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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.

  • Stephen says:

    Smarty (works off three network) still give me free roaming in Europe, so I assume they do so for everyone as there is no contract, just monthly credit card payments? Do look up in case this is wrong for new customers

  • Charlie says:

    I’ve been using Plusnet Mobile for a few years and have no complaints. It uses the EE network in the UK and still lets you ‘roam like you’re at home’ in Europe. At £10 a month for 25GB, I think it’s good value.

  • M says:

    Pro Tip: Disable pics uploading to the cloud to save data when using mobile data.

  • YC says:

    O2 free Nero reduced to once a month!

  • chistery says:

    The EE Roam Abroad pass for £10 a month is good value if you can get it. You only pay for the days you have the pass, so add it just before you go, remove it on return and you get refunded the unused days.

  • Gordon says:

    I’ve been using O2 for 20 plus years and have always been happy with price and coverage. 4G coverage in the middle of the sticks where I live…. Had the roaming bolt on for years. I heard of unscrupulous car hire companies abroad charging crazy fees for satnav’s. Driving the Route 66 in November so the £4.99 roaming charge to use mobile data for 24 hours as a satnav will come in handy should I have the need to use it….

    • dougzz99 says:

      So random the way a lot of nicer cars have sat nav anyway. Since the introduction of Android Auto, and I assume Apple Auto exists too, I use Google maps anyway. Much better traffic info, and more accurate avoid toll road option. In Southern California I found Google map traffic info to be incredibly accurate.

      • Gordon says:

        Yes, I guessed that most hire cars come with integrated satnav’s now. But just wanted a back up plan. I will be staying in California on route so that’s a good tip, Thanks….

        • John says:

          I use guru offline maps, when I don’t need live traffic updates

    • Colin JE says:

      And to avoid using loads of data you can download Google map data for any areas you might be visiting over WiFi in advance. Proved very useful recently on Skye and Isle of Lewis where we had zero o2 reception but could still use Google maps (one of the 1% areas where there’s no coverage in the UK)
      A lot of cars have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto so you don’t the car rental company Sat nav add-on. I carry a small screen-mount for my phone just in case there’s no connection built in.

      • Colin JE says:

        Though I’d forgotten that Airalo doesn’t have a number and is dara only so this wouldn’t work. Grr.

        I suppose you could forward your UK mobile calls to a sip number and use a sip/voip app with your data eSim.

  • David F says:

    I already use eSim for my uk provider so does that mean I can’t use this service without messing things up?

    • Rhys says:

      Depends what phone you have! If you have 2 eSIM slots you’re fine. If not, you may want to move your UK number to a ‘real’ SIM.

      • Mikeact says:

        No such thing as two esim slots…you mean two regular sim slots.
        DavidF You already use esim, so just add on another one, two, three or more.

        • Rhys says:

          I think some phones in Asia have two eSIMs although I could be mistaken…

      • Colin JE says:

        Good point. I had put my o2 account onto an eSim on my iPhone so I could put foreign sims in when travelling. Now it looks like it’ll be easier to swap that around.

    • TimM says:

      With an iPhone you can add as many eSIM simultaneous data plans as you like and switch them on and off as you like depending upon locality etc.

      • Colin JE says:

        That’s really handy but it does mean that if your main account is on an eSim you’ll lose the ability to receive incoming calls from your normal network while using a travel eSim.

        One workaround is to forward calls to a provider like Localphone (they give you an 0330 number you can forward to any international number) then in turn forward those calls to your travel sim. It’ll cost you but not as much as receiving calls on your UK network in many countries.

        • Colin JE says:

          Though I’d forgotten that Airalo doesn’t have a number and is dara only so this wouldn’t work. Grr.

          I suppose you could forward your UK mobile calls to a sip number and use a sip/voip app with your data eSim.

  • slidey says:

    I used a few airalo esims last month. The first in manhattan was kinda patchy, it worked fine at newark but I lost data after exiting penn station, for some reason the phone had to be restarted then it got data, but this then happened a few more times which was annoying.

    The next one worked fine in papeete and huahine and in the north part of raiatea but had no data in the southern part of the island, it also seemed fine in bora bora.

    The next esim was in san francisco where it worked ok.

    Overall it was okay but I didnt ever feel like it was 100% reliable.

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