While it’s true that a lot of people like to “disconnect” when traveling, sometimes it’s quite useful to have a SIM card with data on it. Getting lost is still a huge part of the experience of traveling, so don’t take this as an endorsement to keep your nose glued to the phone, but having a smartphone safety net with GPS and maps, and the ability to look up which restaurants are wasteful tourist traps and which ones are a great value is invaluable. This guide is by no means definitive, just simply a listing of what we had to do to get SIM cards in the following countries. First off, you’ll need an unlocked phone–getting to this point is beyond the scope of this article, but you should be able to figure it out with a bit of googling if you’re unsure. All of these were done with an iPhone 4S and/or a Nexus 4.
Service provider: blauworld
Requires internet access to activate: Yes
You can get a SIM card from many locations–the easiest is to find a ReiseBank location in the airport and get one there for about 10 euros. Note that most shops that sell the SIM card are closed on Sunday except for airport locations, so I would strongly recommend purchasing it before leaving the airport. Most major German airports will have a ReiseBank or other shop that sells blauworld SIMs. You will then need to log on to the blauworld activation page and enter the SIM card details. Then you have the option to add some money via credit card or via a top-up card that can be purchased at most grocery/convenience stores, and select the plan that suits your trip–I went for the Mobile-Internet-Flat 750 MB plan which cost 9.90EUR. Note that some of the blauworld account setup pages are in German only so if you don’t speak the language, Google Chrome’s automatic translate tool is a lifesaver (I believe they may have since added full English support). I have also heard that the full activation process will be done for you by the shop clerk in Munich airport, though this certainly was not the case for me at Frankfurt airport.
Service Provider: bmobile
Requires Internet Access to activate: Yes — activation needs to be completed before visiting Japan.
Japan has some weird laws making it tough for a foreigner to easily get a SIM card. In fact, getting a voice plan is almost impossible, but it is possible to get a data plan. The absolute easiest way is to buy a preactivated SIM card online from the bmobile website (we went with the 1GB unlimited speed card). You can choose to have it delivered to your hotel or to the airport post office (we went with the post office since we were headed straight to Osaka). Once you pick the SIM card up, there is no activation process, you just pop it in, follow some simple configuration instructions, and start using it. 14 days of data @ 3980 yen (+210 yen to receive at airport). One thing to note is that if you are using AirBNB, it is very common for the host to provide a portable WiFi/WiMAX hotspot, which you can then bring with you wherever you go. If this is sufficient for your needs, you might not need to deal with getting a SIM card.
Service Provider: Vodafone
Requires Internet Access to activate: No
The Netherlands was the easiest place we have ever gotten a SIM card. We just walked into a random Vodafone shop near Amsterdam Centraal Station and asked for a data SIM. The shop clerk gave us a SIM card with 100MB of data and a few minutes talk (don’t remember exactly how much) for a total cost of 2 euros. Yes, only 2 euros, it literally cost less than the stroopwafel we just ate before walking into the shop. At that price we actually decided to get 2 SIM cards for both of our phones, because why not?
Service Provider: 3
Requires Internet Access to activate: No
Following recommendations on the internet, we walked into a Carphone Warehouse in Victoria Station (there are plenty scattered all around London) and picked up a prepaid 3 SIM card. Setup is done on the phone itself, and since it’s all in English it’s super-easy. The total cost was around 15-20 pounds and gave us unlimited internet access for a month as well as a ton of talk minutes (which we were able to use for dinner reservations and such) plus texting (didn’t get to use this too much, but it could be useful for meeting people). Service was fine in London but a little spotty in northern England and Scotland.
Service Provider: T-Mobile
Requires Internet Access: Yes
Well, we live in the US so this doesn’t come up too often, but this is what we use at home, and I believe it’s the best option for visitors to the USA. Get a SIM card from T-mobile either by purchasing one from a store or by ordering one in advance online (can be delivered to a hotel or wherever you are staying). Then you can choose the plan you feel would best suit you, but I would strongly recommend the $30 Unlimited Data/Unlimited Texting/100 Minutes Talk plan. This plan is not heavily advertised anywhere, so many tourists (and even locals) are not aware of it. Note that if you buy a SIM card in store, do not activate it there as this plan is online-only. Service is good in major cities, but might be spotty if you head out to into the wilderness.