Tatsuhiko Miyagawa's Blog

On buying a local prepaid SIM

April 15, 2015

tl;dr buying a local prepaid SIM could be boring, and shouldn’t be part of your travel.

I’ve been enjoying T-Mobile US’s Free global roaming for their Simple Choice customers when travelling outside the US. Even though the data is capped at 120kbps, it is so much better and hassle free that when you get out of the plane you get data immediately.

T-Mobile US does allow their roaming customers to buy a faster “4G” data, for $25/200MB/7 days. It feels slightly expensive and its 4G label is misleading when most of the time the phone only works with the 3G speed. (My Nexus 5 doesn’t work with Europe LTE bands anyway)

This time though, I’m visiting Berlin, Germany for a week and I thought buying a SIM to get a faster data wouldn’t be a bad thing.

And that was a mistake:

  • Most cellphone shops are closed on Sunday in Europe
  • Most cellphone shops are not open till late in the morning (10:30) in Europe
  • Cheap plans do come with a catch, basically requiring you to top-up a certain amount of credit
  • Cheap plans require you to register through the website where everything is in local language (German)
  • “Tablet” plans and cellphone plans are not compatible to each other and you usually cannot switch between them I bought 10€ SIM “starter package for tablets” that is preloaded with 10€, and tried to activate it with 7.99 EUR / 750MB plan and so far I’m not successful.

It’s so ironic that a starter package doesn’t let me get started on any of the plans.

After one hour of hassle, I went back to T-Mobile’s US SIM — which gets me the data immediately, although capped at slow speed. I blogged about this earlier, but again: slow but consistent data is 10x better than fast but unreliable data.

So, buying a SIM is a good idea if you have a plenty of time, stay in the same country for more than 2 weeks, and maybe have a local friend who can figure out the activation for you, but otherwise, it could be a huge time sucker.

The bright side is this could be a periodic reminder that I should stick with the roaming, and 10 EUR wasn’t a high price to pay for the lesson.

UPDATE: after an hour of trial and 2 hours of wait, the line seems to be activated. It is a data-only SIM and the default is 2.49€/500MB/day. There’s a 12.99€/1GB/month plan but here’s a catch: the card is only preloaded 10€ and the lowest top-up is 15€, so you basically have to 25€ for a month, or 40€ for 2 months (or 3 months if you stay longer). This feels like a clever scam at this point.