Have SIM card questions? Welcome to the very helpful post of answers (it's a must-have if you're going with a local data plan on your ILP semester!)
Planning on having a data plan on your international trip? Good choice — I've traveled with and without a data plan, and for my longer trips (like my ILP semesters), it was very handy to have data for all kinds of adventures, questions, and just pure convenience when you're out and about.
Up Next: Adventure Updates mean you don't miss out on any handy travel tips.
If your cell phone provider doesn't have a great option for international data (my provider's plan is very expensive!), then you'll probably go the easy-and-affordable route of getting a SIM once you arrive in-country. And this guide is here to help you answer every little question about that process.
- First Off, What Is A SIM?
How Do I Get A SIM Card When I'm Abroad?
A Few Things To Know + Expect
How To Insert A SIM Card In Your Phone
First Off, What Is A SIM?
Basically, a SIM card (short for Subscriber Identity Module) is a teeny-tiny little memory card that stores your phone's information like contacts, personal settings, and more. It also helps with billing info for your provider when it comes to calls, messaging, etc. They're removable, meaning you can slip your old SIM into a new phone and be good to go and have that info automatically transfer over.
Your SIM card is typically assigned to a specific country, meaning your phone will not work the same (and will rack up insanely and outrageously expensive data charges) if you try to just use your phone like normal in a new country. Not good at all!
We'll get to switching SIMs and inserting SIM cards in a bit, but it's a good background to know what a SIM is before we dive into all of those details.
Pst: Does your phone has an eSIM? You'll want to read that post.
Why Do I Need One?
Having a data plan isn't required for your ILP semester, but it is highly recommended.
... And getting a local SIM card can be an affordable way to get a data plan for the country you're volunteering in. Everything depends on the specific plan you're able to purchase, but a local SIM typically means prepaid data, messaging, calls, etc. to use in that country.
Before you jump into getting a data plan abroad, check first with your current provider about their international data options (just in case you have a good plan with your provider ... T-Mobile's was pretty affordable at the time this post was written). But for many, getting a local SIM card is way more affordable. In some countries, plans are just a few dollars a month (in the $7 - $13 range for some locations) so it can be a real steal of a deal.
How Do I A Get A SIM Card When Abroad?
When you arrive in-country, you'll bring your phone to one of the phone service provider companies (find kiosks in grocery stores, airports, convenience stores, and metro stops), and purchase a plan. Some include unlimited texting or calls, and with a few gigs of data, but you'll want to double-check details to find a plan that fits your needs. As a reminder, ILP volunteers will have internet access either at home or at the school they teach at (sometimes both) if that helps you make your decision ... though sometimes the data plan works better than the WiFi!
What providers are available depends on the country — Claro is popular in the Dominican Republic, Vodaphone is found in many countries in Europe, TelCel is a common one found in Mexico, Africell and Airtel SIM are options for Africa, etc.
If you're an ILP volunteer, we have info about what past volunteers have done for their local SIM in your City Page — you'll get info on prices, how to set things up, etc., for your specific area. This is available for all volunteers who have already been accepted and assigned: just log into your my.ilp.org account and head to your City Page!
A Few Things To Know + Expect
Is Your Phone Unlocked?
If you go this route, make sure your phone is unlocked! If your phone is locked, the SIM you have now is restricted to the carrier you have ... meaning you will not be able to activate a local SIM card if your phone is not unlocked.
Having an unlocked phone means you can use it with different carriers, ie: a local SIM card. Please double-check (or even triple-check) to make sure you're good to go with your provider before planning on getting a SIM card in-country.
You'll Get A New Number
Your new SIM will give you a new phone number (phone numbers are one of the things associated with your SIM card). To find out what your new number is (so that you can share it with your friends and family), you'll need to head to your settings.
For iPhone users, go to Settings > Phone > then your new number will show up under "My Number".
For Android users, go to Settings > About Phone or About Device > Status > My phone number
You may need to give it a few minutes and/or restart your phone before it shows.
Keep Your Old SIM
Be so careful with your old SIM card — you'll need it when you get back from your ILP semester. I normally use Verizon, so once I return from volunteering abroad, I need to switch back to my Verizon SIM card. Make sure to keep your old SIM in a very safe place, and when you get home, just follow the steps below to take out your out-of-country SIM and replace it with the one you use at home.
Get Way More Info Here
Wondering about traveling with your phone? There are a whole list of steps I make sure I check off before I board the plane. That blog post has info on how to backup your phone just in case, a go-to recommendation for a waterproof pouch, and a few other handy tips.
How To Insert A SIM Card In Your Phone
The process is generally the same for every phone and super fast. Basically, you'll need to locate the old SIM — typically it's somewhere you've never ever noticed before — take out your old SIM, pop in the new one, and close things up ... but it does differ from Apple to Android and can have some slight differences based on the model of the phone you have.
My advice? Find a step-by-step tutorial on Google or YouTube, where users upload articles or videos on how exactly to remove and insert a SIM card for your exact phone. For example, I searched "replace SIM for iPhone 12" and got this short, easy-to-follow-along video that made it a cinch.
Time to dust off your passport for a semester of adventures?
Come volunteer with ILP! International Language Programs sends groups of college-aged volunteers to countries all around the world (and set them up with housing, arrange their flights, have a support system in place, and more). It's the ideal split between giving back as a volunteer and having free time to explore this new country you'll call home.
Get all your questions answered below by getting in touch with someone who's volunteered with us before: