Why I don’t buy a SIM card when I travel

You’ve just arrived in a new country. The plane touches down and everyone goes to switch on their phones. That’s when you realize: “Oh wait! I can’t use mine here”.

Why I don't buy a SIM Card when I travel

My iPhone is an amazing travel tool. I was lucky enough to inherit my mom’s old iPhone 4S which was just old enough to get unlocked for free by AT&T. For those of you foreign readers who are confused about what an “unlocked” iPhone is, in America we can get smartphones for much lower prices than the rest of the world, but they’re “locked” to a service provider, so we can’t replace the SIM or switch to a different provider. Yes, it’s ridiculous, and yes, we don’t even fully own our own phones.

The day after I arrived in China last June 2013, I went down to the local “Friendship Store” and purchased a SIM card for my iPhone. I was so excited! When I studied abroad in Beijing and Xi’an a little over two years ago, I had a hideous tiny black brick phone. I almost never used it, especially since most of my friends lived in the same building as me.

The best part was that my phone had a limit on how many characters each person’s name could have, so all of my contacts had to be shortened. Tiffany= Tifay, Courtney= Courty… you get the picture. While I did bring my iPhone, I didn’t even have wifi so I could only use it as an iPod/camera/alarm clock. I also used the “Pleco” dictionary app religiously for all my Chinese homework. If you’re moving to China to work or study, I suggest you download it immediately.

technology and travel

My iPhone lets me check the air pollution on the go!

Bringing my iPhone to China

After teaching abroad in China for over a year, it’s hard to imagine how I survived without my iPhone when I studied abroad! While the Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat apps are all blocked by the Chinese government (and Instagram only works on wifi?), I could have gotten around those restrictions with a phone VPN app if I was a little less technologically challenged/lazy.

Aside from those restrictions, I used my iPhone all the time! I could text family and friends back home whenever I wanted using apps like Whatsapp and Viber. I texted my friends in China for free using WeChat. I could check my email on the go, or look up the address to any location my friends and I wished to visit. The first time I tried to drive home from the grocery store, I got incredibly lost (it was dark and I received faulty directions!), I used the Apple Maps app to route myself back home. Best of all, I could use Instagram, which is something you can’t do without a phone that has internet.

Travel technology

I met a girl with a Polaroid a few months ago. Remember what it was like to not know how the picture turned out until you got it developed?

In the good old days (when I was a child), international phone plans cost an unbelievable amount of money, and travelers were forced to either pay up, or invest in calling cards and frequent internet cafés. I remember traveling in high school, getting excited over my 30-minute internet allotment, where I sent lengthy Facebook messages about my travels to all of my friends on the deathly-slow dialup internet.

Travel SIM Cards

You take a photo of me without asking, I take a photo of you without asking

Travel SIM Cards

When entering a foreign country, the first stop for many travelers is buying a local SIM card. This way, you can use your phone whenever you want without worrying about international fees. A SIM card in China will run you around $30 plus whatever amount of money you choose to put on the phone. Obviously different countries have different rates, so you may want to do some research online or ask around to make sure you’re getting a good deal.

Having a smartphone while traveling allows you to do many things. You can text friends to meet up with you, you can call your hostel/hotel, you can use google maps to find destinations, you can use the Trover app to find cool places and restaurants around you, and of course, you can Facebook, tweet and Instagram to your heart’s content!

Travel technology

Gotta Instagram this pigeon!

While I’m definitely glad I purchased a SIM for my year in China, I never buy a SIM card for a country I don’t live in. I know what you’re thinking: “Why not??!” It’s so easy and relatively affordable, and your iPhone is UNLOCKED.

Why I don’t buy a SIM card when I travel

My cat Teddy says get off the internet!!

My cat Teddy says get off the internet!!

1. Technology Detox

In today’s society, we’re constantly connected to technology. Phones, computers, iPads and social media have pretty much taken over our lives! As a travel blogger it’s my job to stay connected. I spend so much time on the computer working on my blog, reading other people’s blogs, participating in Facebook groups and Twitter chats- it’s hard to step away. I think I’m not alone in saying that the first thing I do every morning is check my phone. I check Instagram first, then maybe Facebook while I’m still half-asleep. A lot of us work behind computers every day from 9-5, then come home and spend more time on the computer! Sometimes we all just need a break!

