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Airalo review: how to beat mobile roaming charges abroad using travel eSIMs

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Last year, almost all UK mobile networks brought back international roaming charges for all destinations, including those in the EU.

This was a major disappointment, as free European roaming was unbelievably convenient for frequent travellers.

Anyone on EE, Three or Vodafone will now be charged for EU roaming when they take out a new mobile contract (existing contracts are usually exempt from EU roaming costs, so it may be worth sticking with that you have even if slightly cheaper deals are available).

For example, Three will now charge you £2 a day just to use your normal allowance in Europe. Outside of Europe it can be as much as £5 per day.

O2

For EU roaming, O2 remains the best UK mobile network

O2 is now the only mobile network of the big four to include free roaming in Europe for all pay monthly customers. It’s one of the reasons I swapped from Three once my contract ended last month.

(Vodafone also offers free roaming on some of its 4 Xtra plans, starting at £18/month.)

48 countries/territories/areas are included. The full list is on the O2 website here but basically it covers all of the EU and European Economic Area. Switzerland, for example, is included, as is Norway, despite neither being part of the EU.

Calls and texts to UK numbers are also free or charged at the same rate as they would be if you were in the UK. Calls to international numbers are separate – although O2 offers an paid-for ‘International Bolt On’ that reduces the cost of these too.

If you are on a monthly plan, you can use your data in O2’s Eurozone up to a maximum of 25GB (or less, if your plan includes fewer GBs.) Any data usage beyond this will be subject to throttling.

sim card

Finding local eSIMs with Airalo

If you’re travelling beyond the European Union, or you’re with EE, Vodafone, Three or another network, then your best option is purchasing a local SIM card at your destination.

This has been made even easier with the introduction of eSIM across many mobile devices, including from 12th generation iPhones (the 2018 iPhone XR and XS). Samsung was a bit behind the curve and only introduced eSIMs to its 2020 Galaxy S20 phones but too are now standard.

Most handsets from the last 2-5 years come with dual SIM support, either in the form of two SIM card slots or a physical SIM slot and eSIM support.

That means you can now connect to two mobile networks at once – letting you retain your UK number and SIM whilst supplementing it with a local SIM depending on where you’re travelling.

eSIMs make this even easier because you don’t need to wait until you arrive at the airport or faff around with tiny SIM cards. You can simply scan a QR code to add a data plan to your phone.

This has led to a number of third party companies popping up to connect travellers with local SIM cards, including Airalo.

Using Airalo as an esim to beat roaming charges

Airalo – website here – bills itself as the world’s first eSIM store that gives you access to 190+ eSIMs globally, including a range of local, regional and global SIM cards.

I have now used Airalo twice – on my trips to Malaysia and Qatar – and have been very impressed. The process is extremely simple, as demonstrated by this infographic:

How Airalo works

(In reality, you do not need the app. You can also use the web interface.)

What I particularly like about Airalo and eSIMs is that I can install my international data plan before I even leave the UK, which means I have a seamless data connection once I land at my destination. This is especially useful in case I need to show any documents on my phone but can’t connect to Wi-Fi.

How does Airalo work?

In a few weeks I am heading to the United States to try out Virgin Atlantic’s new Austin route, which is unfortunately outside of my O2 free roaming destinations. Looking at Airalo, I have four options:

  • 1GB with 7 days validity for $4.50
  • 3GB with 30 days validity for $11
  • 5GB for 30 days validity for $16
  • 10GB for 30 days validity for $26

In my experience, 1GB is enough data for a few days for basics such as mapping tools, email and browsing online – you’ll need more if you plan on streaming, obviously.

Airalo doesn’t actually manage the eSIM, it just connects you to the mobile network. In this case it’s a provider called ‘Change’ which piggy backs on both T-Mobile and AT&T’s 4G networks – two of the three major US carriers.

Once you purchase an eSIM on Airalo all you have to do is add it to your phone. Apple makes this very easy on iPhones – all you have to do is scan a QR code and enter a few settings and you’ll have local 4G data within 30 seconds or so.

After you fly home it’s just as easy to remove, by going into your settings and removing the data plan.

If you want to try Airalo, then you can use my referral code ‘RHYS4258’ when you sign up or at checkout to get $3 off. I’ll also get $3 off my next plan – thank you. The Airalo site is here.

