Mobile Data While Traveling

Over the next few months, I’ll be heading to a few different countries. Fred Wilson wrote a post the other day about his experience roaming with his family in Europe.  In my experience, having an unlocked world phone (quad-band GSM is easy, appropriate 3G unfortunately, not as much) and picking up local prepaid SIM cards seems to be the best strategy. (I care a lot less about number porting than having data access. If you’re more interested in the former, hop on over to Wilson’s blog and take a look at the comments there.)

For those interested in the details of the different 3G bands, in the US, AT&T is on band II (1900MHz) and band V (850MHz) and T-Mobile is AWS band IV (1700MHz/2100MHz).  Other popular bands include band VIII (900MHz) in parts of Europe, Asia, and across Australia and Band I (2100MHz) in Japan, and across Europe and everywhere else. Most 3G phones are dual or tri-band (a Nexus One for example comes in two flavors, one supporting 3G on band I (2100), IV (1700), and VIII (900) and another supporting I (2100), II (1900), and V (850)).  Nokia’s N8 was the first penta-band phone supporting bands all the aforementioned bands, making it a perfect world phone – well, except that it runs Symbian.  The iPhone 4 is also a penta-band phone; instead of band IV (used by a few carriers the US and Canada) it supports band VI (used by DoCoMo in Japan). The iPhone 4 has apparently been successfully unlocked, but the unlock hasn’t been released quite yet.  The best news updates for unlocks are probably directly from the dev-team blog.

OK, now onto some research (various useful links, some good for multiple countries referenced inline):

