Hey Dr. Telecom, why is mobile roaming so expensive and what can I do to lower my roaming bill?

Roaming has long been one of the largest profit centers for mobile operators. While they are being charged by other networks when the customers roam, operators tend to charge massive markups on those wholesale rates due to limited competition in this segment. Since the EU regulated roaming rates in 2008, the roaming wholesale average has significantly dropped, but many operators (looking at you US carriers) have not passed those savings along to their customers. There are a few alternatives:

  • Buy a local SIM – This tends to be the cheapest option, but you’ll need to replace your own SIM and you’ll lose your number unless you have an eSIM from your home operator. Also, not every airport sells local SIMs or the shops might not be open when you arrive (this happened to me in China). There are language issues, making sure you have enough currency and occasionally special ID requirements. It’s the cheapest way, but definitely not the easiest. Most importantly, be sure your phone is unlocked before you leave.
  • Buy a roaming SIM – There are a number of online shops that sell international roaming SIMs. The rates are generally pretty good, but you need to plan ahead. Give yourself plenty of time to allow for shipment of the SIM so you get in before you leave. Using a roaming SIM will also require you to have an unlocked phone so make sure you can unlock your phone before ordering a SIM card. Also check the fine print on the charges. Some SIMs don’t allow you to top up if you run out of credit.
  • Buy an eSIM through your phone – Newer iPhone models (iPhone XS or later), the Samsung S20, Pixel 4 (or later) have an eSIM which allows you to download a plan direct to your phone. A number of companies offer this service (including iSimplexity) and it’s quick and easy to do – just be sure your phone is unlocked. Our friends at eSIMdb (https://esimdb.com/) have a comprehensive list of global eSIM plans and providers. You can check in with them to see the best available rates for your travel destination.
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