Believe it or not, when I first started travelling full-time more than a decade ago, I didn’t even have a phone with me.
After feeling like I had been a slave to my BlackBerry (yes, I’m that old!) in my previous job, I wanted to roam the world without a constant digital distraction. I thought being disconnected from technology during the day would mean a better connection with the people and places I was exploring.
I managed to get away with that for about a year before I finally bought an iPhone. Now, looking back on it, I don’t know how I survived.
While I still love the idea of distraction-free travel, having access to the internet on my phone has become such an important part of how I discover new destinations. Being able to find a bus timetable, get a restaurant recommendation, research a landmark I’m visiting – all of it enriches my days, keeps me safe, and introduces me to things I might otherwise have missed.
So, what’s the best way to get data on your phone when you travel?
Well, I used to buy local SIM cards when I arrived in a new destination, and that’s still a decent option (which I’ll discuss shortly). But these days, most of the time, I now use an eSIM for international travel.
What is an eSIM?
An eSIM is a connection to a phone provider that uses a chip built in to your phone, rather than a physical SIM that you need to insert. When you buy an eSIM, what you’re actually buying is a short contract with a telco that will use this permanent chip within your phone to connect you.
Should I get an eSIM?
There are advantages and disadvantages to eSIMs for travellers, and whether you should get one depends on your circumstances. The benefits of an eSIM include: you don’t need to visit a store, there’s a large range of plans, it works alongside your usual SIM card, and it can cover multiple countries.
Can you use an eSIM internationally?
While you can get an eSIM for your home country, the biggest benefits of an eSIM are for travellers. You can buy an eSIM for just one country, or you can get international ones that cover all the countries in a region – or even a global one for the whole world!
Can any phone use an eSIM?
Not every phone has the technology to use an eSIM, although most released in the past few years are compatible. Make sure you check your model first. Also, if your phone is locked to a single provider, then an eSIM probably won’t work (just as inserting a different physical SIM won’t work).
I feel like a lot of travellers still don’t know much about eSIMS because, even though the technology has been around for a few years, there’s been a slow uptake. But it’s now got to a point where the best eSIM plans offer genuinely good benefits for travellers and the upsides are starting to outweigh the downsides these days.
In this article, I’m going to first run you through some of the basics of eSIMs, in case you haven’t come across the concept before.
If you do know a bit about the technology, you can jump straight down to my section about the best eSIM for international travel.
If you just want the short answer, I think Airalo offers the best eSIM for international travel. You can see its range of plans here.
For most travellers, there are definitely going to be some advantages to getting an eSIM, and I would recommend giving it a try if you haven’t used one before.
That’s what I did – and I haven’t looked back. But I have tried a few different providers, to get a sense of what is the best eSIM for international travel.
It’s this experience – plus lots of research into the latest eSIM plans – that I’m going to share, to help you arrange your phone date for your trip.
What is an eSIM?
Although you may think the ‘e’ stands for ‘electronic’, eSIM is actually short for ’embedded SIM’ because that’s exactly what it is – a chip that is embedded into your phone.
Unlike physical SIMs, which have certain information hard-coded into them, an eSIM can be reprogrammed with different information. That’s why you are able to use it to connect to different phone plans around the world without putting anything physical into your phone.
So, what you’re doing when you ‘buy an eSIM’ is not actually buying any kind of card. What you’re doing is buying a temporary contract with a service provider, and then quickly reprogramming this chip in your phone to connect to it, as if it was a physical SIM.
If the idea of ‘reprogramming’ sounds complicated, don’t worry, it’s easy. Normally you’ll get a QR code or some kind of other link that lets you do it all automatically in just a few seconds.
All you have to do is go to an online retailer, choose the best eSIM plan for your circumstances (and buy it), then click the link or scan the QR code that you’ll be sent with the receipt – and, bam, it’s all done and you should be connected!
The first phones to use eSIMs were released in 2018 and they have slowly grown in popularity since then. Most modern phones now support eSIMs – and, in fact, there are iPhone models that are eSIM-only!
But it’s still worth checking if your device supports eSIMs and you can do that on this list of supported devices.
You can get eSIMS that include phone calls and text, completely replacing the need for any kind of physical SIM. But most of them just offer data at the moment, and they’re the ones I’m going to concentrate on in this article about the best eSIMs for international travel.
Is an eSIM the best option for you?
The invention of the eSIM – up there with the inventions of the wheel and fire, in the eyes of this regular traveller – has made my time overseas so incredibly simple.
There are definitely many advantages to using an eSIM, which is why I do it most of the time now.
But there are also some disadvantages that you need to consider, because the best eSIM for international travel for one person might not be the best for you. It depends on each scenario.
The first advantage of an eSIM is the convenience. With a physical SIM, you need to actually go into a store when you arrive in a destination to buy it, which can be a hassle and takes away precious time from your trip.
With an eSIM, everything is done online and you can get connected instantly wherever you are.