  • Argentina
    • I’ll just mention this since I didn’t ever get around to finishing up my Buenos Aires writeup, but I did do a fair bit of writing about my mobile phone experience there. The Prepaid Wireless Internet Access wiki page corroborates my experience – Movistar’s datos special at ARS$9 for 2 days/1GB access is pretty reasonable. At current exchange rates, that comes out to $1.15/day. PrePaidGSM is a good place to find rates.
  • Australia
    • Quite civilized with lots of options. Virgin Mobile has a great deal: 30 AUD ($25 US) gets you 28 days of 1.02GB/data and “$150” in credits (calls are 90c/min (167min of talk time), 25c/txt (600 texts)). Virgin Mobile is an MVNO on Optus 3G, which runs at 900MHz/2100MHz HSPA.  Optus offers super-cheap calling but no data. 3 offers a pretty great deal on an iPad microsim – if I’m reading it right, it’s 15 AUD ($13 US) for 1.7GB of data. Telstra has options as well, but is more expensive overall. The most useful comparison site I found for Australia was:
    • Update: In Australia, I went with Virgin Mobile (picked up the SIM at a convenience store for $2 AUD and after some bumpiness setting up online (apparently their activation servers were having problems that day)) and it’s been great in Sydney. Will update w/ how it does in Cairns. Picked up a 3 microsim for my iPad at a 3 mobile shop – it comes w/ 200MB/30 days for free which I’ve yet to use up. You’ll need your passport number to activate the 3 SIM online. It seems to work ok except occasionally I seem to need to go in/out of airport mode to get it to start transferring data. I’ll be heading to Fiji for a couple days – a quick search online shows that only Vodafone roams there – I might just go sans-connectivity there.
    • Update 2: In Cairns, 3 was a bust – only roaming, so no cellular data on the iPad. Virgin Mobile (Optus) was a bit spotty. 3G worked fine in the Airport, downtown Esplanade, and (what!) by the reef, but only worked sometimes from my hotel (11th floor, just north of the Esplanade across from the Volleyball courts / skate park). I found myself breaking down and hanging out at the Macca’s (that’s Australian for McDonalds) one night, which had free wifi (although my 3G there was strong, and much faster – 1Mb+ down). There were a lot of Japanese backpackers hanging out there.
  • Fiji
    • I picked up a Vodafone FJ SIM (Vodafone and Digicell are your two choices). There’s no good data plans, you’re charged by the KB (something about $5/MB), although you can get for free. Even with the proper APN setup and whatnot, was still more difficult than expected to get reliable mobile data.  Internet access is available for about $1/hr or so at Internet cafes and hostels. Once you’re headed off the main island, all bets are off for service.
  • France
  • Germany
    • Tchibo offers a montly rate of €9.95/30 days, throttled to 64 KBit/s after exceeding 500MB, or  €19.95/30 days, throttled to 64 KBit/s after exceeding 5000MB.
  • Japan
    • There are conflicting reports about prepaid SIMs. You can rent one, but the data rates look pretty ugly (charging by the packet!!!). Here’s a post with some more information on using a SoftBank SIM w/ an unlocked iPhone. There’s also a company renting Android phones/iPhones for $85/wk. Weak sauce, Japan. Weak sauce.
    • Update: While in Taiwan, I’ve done some additional research. The Softbank SIM rental comes out to $1.20/day, which doesn’t seem bad, however, mobile data is charged at an extortionate rate of $31/MB. The iPhone SIM has a $426 charge cap for the month of data (gee, thanks). The regular data SIM… seems to not to have a cap at all. A company called Pupuru rents data cards (mobile broadband) for about $120 for 11-20 days. This is about the best I can find (unless you get a used b-mobile card – it’s a decent deal, but sells as $480 for 150 hours of usage). JCR corp now has iPhone4 rentals ($160 for 2 weeks). A SIM card rental is $235 for 2 weeks. (special note: most of these you need to reserve days/weeks in advance) Hey Japan! Get with the program. Your mobile data pricing sucks.
    • Update 2: The JCR rental ended up costing about the same with all the fees added in, but was still worthwhile. I’d definitely recommend it. I also went and picked up the b-mobile U300 microsim @ Bic Camera. No one knew what I was talking about, but I got it (about $150) and it worked great, if somewhat slowly after a brief trouble with setup. Having data on the iPad was a real lifesaver quite a few times (booking hotels, etc), so if you have a budget, I’d also recommend it.
  • Taiwan
    • This Singaporean forum thread was useful in getting started.  It looks like you can pick up data SIMs from any of the major phone companies at the airport for about 400 TWD ($12.46 US) for unlimited data for 5 or 7 days.
    • Update: Getting set up was easy breezy. Just turn right after exiting customs at the airport to get to the mobile kiosks. I bought a Dageda (Taiwan Mobile) 3G SIM (they also offer a MicroSIM) which provides voice and data. Data cost is 350 TWD/5 days (~$2.20/day) for unmetered 3G. I also bought a Chunghwa 3G MicroSIM. Their voice/data SIMs for prepaid only have expensive metered usage, but the data-only SIM was a good deal: 850 TWD (~$27) for one month, unmetered 3G.  Speed tests gave me a reliable 1-2MBps download speeds.
  • UK
    • I’ve had a decent experience with T-Mobile UK (have picked up SIMs at Carphone Warehouse). They used to have a day rate, but it appears to be even cheaper now. Unlimited internet for the month for 5 pounds. (Double take on that, but looking at 3’s rates, which comes with 150MB free per top-off, and maybe those rates are just what happens when there’s decent competition.)

Perhaps of interest may be to comparing these rates to the US.  If you’re interested in prepaid mobile data, there’s Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go, which is data only $40/mo for unlimited data 1GB or $60/mo for 5GB (Virgin is a Sprint MVNO (and subidiary now), so it doesn’t have SIMs), Simple Mobile (T-Mobile MVNO) that has a $60/mo plan w/ unlimited voice, text, and data (“unlimited” data apparently = 1GB), and AT&T offers 100MB for $20 as an addon option for their GoPhone SIM. T-Mobile has no contract data-only plans as well, their best being $40/mo for 5GB, but it’s a bit unclear if signing up is more involved than regular prepaid solutions. Still, overall, it seems pretty grim.

I’d love to hear experiences people have had w/ prepaid 3G data in other countries. My next three countries are Australia, Taiwan and Japan.

  • Ok, this is going to look like link spam like no other, but here goes.