Nowadays, most hostels have free wifi. I almost exclusively stay in hostels when I travel, so access to the internet is normally not a problem. This leaves me free to explore the world around me during the day, and focus on the technology stuff when I return home at night. While it’s important for me to stay somewhat connected when I travel, I try to limit my time on the computer as much as possible when I’m traveling. Sometimes I’ll bring my computer down to the common room with the intent to get work done, but I’m so outgoing I normally just end up chatting with people the entire night. I don’t know how I would ever find the time to blog if I was a permanent nomad!

Travel technology

Why waste time on my phone when I can make new friends?

2. Human Connection

Most of us use technology as a buffer to boredom and awkward situations. Your friend is late meeting you at the bar? Phone! You don’t know how to find the restaurant? Just google it! It’s become a mission for me to embrace awkward situations and be comfortable on my own. I try to make myself look approachable rather than stick my face in my phone. If I go to a cafe on my own, I’ll bring a book. That way, if someone wants to strike up a conversation with me (read: handsome, mysterious foreign gentleman), we already have something to talk about!

The great thing about traveling without 3G on hand, is that you’re forced to make that human connection. Your friend is late to the bar? Well… better make some friends. You can’t find the restaurant? Ask someone! There have been times while traveling that I was lost, and frustrated, and wished more than anything to have a working phone. Those times of desperation have almost always led to wonderful encounters with the locals who went way out of their way to help me. It’s probably why I’m convinced that everyone is “so nice” wherever I go. People are almost always willing to help if you just ask for it!

Travel SIM Card

So true, as long as you have your smartphone to do your thinking for you!

Just a few weeks ago, I accidentally deleted the email with the directions to my hostel as I was walking there! Normally, I would go into my trash folder to find it, but I didn’t have internet to load the new discarded emails! All I had was the name of my hostel and a general direction to walk. I was frustrated, and upset, and couldn’t figure out what to do. I eventually walked past a 7-11 offering wifi. Yes! When I tried to sign in, I realized I needed a Taiwanese phone number to connect. Extremely frustrated and near tears, I asked some of the locals to help me. Not only did they show me a map and let me copy down directions, they even drove by on a moped a few minutes later to point out a shortcut!

travel SIM card

Using a REAL MAP in Taiwan

3. A Personal Challenge

Sometimes I don’t know how my parents survived without technology. I’ve become so dependent, I almost can’t function without it. For example, a few days ago I met up with a friend in an area I had never been before. That evening when it was time for me to go home, I realized my phone was dead! I had no idea how to get back to the freeway and no way to look it up. In the old days, I’m sure my parents would have just used a map, but why keep a map when you can just use your phone, right? I ended up getting extremely confusing oral directions from my friend that turned out to be wrong and I was forced to drive around until I eventually found the freeway. I couldn’t even pull over to ask anyone because it was after midnight and everything was closed! Talk about stressful.

These days I like to use travel as a way to challenge myself to get around without technology. I use real maps (I know! gasp) and plan out my routes ahead of time. I ask real people for recommendations rather than the internet. If I’m lost, I ask the locals for help. If I make a mistake or get on the wrong bus, I view it as an adventure rather than a setback.

travel SIM cards

But first.. let me take a selfie!

4. I’m on a Budget

Last but not least, refraining from technology can save you a lot of money! While purchasing a SIM may be a necessity for an expat or long-term traveler, it’s an added expense that can be used elsewhere. That $30 SIM card you buy in China can easily buy a very fancy hot pot dinner for two, or a private room in a nice hostel for the night! In addition to the price of the SIM card, you’re also paying for minutes, texts and data. While phone plans can be a lot cheaper in many countries than they are in the US (the phone companies are robbing us!), that money can add up quickly if you’re constantly using your phone. For me, I’d rather save money and enjoy my experience!

Travel SIM cards

Get off the phone, enjoy the view!

I’ve never understood people who videotape concerts on their phones. Here you are, at a concert you paid money to attend, and instead of enjoying the live show, you’re focused on the tiny image on your smartphone. No one watches those clips these people post on Facebook, because they’re always such horrible quality! Why would you stare at that little image on your phone when there’s a real-life concert going on right in front of you!

This is how I view using my phone when I travel. Why spend 10 minutes staring at my phone, selecting the perfect Instagram filter for my travel shot, when I could be using that time to appreciate the country I’m in! Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Instagram perfection, but sometimes Instagram doesn’t have to be quite so instant. Take the time to appreciate what’s right in front of your eyes! It’s okay to put down the camera or stow away the phone every once and a while. The pictures and the technology are nice (hey! I rely on them for this blog!), but the best part of travel is the real-life experience.

travel technology

“Travel Selfie”: taking a photo of my face because I’m traveling solo and no one else will

What do you think about the increase of technology in travel? Does it enhance or detract from your experience?




