How To Avoid International Data Roaming Charges

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One of the best perks we miss when working for a multinational company is the negotiated telecom deal it has. For a long time, we had a $30 unlimited international data plan for the iPhone — it didn’t matter where we were or how much data we consumed, the monthly fee was only $30.

Now that we are doing this thing, we obviously don’t have that perk anymore. We miss simple things like having access to Google Maps or being able to search for things on the go, internationally, without paying exorbitant data roaming charges. So how do we manage now?

We Use an Unlocked MiFi

What is a MiFi? It is basically a WiFi router that is connected to a mobile network. Most MiFis allow up to 5 devices to be connected to it. Coupled with a prepaid data SIM that we purchase in the country we are in, we have internet access no matter where we are. We use an unlocked Huawei E5331 from Amazon for around $70.

01_mifi

Huawei E5331 MiFi Router

Here’s an example of our savings. Half of the team was in Southeast Asia for this past Christmas holiday. We went to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia. In Hong Kong, we purchased a prepaid data SIM from CSL/1010 (100HKD or ~$13USD), giving us unlimited data access for a week. Buying a data roaming plan from Verizon or AT&T would’ve cost us at least $25 for just 100MB of data. Having a MiFi was a huge saving — and we didn’t have to worry about going over. 100MB is not a lot of data and apps use up data like no tomorrow.

We only turn on WiFi on our phones and connect to the MiFi via WiFi. We then depend on Viber and Skype for voice calls.

Using a prepaid data SIM works in most countries. Some countries like Japan and Brazil only allow vendors to sell prepaid SIMs to legal residents. How do we work around this limitation?

Data Access in Countries Where Prepaid SIMs are Only Available to Legal Residents

In countries such as Japan and Brazil where we cannot legally purchase a prepaid data SIM, we use a vendor like XCOM Global to rent a MiFi device before departing from the United States. This is not a cheap solution: XCOM Global, for example, charges $14.95 a day for a MiFi device. However, if you need data, this is still significantly cheaper than an international data roaming plan.

Rely on WiFi

In most countries we’ve visited, we’ve found that WiFi coverage is usually good, which makes WiFi a decent backup plan. But obviously, WiFi might not be available when you most need it.

So What Are the Caveats with a MiFi?

Here are few of the shortcomings with MiFi:

  • Poor battery life. We also have an LTE MiFi for domestic use and their battery life sucks too. We always carry an external battery pack with us.
  • 3G coverage outside of major cities usually isn’t great.

 

What Else Do You Need to Know?

We rely on the Pay as You Go Sim with Data Wiki to check for the best provider we should use for the country we visit. Another resource that you will probably need is the Access Point Name (APN) settings for the provider, we use GSM Nation’s APN finder to set it. While most providers will work without any APN settings with the MiFi, some will need it in order to access the Internet.

This has worked well for us  and allows us to be connected no matter where we are so we can update this site daily.

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23 Responses to "How To Avoid International Data Roaming Charges"

  1. Todd says:

    Thanks for this timely post. We’re headed to the UK and Ireland and had been shopping with the various providers there for a SIM. The MiFi might be a solution for us for our phones as well as our laptops.

    Reply
  2. Endo says:

    Was in japan on vacation, bought a prepaid sim from b-mobile at BIC camera for $30 usd. Don’t k ow were you get this thing about being a legal resident. Used sim.on unlocked iphone worked great. All info needed to activate and set up on sim package.

    Reply
  3. Jiggie says:

    Just get a Tmobile account. Ive been traveling all over and getting free roaming and txt. Not trying to sell them but can’t beat free roaming..worldwide..

    Reply
  4. Renae says:

    This is very timely. I found the Mifis in Thailand when a hotel gave me one to get internet wherever I went. I was thrilled. When I got to Japan, I rented one for $100.00 for an entire month, unlimited data. It was brilliant! I just arrived to N. Korea and did the same thing at the airport, rent the device.