    I live in Sweden and here you can get prepaid simcard with flatrate internet from many operators, telia, tele2, telenor and 3. I prefer “3”:

    199SEK for the package which includes usb modem and a SIM card (or micro SIM card if you want to use it in your iPad) and 7 days of internet

    29SEK / day
    99SEK / 7 days
    299SEK / 30 days

    I was in Germany a last year and there I bought a prepaid sim card from O2 and a few days of flat rate internet. I just went into one of their shops and asked for it. Can't remember the prices exactly, but probably like the deal from 3. Can't find a good web page, but it was sort of something like this.

    I was in Japan a few months ago and it was totally impossible for me to get anything. There is good 3G coverage at least in Tokyo where I was, so I didn't care about the other cell phone standard they had. Also, you would see people everywhere surfing the web on their phones, many iphones. However, since didn't live in Japan for at least a year and have a visum I couldn't buy these deals. The concept of pre-paid seems frowned upon or even unheard of. When I tried to explain the concept it sounded completely alien to them. Then again, I was speaking English and broken Japanese, so maybe anything I said sounded weird.

    I tried to find out how to get 3G internet before I went there and I did find these pages if you want to rent an iphone or simcard. and where the latter seems to be not only for Japan.

    I mailed globaladvancedcomm to see if it would fit my phone (unlocked Nokia N900), but they said it was locked to the iphone (although they did not explain how that was possible). They also had not heard of any prepaid options.

    However, apparently, everyone I talked to was wrong. A few days after I came back, I read this blog post

    which pointed to an operator called b-mobile (which I had heard about, but not that specific offering). I haven't tried it, or can't vouch for the blog, but it sound promising and I will definitely try it, when I go back to Japan.

    best of luck and may there be cheap internet everywhere for everyone

  • lhl

    Jon, thanks for taking the time to write this super useful comment. I'll definitely take a look at b-mobile and post an update on how it all turns out. (frustratingly, I've heard that Japan is also not big on public wifi)

  • I'm an American spending a year or so in Australia with a soft-unlocked iPhone 3GS.

    Data is ridiculously expensive here across the board, especially compared to what I'm used to back in California. Most home broadband plans are expensive, data capped at low monthly usages, and then throttled down to 128kbps or lower once you've hit your cap. Free public wifi can be extremely hard to find, and when you do find it it's usually too slow to use. For instance, most McDonald's offer it, but in my experience it can be too slow to even update your blog, if there are a bunch of backpackers trying to go on Facebook and Youtube. Paid wifi at hotels and tourist areas is a huge ripoff too — often capped on both time AND bandwidth (e.g. $5 per hour or 50MB, whichever comes first).

    The best option is to get a decent mobile plan and tether your laptop, assuming your device supports it.

    Finding something that is “decent” for you can be tough. Cell phone coverage is big issue here, especially if you have any interest in leaving any of the big cities. Telstra has the best network around, and it's leaps and bounds better than the rest… but far more expensive. I have Optus which is completely decent in the cities, but even an hour outside of Sydney in parts of New South Wales with decent populations I was alternating between no service and one or two bars of non-3G.

    Telstra coverage map:
    Optus coverage map:
    Virgin Mobile coverage map:

    A lot of the promotions that you've linked to seem to be new since I came over here. I pay $50/month for an Optus plan that includes 500MB of data, which is fine for me in the city now that I have broadband at home. While I was backpacking through cities and tethering every day I'd often hit the cap, and while I was backpacking through the country the service was too slow to make tethering worth it.

  • lhl

    Adam, thanks for the useful info on Australia! I think I'll be in cities most of the time (Sydney, maybe Melbourne), but it's good to know about the coverage situation. I have a 3G modem I picked up a while ago, and both my iPad and Android phones can tether, so hopefully I won't be to deal too much w/ wifi, although I'm glad you brought it up.

    Interesting wifi lists I've found:

  • Actually, in Tokyo you can see SSID Docomo in a lot of places. This and a few others are part of something called mzone.… I couldn't buy this either when I was in Japan, but they seem to have roaming deals with many world wide wifi providers.

  • beth

    hi – i am planning on going to australia for 2 weeks. i have an iphone4 unlocked and need only data plan … but lots of data, though. i saw on there is unlimited data sim card rental for $15/day. i was planning to use my skype for voice. do you have a cheaper suggestion?

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  • Julian
  • lhl

    Updated instructions for France:

  • jeanne

    updated promotions…

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