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My Indispensable Travel Tool: Local Prepaid SIM Cards

Posted by on 22 July 2011
prepaid SIM cards, passport, foreign coins, phone

Part of my prepaid SIM collection (from top right): Mentari Indonesia, Globe Philippines, 2˚ New Zealand, Turkcell Turkey. Not shown in photo: TuneTalk Malaysia.

The first thing I buy whenever I travel overseas is almost always a local prepaid SIM card. Whether it’s for a three-day or week-long trip, I find it worth the initial investment, which can be anywhere from less than a US Dollar to USD10.

A prepaid card saves me from roaming charges which can end up really huge. For instance, one outgoing text message (SMS) from Amsterdam to Malaysia cost me RM2. But that’s nothing compared to the cost of my DH’s (outgoing) call to me from Dubai — a whopping RM41.70 (USD13.90) for a call that lasted 2 minutes and 49 seconds. Even receiving a call can cost you an arm and leg. Well, okay, not exactly an arm and leg but close enough — RM5.20 (USD1.73) for every minute (or part thereof, be it 3 seconds or 59 seconds) for every incoming call that you answer in Indonesia. The rates I’m mentioning here are based on my Maxis phone bills from May to June 2011. Maxis used to be very transparent with their roaming charges but I can’t seem to find a list of their rates anymore anywhere in their site any more.

Some people might say it’s too much of a hassle to have to use a different number for every trip. But these days, you don’t even have to remember your number. All you have to do is send a text message (SMS) to your selected contacts and all they have to do is save (temporarily) your new number. Because, after all, when you really think about it, you only need to be in constant contact with very few people on a daily basis while you are away. The rest can be contacted via email or after you return to your home country. Besides, with caller line identification, you can always return people’s calls using your local number. And if their names don’t show up when they call, that means they’re not in your contacts list, ergo chances are their call can wait.

Naturally, I always keep a spare phone with me to be used with my local prepaid SIM card, preferably something that shares the same charger as my main phone (currently the HTC Desire Android smart phone). But then again, you might also want to consider using a very cheap small phone that you won’t cry over in case it gets lost.

A prepaid SIM card is also an easy of accessing email and internet on the go, as most of them offer mobile broadband packages. Since I am frequently in Indonesia, I use Mentari because it has good coverage in the areas where I usually go. And with Mentari, I get to sign up for mobile broadband from as cheap as a mere Rp1,000 a day (~USD0.12) for 1 MB per day. Click here to see IM2 and Mentari mobile internet rates. Best of all, I get to make cheap calls to Malaysia — something like Rp1,000 per minute — by dialing 01016 followed by 60 (for Malaysia) then the number that I’m calling, e.g. 0101660123456789 if I want to make a call to 012-3456789. [NB: For XL prepaid, you dial 01000 instead.]

Where To Buy Local Prepaid SIM Packs:

Indonesia: Prepaid SIM starter packs are available inside Jakarta airport in a small shop situated front of the luggage carousel. There are also small shops/counters right outside the airport selling them. But your best bet is to buy from one of those small roadside shops which can be found anywhere. To be on the safe side, ask the shop to put in the SIM card in your phone then check the expiry date right there and then because there are cases when some unscrupulous vendors sell numbers that are already past their expiry dates. To top up, ask the shopkeeper for ‘pulsa’.

Philippines: Take your pick between SMART and Globe, the two largest mobile operators in the Philippines, for the best coverage. Like Indonesia, roadside shops selling starter packs and ‘load’ can be found anywhere.

Malaysia: If you are arriving via LCCT, the moment you get down the escalator, just before turning into the luggage carousels, you’ll find a counter selling TuneTalk prepaid packs for only RM5 with RM4 credit. TuneTalk offers very competitive rates for overseas calls, as well as local calls to all mobile operators. Their overseas call rates are so cheap that I keep one (in addition to my postpaid Maxis number) specifically for outgoing overseas calls only. Top up your TuneTalk number by buying vouchers from any 7-Eleven outlet. You can also buy U-mobile starter packs in 7-Eleven outlets nationwide. But if your contacts are primarily using Maxis or Celcom, it’s worth getting Hotlink and Celcom prepaid, respectively, so that you can be in the same network as them. DiGi is a good choice if you wish to make lots of overseas calls but I find that their coverage is not as good as other mobile operators. If you foresee a lot of driving in the North-South Highway during your stay in KL (i.e. drive between KL, Malacca, and Johor), you’re better off with Maxis because they have cellular towers every few kilometers right beside the highway. Maxis Hotlink, Celcom and DiGi are more readily available in malls and shopping centres all over Malaysia.

Istanbul, Turkey: Prepaid SIM cards are available in a small phone shop at Sultanahmet tram stop.

Geneva, Switzerland: Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased at the train station in the airport.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: Buy your prepaid SIM cards — and topup your prepaid number — at any Albert Heijn supermarket. You might, however, need some help registering your number from someone who speaks Dutch.

Oman: Prepaid SIM packs are sold in a shop in the airport as soon as you exit.

Saudi Arabia: Buy your SIM starter packs from any of those small sundry shops by the roadside. Don’t buy from the airport.

Please feel free to add info about where to buy prepaid SIM packs in your home country — and other recommendations — in the Comments section. Thank you, terima kasih, merçi beaucoup, muchas gracias, daghang salamat, maraming salamat po!

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