About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

30 comments on “Why I don’t buy a SIM card when I travel

  1. So I just stumbled across your blog after adding you on UNNC’s social media site (it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be too many other Americans besides us), and I’m impressed by your work. Kudos to you! You have some really great posts. It sounds like you’ll be earning an MA in International Communications, correct? If you plan on taking the “Comparative Mobile Studies” module, be sure to bring up this great question.

    As far as my opinion….it depends. I agree 100% with all of your points. Sometimes, I wonder why people even bother to go out anymore ( exhibit a: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/514114113685777255/ ), but I feel compelled to play devil’s advocate (because why not).

    Over the course of three years, I had the opportunity to travel as a college admissions counselor. Most of my friends were jealous that I was able to gallivant all over the US on somebody else’s dime. Unfortunately, I was expected to work constantly. All work and no play. Any moment not dedicated to high school visits or college fairs, the powers that be expected me to be plugged in (checking emails, reviewing applications, yadah, yadah). In my first year traveling, I literally planned my entire life around the free wifi in Starbucks and Panera. By my second year as a road warrior, I decided to cast aside the shackles of wifi. If it weren’t for that trusty SIM card & tethering solution, I would’ve been stuck in a Starbucks for the rest of my life. Instead, I had the chance to marvel at the hills above the John Muir National Monument (all while reading inspirational college essays….not perfect, close enough). ( http://www.pinterest.com/pin/514114113685777273/ ). I mean no offense to a Seattle native such as yourself, but John Muir trumps Howard Schultz any day.

    • Hi Karl, nice to meet you! Thanks so much for checking out my blog.

      I always love a good devil’s advocate and I totally agree with everything you just said. For me, I’m lucky enough that I don’t have people expecting me to be reachable 100% of the time, so I can get everything done when I arrive home in the evening. If you’re traveling for work, it’s definitely a lot different and you’ll need to make technology a larger part of your experience. For me, it’s liberating to step away for a while, but for you, a SIM card liberates you from Starbucks! I’d suggest putting down the phone as much as you can- maybe challenge yourself to not be on it unless you have to be for work. For those people that don’t need to be on their phone constantly, but feel guilty if the office can’t reach them- maybe give yourself a day or two without it. Your office will survive!

  2. Those were some great reasons why we should ALL not put sim cards in our phones, even when we’re not traveling. Haha. ;) But seriously, good thoughts!

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment, it is nice having the ability to call someone in case of an emergency, especially if you’re in a foreign country.

    That being said, there’s always the option of asking to borrow someone’s phone. I once had to do this when my wife and I were visiting Hong Kong for just a couple days and we didn’t want to put money down on TWO sim cards. We had to meet up at a place, so I borrowed a stranger’s phone to call my wife. It worked out in the end.

    • Hi Chris! I definitely agree that it’s always nice to have a phone in an emergency, so I definitely would suggest springing for the SIM card if you’re going hiking way off the beaten path, where there’s no one around to help if you get hurt. Aside from those instances, I’ve realized that people tend to be extremely nice about helping others without phones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people help me! While traveling without a phone is more stressful, it’s nice to make those human connections you get by asking for directions.

  3. Great article Richelle! My kids don’t understand how we got around when we were their age without technology. We didn’t have smartphones, or a GPS to tell us how to get to places. We used maps and when we needed directions we stopped to use pay phones to call. When I travel I use the free wifi in restaurants or hotels. I’ve never purchased a SIM card in another county.

    • I sometimes wonder how my parents got around as well! While technology is a great convenience, it’s crazy how lost we become without it! I didn’t get a smart phone till I was halfway done with college. I used to print out google maps directions to get around.

  4. I absolutely agree with your reasons, however I do buy a SIM card. I travel mainly solo so I like to have a ‘backup’ in case of an emergency or I’m stuck somewhere without data. It’s more of a security blanket to me that anything else, and I have had to use it a couple of times. That being said I put on the cheapest amount and leave it for that purpose only- anything else like facebook can wait til I have free wifi.

    • That’s a good idea. I just know I don’t have the self-restraint to not check it all the time! If I was traveling alone to a place where I felt like I needed a “backup”, I would definitely spring for a SIM. Normally in Asia there’s always someone who’s phone I can borrow if I really have an issue, and while I’m traveling alone I’m definitely not “alone” by any means.

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  6. I am going to travel to Seattle next week and I can’t imagine how I can survive without WiFi. But I do need to get away from my social media addiction from time to time!! That’s what vacation is for right? Detoxing my mind.

