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I am currently part way through a trip that will pass through at least 11 countries. I want to access data in all these countries. What problems am I likely to encounter, and what pragmatic solutions are there to get round them?

The problems that arise with data connections can be summarised as:

  1. What ways are there of establishing and maintaining a connection?
  2. What levels of service are available?
  3. What location specific restrictions are there?
  4. How much will it cost me?
  5. How do I minimise costs?

All these problems interact - alternative ways of connecting will cost different amounts, and provide different levels of service. It is always worth asking the question - will some compromise approach suit my immediate problem better?

To make full use of this question, when you are answering any part of it, edit this question, or one of the main answers to reference your answer and then link your answer to the reference.

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Kudos to you for putting together a community wiki on this oft-asked topic on Travel.SE! –  Ankur Banerjee May 14 '12 at 15:11

21 Answers 21

up vote 0 down vote accepted

What ways are there of establishing and maintaining a connection?

  1. Home SIM
  2. International SIM
  3. Local SIM
  4. Wifi
  5. Internet cafe
  6. VPN/Proxy server
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This is the accepted answer, only to remove the nag "Have you considered accepting an answer to this question." –  Chris Walton Jun 12 '12 at 5:35

Home SIM

You use the phone, SIM card, and payment options you normally use at home. You may have to get your provider to enable data roaming on your phone.

Ease of Use

Everybody's easiest option. You are nearly guaranteed to be able to get a connection, so long as you are within connection range of any network.

Costs

You will pay your normal payments, and in addition you will pay data roaming rates, at the highest possible level.

It is absolutely essential to do the Sir Thomas Lipton exercises (tear up large denomination bills, under a shower, while banging your head against a wall, until you are comfortable), before using this method of data access. Under no other circumstances should this approach be used.

DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES EXCEPT THE DIREST EMERGENCY USE THIS APPROACH. IT WILL COST YOU A FORTUNE. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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International SIM

You use your normal phone. Get your connection provider to unlock your phone. Some providers are reluctant to do this, especially in the first year of a contract, but if you run into problems just persist until you get your handset unlocked. Purchase an International SIM card, such as GoSIM (whose phone help desk is superb. I have had to contact them from Amsterdam, Moscow and Beijing; and in all cases I have received the same impressive level of service. The only issue with their help desk is that you are inevitably in a queue, though their voice system does keep you informed of the progress you are making in the queue.) Preload the SIM with money, and setup means to add further money to the SIM (all part of the purchase process. Replace your normal SIM with the International SIM.

Ease of use

This is a very easy option, comparable to using your home SIM. Like your home SIM you should be able to get data access under nearly any conditions. If you are switching off your phone between data usage (recommended), then you may have to unlock your SIM each time, and you may have to enable data each time you come to use the SIM. For GoSim this involves phoning a special number they give you; for other providers, it may involve nothing at all; or sending a SMS to the provider.

Costs

You will pay your normal payments, and in addition you will pay data roaming rates at the rate set by.the International SIM provider. These can still be eye-watering but they should be much less than those on your home SIM. GoSIM quote savings, on data roaming charges, of 65%. While I can't confirm or contradict these figures, they do seem to be of the right order. However you are still paying data roaming charges, and as such need to carry out all the data hygiene mentioned in How do I minimise costs? This is still an expensive option.

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The GoSIM data rates are as high as 30US$/MB in some countries and barely an alternative if price matters. –  Tor-Einar Jarnbjo May 9 '12 at 11:21

Local SIM

You use your normal phone. Get your connection provider to unlock your phone. Some providers are reluctant to do this, especially in the first year of a contract, but if you run into problems just persist until you get your handset unlocked. Find a local supplier of 3G SIMs. Purchase one, and if necessary purchase internet access on the SIM card. Insert the SIM card, and initialise it according to the sellers instructions.

Ease of use

Is very variable, in part depending on the state of the market in the country you are in, in part your grasp of the language in use in the country you are in; the availability of speakers of a language you recognise; etc. At best it goes very well; at worst it can prove impossible to use this route.

The specifics vary from country to country. There are different ways different providers provide a service. The easiest I have found is Beeline in Russia - you just plug in the SIM and everything works. The most difficult I have found is a combination of a China Mobile SIM and a HTC Wildfire phone. These seem determined not to talk to each other and all my efforts to make them talk have come to naught. The process seems to involve: setting up internet access on the SIM card, by phoning a help desk number and getting an access code that you send as an SMS. Then it seems to involve enabling data on the phone, before each use. This is where I have failed to get communication and I have no idea why or what to do about it.