    Now I want to buy my own and just find the SIM card in the different countries I go. They were not available in Japan (I asked) do you know of a good brand in N. Korea? And can I get an unlocked Mifi? I was disappointed it wasn’t available in Japan, so gave up.

    I’m on a trip around the world that’s taking my sister and I to at least 25 countries and this little gizmo is a must!!!

    Reply
    • TFD says:

      @Renae – North Korea? We have no idea. As for Japan – you can rent a data sim from B-COM for about $30 with 1GB of data.

      Reply
  5. AY says:

    Thanks very much for this info and very timely for my trip to Asia.

    Reply
  6. Dan says:

    I am headed to Croatia next month and this sounds like a great solution. Do I need a cellphone to set any of this up, or is all I need just the mifi router and the prepaid data sim? I have a iPhone 5 w/ Verizon. Please advise.

    Reply
    • TFD says:

      @Dan – usually, we connect to our mifi via laptop and then setup everything with the prepaid sim in the mifi. but you probably can do it on the iphone 5 connected to the mifi.

      Reply
  7. Brian says:

    Don’t forget, T-Mobile offers free international data to its postpaid customers. I think it’s only 2g, but it’s enough to send emails, gchat, and Google Voice texts. Maps might be rough.

    Reply
  8. S. says:

    Thank you so much for your helpful article. However, my cell phone plan is Virgin Mobile (CDMA & no SIM card) – the Huawei MIFI is not compatible… Are my only options XCOM Global or WIFI? Thank you for any advice that you can provide!

    Reply
    • The Flight Deal says:

      @S – a MiFi device is basically providing WiFi via mobile. Why wouldn’t your phone be compatible if it is wifi enable? The SIM plugs into the MiFi device — we just happen to use the Huawei as an example.

      Reply
      • S. says:

        Thank you for your response! You are correct…

        Reply
      • Mt says:

        Hello:

        Can we buy sim card for cell phone for tethering? Why use the hotspot device? Am I missing something? My family is going to Europe in 2 weeks and want to find out what we can use there. Thank you so much for your response.

        Reply
        • The Flight Deal says:

          @Mt – is your phone unlock? if it is unlock, then you can pop in a SIM and it will give you data access. if it is not unlock, then no, it won’t work.

          Reply
          • MT says:

            Thank you for your response. Yes, my pone is unlock. I did some research and it seems some sim card carriers do not allow tethering in Europe. I just ordered the newer model E5330. Thank you for all your work in theflightdeal!!!

  9. Gcb says:

    We had the t mobile unlimited unthrottled data plan and just came back from Montreal and Baie D’urfe. Their map lists 3G and 4G data free. We were not able to access any data. From the airport, WiFi calling does work. But not much else.

    Reply
  10. Jim Leff says:

    Two years later…are you still using the same Mefi, or has one with better battery life appeared?

    Reply
  11. Richard says:

    When I was in Europe last I was able to take advantage of a deal – 50 quid for a really terrible Android phone with 30 days of unlimited data. Set it up as a wireless hotspot, used it for the 3 weeks we were there, then tossed it into a donation bin. Same principle but it worked out to be cheaper than the SIMs were going for at that time.

    Reply
  12. Kenny says:

    Just came back from a trip to Southern Africa and thought that my newly purchased 1 GB data plan from T-Mobile would have me all set once I put my SIM card in my unlocked MiFi device. No luck. It worked when I tried it before I left in the US, but when I got to South Africa, I saw a msg from T-Mobile that South Africa was supported in my plan, and I saw the local network show up on the mifi, but never had any real connectivity. Everything claimed that I was connected, but nothing worked, no social media, no internet, etc. Have you encountered this?

    Tried DMing with T-Mobile over Twitter when I had free wifi access, but they were of little help.

    Reply
    • The Flight Deal says:

      @Kenny – T-Mobile SIM on a tmobile device worked for us in January, 2015. We bought a prepaid SIM when we landed with Vodafone for our mifi to get 3G vs 2G on tmobile.

      Reply

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