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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.

  • G says:

    Just move to o2. Vote with your feet.

    • M says:

      o2 isn’t really great. Every time I talk to my brother(he’s on o2) — the call gets randomly disconnected.

      • G says:

        O2 has the most comprehensive network coverage in the UK.

        • James says:

          Well, maybe… I do quite often find with O2 that the phone shows full coverage but data services aren’t working.

      • John says:

        That happens to me on Three and stopped once I moved to O2. Three is surprisingly crap in London

        • SP says:

          Agreed, I’m on Three and it really is rubbish in London. The only reason I stick with them is their international roaming which if you’re an existing customer is free in a lot of countries outside Europe as well, including the US.

  • Paul Hickey says:

    So on an iphone (with EE), does an eSIM just know to override on arrival? Or do you have to tell it to do so in some way?
    Also, do you keep existing number for the temp period so services suck as what’s app remain as normal?
    In Asia / ME, I usually buy a sim and use a wireless dongle but this seems easier…but, could my wife still tether from my eSIM?

    • TimM says:

      On an iPhone there is now the concept of ‘lines’. You choose which line to use for calls, messages, and data. Both can be switched on simultaneously. To ensure you are using the eSIM for data, you need to choose it under the Mobile Data setting and disable ‘Allow Mobile Data Switching’.

    • TimM says:

      …and leave the Default Voice Line as your existing SIM so you continue to receive normal calls on your existing number.

      • James says:

        Default voice line is which line is the default for outbound calls where you don’t have a preference set against the contact in your address book. You can safely have default switched to roaming and still receive inbound calls on your U.K. line

      • Rob says:

        You can make voice calls on a mobile? 🙂 I thought it was just sommething to bung out text messages to staff and the family plus websurfing. Need to look into this …!

    • TimM says:

      …and (2) use Personal Hotspot to share your data connection with other devices. I have an iPhone Mini and have large fingers so I always used it to share the data connection with my travel and finger-friendly MacBook Air. Equally it could be used to share the date connection with any number of devices via wi-fi.

  • TimM says:

    Yes, I have been using (and recommending) Airalo since March in Turkey (outside of any free roaming area since Vodafone withdrew last year) and in Greece which is included with Lebara PAYG data packages except there is a ‘fair usage’ cap of 10GB/month.

    I would not describe Airalo as totally straightforward. As said in the article, you can set it up before leaving home and you are good to go as soon as you arrive. However, when I topped up in Greece, adding a further 10GB, all the settings were replaced with ones that didn’t work. I was cut-off from the World until I could get free wi-fi, look up the settings and set them manually.

    My advice therefore would be to note down the essential settings before travelling and not rely solely upon the auto-configuration. You need APN, username & pass plus the MMSC & MMS proxy settings for some reason. The personal hotspot details are the same. Without these if you are in a more remote part of the country, as I was, you are in danger of being cut-off when you top-up.

    This is my experience. You can also use my referral code: TIMOTH5912.

    • Dawn says:

      My Vodafone is working fine in Turkey as long as I don’t go over 60 days.

  • Andy says:

    Another tip: you can use giffgaff (owned by O2) for same free EU roaming, I use the £10 for 10GB + 1GB bonus, can’t go wrong!

  • Tracey says:

    A PAYG SIM from 3 still gives you their old roaming deal. Has to be (new) PAYG not contract.

    Separately, O2 supports eSIM, so if you are going to a country that airalo can’t supply an eSIM you could move your O2 over to an eSIM and use a physical local SIM.
    I’m away with friends and we have an old phone with a local SIM with lots of data that we are all hot spotting off.

  • Tracey says:

    A PAYG SIM from 3 still gives you their old roaming deal. Has to be (new) PAYG not contract.

    Separately, O2 supports eSIM, so if you are going to a country that airalo can’t supply an eSIM you could move your O2 over to an eSIM and use a physical local SIM.
    I’m away with friends and we have an old phone with a local SIM with lots of data that we are all hot spotting off.

  • Harrier25 says:

    Virgin, who now own O2, also do not charge for EU roaming.

    • The Original Nick. says:

      Correct. I have stuck with my pay monthly Three SIM only contract as there’s no change to roaming. £7/mth.

  • Doug says:

    Going to the States soon and have been looking at Airalo.
    However, they only offer ‘data only’ esims. What about voice and texts?
    I understand T-mobile offer esims in the states, which include voice and texts. Not sure if they do short-term contracts though.
    I wouldn’t want to use my usual number for voice calls as this would be charged at roaming rate.
    Am I correct in thinking I should also turn off voicemail in uk while abroad?

    • Simon says:

      Outside of the EU I always turn off roaming and also divert ALL calls to voicemail before I leave. If I really need to listen to the voicemails i can by using my KeepCalling.com account (which is the very best way to call UK landlines (banks, travel insurance, credit card companies, etc) while away overseas. Cost is 0.6p (yes you read that correctly) per minute of call to a UK landline from wherever you are in the world – and I have done this from the Namibian desert and US cities. Providing of course that you have access to wifi. Particulalry useful when your credit card is declined (145 minutes to reach Halifax) and when Covid curtailed my trip to SA last November (over 6 hours of calls to insurers, quarantine hotel, airlines, etc) (Calls to 0800 numbers and others are charged at a premium rate for some reason but between whatsapp to mobiles and Keepcalling.com to landlines I am 99% covered) Just download the app and put £2 (the min) credit onto it and the credit never yes never expires. Rates for landlines in other countries vary but the USA is 0.8p. If you use my referal code when registering then I will get £5 of free credit and you wont pay a penny more. Referal code is 32SX4Q6Q

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

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