Instructions and SMS messages will come in the language appropriate to the place you are in. This is not too much of a problem if the country uses a roman script, because telecomm terms are likely to be recognisable no matter what language is in use. However, if different scripts are being used - Chinese, Arabic, Cyrillic - it can be impossible to recogise instructions to send an SMS or call a specific number.

SIMs, in those countries that permit open purchase of them, are readily available at airports, telecomms providers shops, and other outlets. Some countries are very restrictive in who can purcase SIMS - requiring residency requirments for instance

Also other countries do not use SIMs (Japan), though I have no personal experience of these countries, and don't know what they use as an alternative.

To purchase the card, and set it up so that it can be used can take a lot of time and effort, depending on country, location, carrier and phone.

You will be subject to local law and restrictions. So in China, behind the Great Firewall of China, you will not be able to access facebook, ebay, blogger, and many other sites. Sometimes the entire internet will vanish.

Costs

This is by far the cheapest and recommended way to go. There are still a data rate to be paid but these rates are likely to be very low (and may indeed in some places be zero). There is still one gotcha to be aware of. What constitutes local. In large countries (Russia, and China) each major city is likely to be considered local. So, for instance, a card bought in Beijing will incur data roaming charges if used in Xining. These data roaming charges can be very reasonable, within one country, or they can be at the level you would incur if you were using your home SIM.

SIM Surgery

This is a special note for Apple users. It is possible to gain all the advantages of this approach, but availability of SIMs that are in the Appple form factor is very low indeed. I have seen an Apple user get all the advantages of this approach by conducting very exact surgery to cut down a normal SIM to Apple's form factors. If you choose to go this route, be prepared for failures. The person I saw doing this bought three SIMS, cut down the first, which did not work; and was only successful with his surgery on the second SIM.

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With respect to Japan: I rented a SIM from JCR jcrcorp.com/mobile/mobile_rental_main.htm . Protip for iPhone users renting from JCR: get the correct size SIM, don't do SIM surgery. –  Andrew Grimm May 6 '12 at 11:18
    
I have heard of people who don't want to do SIM surgery renting phones for use internationally. Could somebody speak to that? –  Monica Cellio May 17 '12 at 1:36

Wifi

The easiest and often the cheapest option is to use a local Wifi connection.

Ease of use

Availability depends on where you are. I am currently in China, and a connection is available in the hostel I am staying at in a very major city. Fifteen kilometres away over a geographical fault, I am unlikely to able to find a Wifi signal for 2500 kilometres.

Any wifi signal will be subject to all the restrictions on content described for local SIM.

Costs

Very variable, but even at their most rapacious (cafe owners, or in Vietnam) costs are reasonable. If Wifi is available, and one place is charging high rates for access, a nearby place is likely to be more reasonable.

A recommended option under most circumstances where the local restrictions are not important.

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Internet cafe

A fallback position. I had thought this would be an easy option, but the problem comes in using the Internet machine to access (in my case) English language settings. I had thought my knowledge of MS operating systems would suffice, but it turns out that Chinese MS configuration options for the Internet, spread over three more complex configuration screens than English language versions, and require the operator to recognise the difference (in Chinese) between option sets such as Cantonese language, Mandarin traditional characters, tone set Taiwanese; and English language, UK English, tone set default.

The best way of doing this is to use the internet data connection lead to plug into your machine, but some Internet cafe owners don't like you doing this.

Obviously all the restrictions of the local solutions apply, and costs can vary widely, though still generally cheap.

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VPN/Proxy server

I have come across travellers using both these. They seem to serve the purpose of avoiding local restrictions, in particular a countries firewalls - like the Great Firewall of China, while using either Wifi or Internet Cafes.

There is one (in hindsight) blindingly obvious point to make about these solutions. If they are being used to get round local restrictions, it is essential to set them up BEFORE you are in the country with the restrictions. This is because the firewalls you are trying to get round, do a very good job in blocking the downloads of VPNs and proxy servers.

Use of proxy servers can be blocked by anti-virus software. The task it is doing is sufficiently close to malicious behaviour that (certainly Symantec and possibly other) anti-virus programs determine the sites from which these proxies can be downloaded as potential threats. You may have to specifically insist to your anti-virus software, that you do know what you are doing. This does of course open the door to genuinely malicious software.