The second advantage is that you’ll be immediately connected. If you’ve arranged your eSIM in advance, as soon as you land in a new country and turn your phone on, you’ll be able to use the data.
I find this a really useful feature when I need to get in touch with someone waiting for me at the airport, or when I want to see when the next train to the city is, for example. (And to check my email for anything urgent after a 15-hour flight!)
Another advantage is that you can get eSIMs with regional plans or even global plans. It means that, if you’re visiting multiple countries on your trip, you don’t need to arrange a new SIM card each time you cross the border.
This isn’t such an issue in Europe, where most local SIMs have some level of sharing with other EU countries. But it’s particularly useful for regions like Southeast Asia where travellers often do go between countries, or for cruises.
On that note, I also like the advantage that there is a much wider range of data plans to choose from than traditional SIM cards. You can often choose different durations and different gigabyte limits (or unlimited), all offered at different price points.
This is great because it means you don’t need to pay more for extra time or data that you’ll never use if you’re on a short trip or only using your phone occasionally.
And the final (and huge) advantage that I love is that the eSIM works alongside a physical SIM, meaning your usual SIM card from home will also be active at the same time.
You can use your foreign eSIM to access mobile data affordably, while also using your physical SIM card to receive phone calls and SMS messages to your usual number (which is very handy for those login verification codes that so many organisations still insist on sending).
Now, there are some downsides, and I’m not going to pretend they’ll be insignificant for some travellers.
The first disadvantage is that most eSIMs only offer data, not calls and text, which may not be convenient. Personally, I rarely make phone calls when I’m overseas and, if I do, I just use Skype or WhatsApp over data.
But if local calls are something you need, you may have to look harder to find an eSIM that offers that (Simify has some good ones, for instance), or just stick with a physical SIM.
Another small disadvantage is that I find my phone battery goes down faster than usual because it’s connecting to two networks at once. This can be mitigated by turning one (or both) of the networks off in the settings, and I do quite often turn off my physical SIM unless I’m expecting a message or a call.
But the biggest disadvantage is price. In most cases, an eSIM is more expensive than a local physical SIM. Or, at least, you get a lot less data for the same cost.
For example, an eSIM for Italy with 5 gigabytes over 30 days costs about US$13, while for the same price, you can get a physical SIM with more than 50 gigabytes over the same period (plus calls).
An eSIM for Thailand gets you unlimited data over 15 days for US$20, while a local SIM can get you 5 gigabytes over 30 days for around US$6 (if you can work out how to buy it at the convenience store).
The difference in value does change quite markedly for each country, so this could be less of an issue for some trips. And I think that Nomad tends to have some cheaper options, which can help.
But it’s definitely something to consider, and becomes more of a problem if you’re planning to use a lot of data and need a bigger plan.
The best eSIM providers for travel
Now, let’s have a look at the top eSIM providers, because they do each offer slightly different types of products.
It’s not just about what they promise, but how much it costs – and also how reliable it is.
The short version of my findings are as follows.
The following recommendations are ranked in order, starting with the best – but I would also suggest you have a think about what type of eSim you want, because they should be a factor in your choice.
One of the most popular eSIM providers for travellers is Airalo and, I can tell you, it’s the one that I use most of the time.
It’s got great coverage across the world and uses major telcos for its connections in almost all cases (for example: Optus in Australia, O2 in the UK, T-Mobile in the US).
Airalo has a lot of flexibility in the geography of what it covers. You can choose eSIMs by country; or it has regional plans that cover areas like 39 European countries, 13 Asian countries, and 19 South American countries; and it has global plans as well.
The price of the eSIMs are about average, and you can definitely get a good price for quite a few key countries like Japan, Italy, and the UK. (The rate isn’t quite as good for countries like Mexico, India, and China, though.)
Almost all the eSIMs are based on a fixed data limit, such as 1 gigabyte, or 10 gigabytes – which should be fine for most people, but may be an issue if you’re planning to use a lot of phone data.
Buying an eSIM from Airalo is very easy and the instructions for setting it up are simple. I did, however, get a very slow response when I needed support with a problem when I was travelling on the Greek islands, which is the main concern I have.
Still, for most travellers, I think this is the easiest and most reliable eSIM option, and it shouldn’t be too expensive for most countries you want to visit.
The next best eSIM provider, in my opinion, is Holafly. And it has quite a significantly different offering from Airalo.
Holafly is also a large international retailer that uses the major telcos around the world. It’s also easy to use and the setup is really simple. And it’s got a wide coverage of countries and you should be able to find an eSIM for almost anywhere you want to go.
The main selling point with Holafly is that most of the eSIM plans it offers are for unlimited data. Rather than having to guess how much you think you’ll use, you can just buy an eSIM for a duration and use it to your heart’s content!
The downside to this approach, though, is that the plans tend to be noticeably more expensive than the plans with a set amount of data. Using France as an example, Airalo offers a 30-day plan with 10GB for US$23. While the 30-day plan with Holafly costs US$64.
