra $12.99 each day, while a lowly BlackBerry costs but $4.99 per day. Mobile hotspots start at just $2.99 / day, while an iPad will run you over $20 daily. Needless to say, you're probably better off springing for an unlocked Galaxy Nexus and then reselling it when you're done, or just picking up any 'ole unlocked smartphone on eBay prior to your trip. (But if we're being honest, you wouldn't be reading this article if you weren't already in possession of -- or at least considering the purchase of -- a smartphone.)
Pricing in perspective
For all but the lightest of users, even 100MB per day is too little. If you're traveling and expect to use Maps to navigate, Google to scope out enjoyable things to do, your email app to keep in touch, Instagram to brag, Foursquare to keep tabs, Facebook to kill time and your cloud drive of choice to sift through flight and hotel confirmation PDFs, it'll be dangerously easy to exceed 100MB in a day. If you consider tethering for even an hour-long browsing session on your laptop, you'll need more than 100MB of data.
With that said, we'll focus most of our attention on the unlimited plan -- which, as mentioned, realistically provides 500MB of daily cellular data. If you're heading off to a single country, you're looking at $14.99 per day for that. And wonderfully, that includes America; we've had quite a few friends from other nations ask about staying connected while visiting the US, and this certainly ranks high for convenience. AT&T makes it nearly impossible to rent a data SIM for short-term visits and T-Mobile stores aren't exactly everywhere here.
European visitors get it a bit cheaper -- $11.99 per day for an unlimited SIM. Everyone else should just spring for the World option at a daily rate of $16.99. Currently, XCom Global will rent you an aging MiFi for $12.95 per day with "unlimited" data in 195 countries. Truth is it relies on iPhoneTrip just the same, so you can enjoy a mild discount if you're okay using one of those insanely finicky, unquestionably frustrating Novatel MiFi units.
For European visitors only, there's another option to consider: Tep Wireless. This company serves Europe exclusively (though it has promised to expand that reach shortly), but its pricing model is a bit different. You'll pay $5 a day for an absolutely brilliant Huawei E586 mobile hotspot with 1GB of total data. An extra 1.4GB of data will run you $55, while an extra 4GB will ding you for $95. Depending on your usage, Tep may be a better deal, but remember this is for a mobile hotspot. Yes, you can carry that in your pocket and let your smartphone siphon from it via WiFi, but it's one extra device to worry about. On the flipside, you can easily use Tep's device to surf on your laptop, while tethering through an iPhoneTrip SIM may or may not cause headaches depending on how heavily you abuse it.
You may wonder if it's truly worthwhile to pay upwards of $15 per day to have your smartphone remain online when you travel to a new country. For those familiar with the locale that they're landing in, or for those who have a job that actually lets you ignore email on "vacation," perhaps it's not. For most every other passport-wielding jetsetter, we're guessing that it'd behoove you to keep a data connection nearby. We've explained before the virtues of having a connection while traveling, and when you consider that hotels routinely charge $10, $20 or more per day for a (typically lackluster) WiFi connection that can't leave the hotel grounds, the pricing is a bit more understandable.
Alternatively, consider what your home carrier would charge you if you didn't have a data roaming plan in place. AT&T regularly charges around $5 per megabyte for roaming data, and that can soar in some of the more remote nations. Watching a single YouTube video would be about the same as paying for dinner, and even a video of rich people eating rich people food wouldn't justify the trade. AT&T also offers a few international data bundles, but at $120 for 800MB, it's not even on the same playing field as iPhoneTrip.
Finally, it's worth noting that those who rent a SIM for 15 to 30 days will get a 10 percent discount on their total bill, while those renting for 31+ days will enjoy a 20 percent discount.
The order and acquisition process
iPhoneTrip's website may still be stuck in the early 2000s, but it serves its purpose. Selections are obvious and once you choose your dates and your SIM card, you're done. Our rental SIM -- a World variant for 32 days -- was ordered around four weeks prior to our departure. It arrived about two weeks later, along with a "backup SIM" in the event that the primary failed. A nice touch, indeed. Staying connected abroad is perhaps one of the most finicky things to accomplish, so having a backup from the start goes a long way in helping frantic travelers rest a little easier.
At midnight on the day of your departure, your SIM will be activated, and you'll receive an email notifying you that it's ready for use. Our unit was an AT&T SIM card, which leads us to believe that iPhoneTrip has simply worked out an agreement with Ma Bell to sell SIMs with international data packs at reduced rates. It makes sense -- iPhoneTrip's list of supported nations is a practical mirror of those supported by AT&T.
iPhoneTrip includes all of the instructions you'd need to program your locked iPhone to work internationally (APN reprogramming ain't that hard, as it turns out), and if you're using an unlocked Android phone as this editor did, you'll need only to flip on data roaming in Settings for everything to work as advertised.