If you can set such a service up ahead of time, and it works in your chosen country, then this option combined with Wifi gives you all the advantages of full access to data at local costs. Proxy servers can be obtained free of cost - the one I use is Ultrasurf. As far as I am aware VPNs do have costs, though many of these costs are low. They can be provided by academic or commercial organisations.

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Bandwidth capabilities can be considerably different in countries. For example in Brazil, regardless of who we connected to for the backbone it just couldn't achieve speeds needed. That isn't indicative of everything but just a pattern we saw.

Depending on some countries political system, you may not be able to visit certain websites or even VPN in some instances. My dad was recently in China where places like Facebook, parts of Google, and many news sites were simply not available.

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Voice phone call

Availability

This level of service is likely to be available under nearly all circumstances where there is some small community of people. Usable in small remote villages; often while travelling, and in all but the most extreme of circumstances.

Cost

If provided by Local SIM, then the cost is likely to be zero or peanuts - even if using a Local SIM non locally (for example using a Beijing SIM in Xining).

Perception

This is a backup that people often forget about. In some circumstances it is actually likely to be the ideal solution.

Level of service

This is not often what people are thinking of when they talk of connectivity, and not what they think they want.

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Email

Availability

Likely to be available nearly as widely as a voice phone call. It would be quite an unusual situation to have voice calls available, and no email.

Other

As for voice phone calls.

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Messaging

This is the method I am least familiar with, so please edit if incomplete, or incorrect.

As for Email.

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Internet

I have separated out internet and data for purely pragmatic reasons. In theory they are the same thing but the terms have different implications in practice. Internet (or internet access) is the term used by older services; by 2G networks; or by 2G networks that are now (starting to) offering 3G services. This is where many of the apparent solutions start to break down for technical, location, or miscellaneous reasons.

Level of Service

This is the minimum level people are likely to be thinking of when they talk about data access.

Availability

Some level of service is likely to be available wherever there is a phone signal. However, this is where compromises are likely to come into play. Some level of availability is possible in most situations if you are prepared to pay for it, or are prepared to spend time and effort sorting out the problems you will encounter. If you are not prepared to invest time, money, or both, then adjust the level of service downwards until you find a compromise that meets your situation.

Method of Access

There are a variety of ways in which internet acess is provided. These tend to be country/supplier/location specific. This does mean that if the SIM card is in a different language, it can be difficult to tease out all the meaning of instructions available, and messages sent to your phone. This difficulty is much higher if the instructions/messages are in an unfamiliar script - Chinese; Arabic; Cyrillic; etc.

Data availability

While in theory this level of access is all that is needed for a full internet experience, in practice the older networks have a mindset of accessing static data on web (not mobile) sites. This can make a difference when trying to access other forms of data. It is likely to be possible, but often can seem rather convoluted to access data.

Location specifics

  1. China
  2. Russia
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Russia

The Beeline network provides the easiest way possible of connecting to the internet. Buy the SIM. Insert into phone. You have internet access.

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China

China Mobile (CMCC) cards operate on the basis that internet access needs to be enabled by CMCC helpdesk, who send out an internet access enabling code,which you use your phone to send back to CMCC. Then - and this bit I haven't got to work - when you use the internet enabled SIM to access the internet, you first need to turn on data access on your phone.

Other questions and answers:

Sim Card with data plan in China?

Accessing facebook in China.

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Data

All the same considerations apply to data as they do to Internet. However the experience of setting up, establishing and maintaining a connection is likely to be much better integrated and more digital. It will either work, comparatively painlessly; or it will be impossible. The mindset of newer providers is much more likely to be geared up to streamed data, and to mobile specific sites. This does make life easier in data access terms.

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Streaming Data

This is a special answer only because this is where data roaming charges are likely to start having particular impact. If your current solution includes any element of data roaming charges, you will start incurring these charges immediately. It can be very difficult to establish whether you are using streaming data or not, and it is possible to rack up charges very quickly indeed.

If the answer to any of these questions is yes then you are using streaming data all the time. Are you using any form of location service? Are you signed up to weather forecasts for your local area? Do you have data always on switched on? Do you get a news feed? ....