    • Exactly! Fortunately, I normally have wifi at most places I stay.
      Fun fact: I’m actually from Seattle! I hope you enjoy your trip, and definitely check out Pike Place Market.

  7. I completely agree with you – I think that if we can while traveling, we should make the most of enjoying where we’re visiting as we don’t get to spend much time there! We can save the phone, the Instagrams and the Facebook posts for later. When I was traveling recently to Quebec City and had the chance to use my phone (I’m Canadian), I took pictures on my phone a little bit here and there, and then waited until we were relaxing at night to post some things online. I think that the online world can wait a while until we’re not out enjoying ourselves – first and foremost, we should be having a good time and immersing ourselves in the culture and place we’re in!

    Thank you so much for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust! Oh, one more thing I might add – if you don’t mind adding the Weekend Wanderlust badge beneath your blog post with a link back to one of the hosts’ blogs so others can find the link-up? That would be wonderful! I’ve posted all of the instructions here: http://justinpluslauren.com/link

    • I completely agree Lauren! I’ve got the phone part under control, but I have a really hard time letting go of my camera. “A few pictures here and there” is really difficult for me!! Especially with running a travel blog.

      As for the linkup, I tried to add the link, but the picture isn’t working? It’s just showing up as an “X”

  8. Richelle, I agree. I don’t buy a SIM card either. I take the photos with my phone all day, and when I get to free wifi upload them to various social sites…it works, and it keeps me from getting too distracted.

  9. It is so nice being free of technology once in awhile and I totally agree with you on these points. Even when I lived in Rome i had a crappy local phone (aka a nokia brick) and then I had my iphone to use with wifi only. The only thing I do different is I do get an international plan for my iphone so that if there is an emergency I can call or text but I only use it if its absolutely necessary. Only once have I ever turned on the data and that was for about .3seconds :) It is expensive abroad!

    • I don’t know how I survived in China two years ago without wifi for my iPhone! It’s crazy how attached you can get. Unfortunately, I’m based out of China so I don’t have any sort of international plan options for safety purposes. But if I’m traveling alone, I’m not normally going anywhere where I’d be completely cut off with no one to help me, so I’ve never felt the need.

  10. Great post, Richelle! I’ve had to check myself when I’ve travelled recently, as I feel that I spend WAY too long glued to my phone when I travel! I feel like I did it in Hong Kong for sure, and Bangkok, and Milan…it’s become something of a crutch, and especially if you’re a single gay dude in a city with lots of cute guys…one word: Grindr. I can’t remember the last time I actually asked for directions. This seems to be more of a problem just if I’m by myself though. If I’m with others, then I tend to just use the phone for photo-taking purposes. Anyway, I’m off on holiday to Singapore in just over a week and a half – I’ll try and keep it in my pocket…

    • Thanks Tom! I totally agree, if I’m with people I never even touch my phone (I even feel awkward taking food instagrams), but if I’m by myself it’s a huge crutch. I’m so jealous that you’re headed to Singapore! I looked into visiting during the Chinese National Day in October but the tickets were so expensive :'(

  11. Really helpful for travelers. As I know, it’s not so easy to buy a SIM card in China now, for most business halls ask your ID card to register with the SIM card, few ones accept passport registration. Fortunately,I buy a 4G SIM card during my trip in China in this summer ,I got my SIM card with phone number before departure. Just share the website to everyone who will travel to China or Hong Kong.

    • I actually have no problem getting a SIM in China. If you go to the actual store (China Unicom, China Mobile), all you have to do is use your passport to register. I’ve been on 3 different phone plans in the last few years! Also, it’s pay as you go so you don’t have to sign up for a long-term contract, but you still get the good deals

    • This Jan White actually runs Loyomobile. I knew this because I place my order after reading this post and he is the one who responded to my e-mails before placing order.

      Guess what, this guy stop replying any of my e-mails after I place my order. I will lodge a complain to Paypal if I still don’t receive my sim card in coming few days.

      • Oh wow! I’m really sorry that happened to you. I took the link out of Jan White’s comment because this isn’t the place to be advertising services. Hopefully it’s just a misunderstanding and your SIM card comes soon.

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  13. Hi Richelle, it is not your fault, you didn’t recommend their service, it was my own decision to buy from them.

    Just a bit of update on the sim card I ordered. The seller eventually replied my e-mail after they have shipped out the sim card and I have just received their sim card this morning. The seller claimed that all my previous e-mail “were foldered into Junk mail”, but strangely this happened only after I placed my order and not before that.

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