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My specific question is about Europe: I'm going to be going through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and possibly Bosnia/Herzegovina and/or Montenegro. (I live in the USA.) However, I'm interested in the overall question for travel in general as well. Basically what I want to know is what is the overall least painful way to get access to a mobile data network while travelling among several countries.

I have seen previous questions here, here and here. The main three options described there are:

  1. Use an international roaming option from your own home-country cell company.
  2. Use an international SIM card such as keepgo or the like.
  3. Buy a local SIM card in every individual country you travel to.

Option #1 is not available for me as I use TMobile prepaid which doesn't offer international data roaming. Three years ago I went to several countries in western Europe and basically used option 3, but there I was just using voice/text because I didn't have a smartphone at that time. It worked, but it was a bit of a hassle, not least because it was difficult to get clear information about what will happen when you buy a SIM card in one country and use it in another country. For this trip data is more important to me than voice/text (I could probably forgo voice/text entirely), but the multi-country issue is still the big question mark.

What I'm wondering, beyond what is covered in the other questions, is essentially which of solution #2 and #3 is overall more practical. Specifically:

  1. Is it always the case that every single national border crossing means you need a new SIM card to avoid impractically high fees? Most of the questions I've seen about this are from before the recent EU regulations on roaming charges. I'm not an expert on those regulations, but from what I can find they seem to have somewhat lessened the pain of multi-country travel. Are there are rules of thumb as far as roaming rates (e.g., if you go from one country to a neighboring country, will the rate increase typically be less than if you go to a more distant country)?
  2. At what point does the hassle of buying, installing, and adding money to multiple SIM cards (with the language-barrier problems likely to be present at each step) outweigh the drop in cost? Also, there can be money wastage associated with getting a new card without using everything on the old card. On some of the country-specific provider sites I looked at, it's not clear what will happen if you take one of these prepaid data SIMs outside the country. Will they just not work, or will rates just skyrocket?
  3. How does performance compare between the local providers and a package deal like keepgo?

Basically I'm looking for practical guidance on where the happy medium is between keepgo's simple "$8/day 50MB" and the opposite extreme "maybe you can get cheaper rates by buying 5 different SIM cards and loading them with just the right amount of money".

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"the best way" is hard to answer. What defines best for you? How long will you stay in each country? How much data do you want to transfer? –  ThomasS Jul 18 '13 at 8:20

1 Answer 1

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Is it always the case that every single national border crossing means you need a new SIM card to avoid impractically high fees?

Not always, there are some international service providers that charge no roaming fees - in Africa. I'm not aware of any such offers in Europe.

Most of the questions I've seen about this are from before the recent EU regulations on roaming charges. I'm not an expert on those regulations, but from what I can find they seem to have somewhat lessened the pain of multi-country travel.

Wikipedia has the details. In 2013, the limit is €0.45/MB, starting next year it will be €0.20/MB. But note that the regulation is not valid in Bosnia/Herzegovina and Montenegro. Compared to that, keepgo is still a pretty good deal, unless you really only want to check your email (and have a way to ensure that that's all the data traffic yout smartphone does).

Are there are rules of thumb as far as roaming rates (e.g., if you go from one country to a neighboring country, will the rate increase typically be less than if you go to a more distant country)?

No. There may be tariffs where this is the case, but not in general.

At what point does the hassle of buying, installing, and adding money to multiple SIM cards (with the language-barrier problems likely to be present at each step) outweigh the drop in cost?

That depends on the cost (i.e. how much data you're planning to use) and how you value the hassle. Both are going to be pretty high.

On some of the country-specific provider sites I looked at, it's not clear what will happen if you take one of these prepaid data SIMs outside the country. Will they just not work, or will rates just skyrocket?

If they really don't list international roaming charges at all, they will probably stop working. But it's unlikely any provider would forego the chance to collect exorbitant charges.

How does performance compare between the local providers and a package deal like keepgo?

You mean speed and coverage? Keepgo will need to use the network of one of the local providers. It may or may not be the best-performing one.

Basically I'm looking for practical guidance on where the happy medium is between keepgo's simple "$8/day 50MB" and the opposite extreme "maybe you can get cheaper rates by buying 5 different SIM cards and loading them with just the right amount of money".

That depends mainly on how much data you use and how long you'll be staying in each country. Keepgo looks like a great deal if you use 10-50 MB per day and stay less than a week in each country. If you stay longer and/or need more data, the 5 different SIM cards are probably better. If you use very little data, it's probably best to just get one SIM card and live with the roaming charges. In Germany, Aldi Talk has an add-on package that gives you 60 MB total, valid within the EU for 7 days, for 5 EUR.

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Thanks, this is a helpful answer. It looks like keepgo may be best for me, as I'm planning to use a middling amount of data and will be moving from country to country. Also it looks like most options besides keepgo have punishing roaming fees for Montenegro. My main concern with data is being able to use maps, book hotels, and other such travel needs, plus a bit of email and the like. My trip begins with several days in Germany, so what I may do is get the keepgo SIM with an activation date a few days after I arrive and get a German SIM for that first part. –  BrenBarn Jul 20 '13 at 20:45

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