It is this type of access that leads to all the horror stories about data roaming charges. I have (once) had a brief session on facebook (about 40 minutes) and have burnt through $25 of data charges. (And I believe I knew what I am doing, and thought I was doing all the correct things).

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Special Services

No this is not about pornography, though accessing that might warrent questions all of its own. It is about services that in one country or another are viewed as special. The biggest and most obvious example is the "Great Firewall of China". Any attempt to access one of the services that China has determined are special will be blocked by the firewall if using a local solution (Local SIM or Wifi). This means that you cannot access Facebook; Blogger; and a substantial number of other sites. The choices are simple - use a local solution, at low cost, with no access to these sites; or pay data roaming charges, and gain access via a non-local solution. The use of a VPN or proxy server can give you access to these services and give you all the cost benefits of a local service.

In China, and possibly other countries, it is also possible that Internet access will just be switched off - for an hour; or a few hours. There will be no warning, no information, no access.

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Location specific restrictions

There can be specific restrictions arising from usage of data access in particular countries. The following specific questions relate to these restrictions:

Australia

Prepay simcard for data in Australia

China

Sim Card with data plan in China?

India

Getting a SIM card (prepay) in India

South East Asia

Wifi coverage in SE Asia?

USA

Data-plan for the USA

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How much will it cost?

What are the best deals for a SIM card?

These questions cannot be answered. At best an answer can only be provided that is highly localised in time and space, and will be out of date very quickly - this month, in this city, in this country, the best offer is ZZZZ corp who are offering a special deal for one-armed limbo dancers who can prove they are going to use exactly 12.1Mb of data during night hours....

Questions like this have been asked on this forum before:

Where can I buy a SIM card for light internet use in Italy?

What is the cheapest way to call Venezuelan cell phones?

and have been closed because it is not possible to give lasting answers to this type of question.

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Minimising costs

What are data roaming charges?

Data charges generally are those charges levied by Internet Providers (IPs) to access the internet. Whether a regular contract or a pay as you go card, the costs are likely to be expressed as £x per time period per data volume per location. For instance, my home contract is £25 per month for all the data I can use in the United Kingdom - I currently use about 4Gb per month without any video or film involved.

Data roaming charges are the charges that IPs levy if you want to access data from a place other than your home location (for the IPs purpose). Roaming charges are always charged when accessing data from a country different to your own. They can also be charged if you move outside the local area to which the SIM applies in larger countries. Moscow is one location in Russia - if you move outside Moscow with a Moscow SIM, you are going to be charged data roaming charges - even on the networks that give internet access with no charge once you have bought the SIM.

Data roaming charges are where all the horror stories arise. I have heard friend of a friend stories suggesting that people have incurred bills of £2000-£3000 in a month while on holiday. I have not actually encountered this myself, but I do know from personal experience that it is easily possible to spend a few hundred pounds in data charges, per month, if moving between a number of countries.

Data roaming charges range from the merely criminally insane to requiring the human sacrifice of the first born of each generation for the next ten generations.

Some ways of keeping them within bounds are listed in:

What ways are there of establishing and maintaining a connection?

What are the best ways to avoid data roaming fees when travelling abroad?

As far as I am aware, it is only in very specific circumstances that these charges can be avoided. The key to such charges is to accept them, but to work towards minimising them. To minimize data roaming charges, you need to be aware at all times what your mobile is doing with data. Some of the issues are listed in What levels of service are available?

but the following are general points that help with these charges:

  1. Switch off any "data always on" feature of your phone.
  2. Disconnect from any location based services.
  3. Switch off your phone - or switch it to aeroplane mode - when you are not accessing data. This may mean that you have to unlock your SIM every time you do want to use data, but this is a small price to pay.
  4. Turn off any data based services you use - weather forecasts, etc. When you access any of the streaming services, set up your phone to access the service; go straight to the service; do the absolute minimum you NEED to do on that service; disconnect your phone from the service immediately.
  5. Be aware of what constitutes data. My initial downfall was a language learning flashcard service I use. This service is very good, and serves my needs well. However, the whole application is built on Flash - so every time I access the service I am downloading large volumes of picture data. This means I can sensibly use it as a local solution, but not as a solution based on my International SIM.
  6. Don't download or upload video.
  7. If you are downloading or uploading pictures, keep them to a minimum, and ensure that they are optimised for the web - reduced size; reduced colour depth; JPEG compression; etc.
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