Performance and protips
Our review SIM spent time sucking down emails and translating funny messages in bathroom stalls in Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Greece and the United States. Earlier in the year, we took an XCom Global MiFi through a handful of remote nations in the South Pacific with mostly negative results -- connections were nearly impossible to make and we found ourselves more frustrated than we'd like, greatly impacting productivity. Knowing that iPhoneTrip was at the heart of those units, we had low expectations for this particular SIM as we took off for countries in a different region of the world.
Much to our surprise and delight, the iPhoneTrip SIM worked like a champion throughout this editor's month away from home. Our primary test subject was an unlocked Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.1, and after triggering roaming data active, we never had to screw with the settings again. That's impressive. Connections were as solid as we were used to back home -- in other words, generally great, but we did spot a few coverage holes on some of the rail routes through the European countryside. Naturally, you can't blame this on iPhoneTrip -- the SIM won't function if there aren't towers nearby to serve it. Similarly, we've had an iPhoneTrip give us issues in Barcelona during Mobile World Congress, but the fact is that Barcelona's networks are never up to the chore.
We tethered on a few occasions, mostly to check email on a laptop and send a few attachments, and never noticed any major issues. On one particularly hairy night, our hotel WiFi went down completely, and being able to tether for a few hours was hugely beneficial. We also never came close to breaching the 500MB per day that our unlimited plan allowed us, and we were able to keep a close eye on usage thanks to Android's inbuilt Data Meter (it's in Settings, just so you know). That's a brilliant, brilliant tool, and for iPhone users, we'd highly recommend resetting your data counter before you land so that you too can have an idea of how much data you've chewed through.
We also kept data usage to a minimum by taking advantage of offline Maps on Android. We simply downloaded the cities that we'd be visiting to offline storage while we had WiFi access at a hotel (but back home would've been smarter!). That way, Maps will only need to tap into your data connection when you're searching for landmarks and the like.
Perhaps what is most telling about this experiment was that we rarely felt as if anything was different than in our homeland. When we got curious as to whether we had any new messages, we pulled out our smartphone, hit refresh and carried on. When we felt like checking in on Foursquare, we pulled out our phone and did it. Being able to do this in a foreign land without so much as a second thought is insanely refreshing. Particularly for those who have struggled with language barriers and local SIM acquisition routines in the past. Having internet access as soon as you land is an incredibly powerful feeling. You're instantly able to use Maps to navigate to a nearby metro station. You're instantly able to check currency conversion rates. You're instantly able to email your loved ones back home and assure them that you're safe.
Perhaps what is most telling about this experiment was that we rarely felt as if anything was different than in our homeland.
Being able to use a smartphone without wondering how much money you're burning up on roaming costs is tremendously useful. Perhaps business travelers will agree with that sentiment the most, but even adventurous vacationers will surely appreciate the ability to journal their excursion via social check-ins, status updates and photo uploads. And, of course, the utility of being able to use online translation services to read signs, Maps to navigate a new place and Google to check the status of your upcoming flight cannot be understated. It's also worth noting that the customer service provided by iPhoneTrip is second to none.
Seriously -- this shouldn't be understated -- it's a world-class organization. Yours truly had to cut a trip short by a few days, and within two hours, I had confirmation of a pro-rated refund for the days that wouldn't be used. The company replied via email (on a Saturday, no less) that it would simply deactivate the SIM on the new date of return, and refund the leftover monies back to the original credit card. If you've ever tried to get similar treatment from [insert travel company here] when unexpected events force cancellations, you'll understand just how shocking and impressive this is.
Yes, just like at home, you'll hit spots of weak coverage where you can't get anything to load, but we had no complaints whatsoever with iPhoneTrip as a service provider. The frictionless order and delivery process was ideal, and not having to return anything at the conclusion of one's trip is another boon. One could argue that it's tough to put a price on being able to use your phone like a local while traveling, but iPhoneTrip has put a price on it. If you're still balking at the idea of paying around $15 per day for on-demand mobile data regardless of where you go, the service simply isn't for you. For those in the target market, we'd put one of these rental SIMs up there with "passport" and "underwear" when it comes to essentials that you can't leave home without.
The Europe SIM provides coverage across Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Jersey, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Vatican City (Holy See).
The Asia SIM provides coverage all over Australia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.