It’s a huge difference, and if you’re not going to use much data, it’s not worth paying for it. But if you’re a big user and you know you’re going to need a lot of data over a month, it’s probably cheaper to use a Holafly unlimited plan than buy multiple eSIMs over the month.
One thing to add, though. I think Holafly’s customer service is up there as the best, so for some people it may also be worth the extra cost to have that comfort.
Another good eSIM provider, which is similar to both Airalo and Holafly, is Nomad. Like the others I’ve already recommended, it offers plans in most countries and has good coverage in almost of all them.
To be honest, there is no particular reason why it’s better than the other two. But, having said that, I haven’t had any experiences that would make me say it’s worse than the others.
Quite a lot of the eSIMS that Nomad is selling are with the same telcos as the others and are just as easy to set up. One point of difference is that is has both data-limited and unlimited plans for some countries, so you can compare your options.
In some cases, Nomad is a bit cheaper than the larger stores, which is probably the main good reason to use it instead.
Looking at Greece as an example, if you want 10 gigabytes over 30 days, Airalo costs US$25 while Nomad costs US$19.
And in Thailand, for example, 10 days unlimited data with Holafly costs US$34 while it’s US$30 with Nomad. (Although, in this case, you can get a deal of 15 days unlimited with Airalo for US$20.)
The point is, these top eSIM providers will have slightly different prices for each country depending on exactly what deal they’ve made with local operators. So it’s worth checking each of them if you want to find the cheapest and save a few dollars.
Now to Simify, which isn’t quite in the same league as the ones I’ve already mentioned. That’s because Simify is best know for physical SIM cards for travellers, and is actually a leader in that area.
(If you would still prefer to use a physical SIM, or want to compare the plans with an eSIM, I would recommend having a look at what Simify has to offer.)
The company has now branched out to eSIMs but doesn’t have quite the range of plans as the shops that do that exclusively.
But what Simify does offer is eSIMs that also include phone call and text, which may be a big deal for you!!
For example, it has this Europe & UK eSIM with 15 gigabytes for 30 days that also includes unlimited local calls, for just US$40. Compare that to Airalo, which gives you 10 gigabytes for 30 days (and no calls) for US$37, and you’ll see it’s a fantastic price!
Another great eSIM plan it offers is 30 days of unlimited data and local calls in the USA for just US$50, which I think is one of the best eSIM plans you can get. (For that price with Nomad, you get 30 gigabytes and no calls.)
The reason I haven’t ranked Simify higher in this list is purely because it doesn’t cover nearly as many countries. But it’s one of the best options for the US, Europe, Japan, and parts of SE Asia.
I’ll be honest – Drimsim is not one of my favourite eSIM providers. So, why am I suggesting it here? Well, because it offers something different to all the others and there is one scenario where it might be a better choice for you.
The concept behind Drimsim is that you don’t buy an eSIM for a particular country, for a set amount of time, or even a set amount of data.
Instead, you pay a €10/month fee to have an eSIM which will connect from any country in the world! You then pay just for the data you use, which for most countries is €0.01 per megabyte, or €10 per gigabyte.
That means if you only use 1 gigabyte of data in a month, you’ll pay €20 – which is more expensive than many SIMs for the data, but cheaper than many for the duration.
I think the main scenario where Drimsim is the best eSIM is when you’re doing long-term travel through multiple countries and you’re not planning to use much phone data – perhaps you just want to be able to check a map or look up a train timetable occasionally.
It may also be useful if you’re on a cruise when you’ll visit lots of countries but for short periods, for instance. Or if you’ll have wifi most of the time and just want phone data as a backup.
In those cases, Drimsim may end up cheaper and you’ll have the convenience of it connecting to networks everywhere in the world.
A local telco
All of the best eSIM providers I have mentioned above are global stores that are offering deals from a range of international providers. I generally like to use one of these global stores because they are much easier (they’re in English, for starters!)
But in many countries, you’ll also find the usual domestic telcos are now also offering their own eSIMs – sometimes aimed at locals, and also sometimes at travellers.
A lot of the time, the packages they’re selling are just the same as the ones you’ll find on Airalo. But sometimes they do have better deals that’ll get you more data or a cheaper rate.
The plans can be confusing, especially if the provider’s website isn’t primarily in English, but it may be worth having a look to see what you can find – especially if you’re planning to stay in a single country for a long time and/or want to use a lot of data.
In the end, any of these eSIM providers I’ve recommended should give you a reliable connection for your trip. Which ones is best for you will depend on the specific circumstances of your trip.
In most cases, especially for average holidays, you’ll find an eSIM is much easier than a physical SIM card and won’t cost much more unless you’re planning to use a lot of data.
Setting it up is easy and the best eSIM providers all have detailed instructions.
Remember: Not every device supports eSIMs, and you probably won’t be able to use one if your phone is locked to your home provider. Check this list of eSIM-compatible phones.
If you have any experiences (good or bad) with one of these providers, or you’ve got another one you would like to recommend, just let me know in the comments below.