Comments (170)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • BB says:

    Travelling through Malaysia recently, I did similar research. I ended up using Yesim which gives 500MB free upon sign-up. They also have an incredibly useful plan which doesn’t expire and only charges for the data used, so 50MB whilst changing planes at an airport will only cost €0.20 rather than a whole day’s plan. Tip: turn on “low data mode” in the mobile data settings so that your phone knows to be frugal with data.

    • Paul C says:

      I’ve used Airalo a let recently in Malaysia, Indonesia & Vietnam and expiring data was always a point of contention for me, thanks for pointing out Yesim, I hadn’t heard of them before but will try them over the summer!

  • Mike says:

    Equally on a positive note BREXIT did give the ability to take back control of the use of UK data bandwidth. Prior to BREXIT any member of the EU could just roam freely into the UK and consume UK data bandwidth.

    • Ryan says:

      Freeloaders. British bandwidth for British people!

      • Erico1875 says:

        It makes all the supply and labour shortages and the border control hassle we have to put up with when going anroad so much more tolerable knowing our mobile bandwidth is not being abused by all these Bulgarians and Polish spongers.
        Just look how the NHS has prospered.

    • NFH says:

      Not true. EU-based users could not “just roam freely into the UK“; they always had to pay and they still do. Their home network pays the visited UK network a wholesale charge for their usage, which is funded either by domestic monthly charges or by incremental charges. There was and still is nothing wrong with this principle, and Brexit changed nothing except that the wholesale and retail charges are no longer regulated to reasonable levels.

    • K23 says:

      😂😂😂😂

    • Alan says:

      Love it, Mike! 😂😂

    • Paul says:

      Wow, so our third world infrastructure is now secure for the indigenous populace! My cup runneth over!
      How do the Germans cope? (Rhetorical)

    • riku says:

      Based on that logic when I post a letter to the UK (I do not live in the UK) then I am freeloading on the UK post office since I don’t pay the UK postal service anything.

    • yonasl says:

      Wow , that is a spin if there ever was one of the sorry situation we have voted ourselves into.

    • Oh! Matron! says:

      Hey Mike. Worked for a large telco for ten years. Without being offensive, there’s less truth in your statement than the any utterance from a Tory politician.

    • James Harper says:

      If that’s the only positive you can come up with, because as we all know there aren’t any others – just problems, I wouldl keep quiet, very quiet.

      • Mike says:

        Oh gosh there is long long list of the freedoms we have gained through BREXIT – rejoice in the freedom and accept / work round the initial teething problems which are largely caused by the truculent EU.

  • Simon says:

    Does using an eSIM mean that you use a different (and local) number while doing this or (eg) does your whatsapp still work with your existing UK number and things are just “routed” via the eSIM.

    Also do you have to change your email settings to be able to send and receive emails with an eSIM.

    • Rhys says:

      Whatsapp still works since you have both numbers active.

      No need to change any other settings 🙂 email is an internet protocol so unaffected by SIM.

      • Simon says:

        I dont understand Rhys. If I am using my UK number for whatsapp then I will incur data roaming charges surely. Reading the set up instructions it seems to say that you must maje sure that toaming is not active for the UK number which presumably means that you have to switch all whatsapp to the new local number for the duration of your visit.

        • dougzz99 says:

          No. When you’re connected to WiFi WhatsApp uses that. Same way it uses sim2 data whilst roaming is disabled on ‘your number’.

  • Simon says:

    Virgin mobile also continues to offer free EU roaming.

  • lambshank13 says:

    Yes Airalo is a very good option. I’ve used it three times – in Turkey, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and it worked well each time. I initially had some trouble activating the eSim in my settings, but customer service were very helpful with a step by step guide, they also replied instantly to my messages.

  • inizii says:

    Virgin mobile (which uses Vodafone UK network) does not charge for EU roaming and has committed to retaining this perk.
    So far we’ve found it very good since porting from 3UK. Have used Airalo in Barbados and USA and found it to be good.

  • John says:

    Switzerland is in EFTA, not the EEA 😉 Norway’s in both.

  • Andrew J says:

    Don’t forget the other reason to switch to O2 – free Caffè Nero and Greggs!!

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

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