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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)

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  • PointsChaser says:

    I am guessing you do not get a local telephone number with this?

  • TimM says:

    I would add that some countries, e.g Turkey that I know about, impose import taxes on any phone brought into the country used with a local physical SIM. In practice this means if you use a local physical SIM, a clock starts ticking and after a certain period, 120 days in the case of Turkey, you can never use the same phone again (by IMEI of the device regardless of SIM card, or even eSIM). The phone is regarded as imported and you would have to go through the full bureaucratic process of paying the import taxes (around 60% of the RRP, in Turkey) plus fines for exceeding the ‘grace period’ to be able to use the same phone with another local SIM or eSIM. This was my main reason for using Airalo in Turkey. I imagine many ‘anti-import’ countries have similar rules.

    • AirMax says:

      Thank you TimM. Colombia has something similar with the IMEI although not sure if it applies to eSIMs

  • Sandgrounder says:

    Three PAYG still includes roaming for free, just got back from USA after using the 25gb £15 tariff with no issues. Bought it for less than £15 from Amazon. If you travel to destinations they cover outside the EU regularly, why not just use PAYG instead of a contract?

    • Maples says:

      I didn’t know this was possible, thanks. I’ll see if it’s possible for Switzerland.

  • RK228 says:

    With an Airalo eSim in Malaysia and Singapore, does anyone know if I can use it to arrange rides using Grab? I’m concerned you need a local sim with a phone number and Airalo is data only.

    • Rhys says:

      You should be able to receive texts to your U.K. number from Grab

    • the_real_a says:

      You can buy a hotlink sim locally from any booth or mall for very little. It works in the same way as giffgaff. A sim card for pennies, then you add a pack of say 30gb of data on top which lasts for 30 days (purchasing the sim and adding the pack can be done at the shop at the same time). You then get your local number for grab, calling hotels etc. 4g is everywhere, i used the sim data to stream TV and do video conferencing since Malaysia`s internet is awful in some places. Even in some hotels the internet at peak times is dial up speeds.

    • B P says:

      I use Flexiroam and Grab works fine. You communicate with the driver via messaging in the app. Airalo is the same concept.

  • Errol says:

    Lots of countries in Africa aren’t covered by Airalo (Angola, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia). Pretty useless for travellers off the beaten track.

    • Rhys says:

      I don’t think anyone claimed it worked in every country!

  • aceman says:

    I prefer to keep my uk sim as an esim: EE “roam further” europe + usa mexico canada oz and NZ which covers almost all my needs, I have a backup google fi hard sim in the slot for emergencies since data is $10gb capped at $60 max per month after which its basically free. For pretty much everywhere in asia I’ll get a local sim shortly after arrival since its always about $4 for loads of data.

  • Yorkie Aid says:

    Strangely I was looking for an eSIM provider just this morning so very timely Rhys. After some research it looked like Surfroam was a better option for me – 25 Euros and the credit lasts for a full 12 months and can be topped up to continue using it beyond that. It is also a truly global SIM option rather than having to pick individual countries so potentially much better for a cruise with stops in multiple South American countries. Does anyone have any experience of them vs Airolo?

    • TimM says:

      Thanks for the comment. I had never heard of Surfroam. However, it appears far more pricey than Airalo. Surfroam’s lowest rate anywhere globally is 1 Euro cent per MB = €10/GB data, vs Airalo at US $18-25 for 10GB depending upon country = approx €1.7-2.3/GB, before applying the referral code (mine is TIMOTH5912). So Surfroam is approx five-times more expensive than Airalo, at least for 10GB data in Surfroam’s very cheapest territories. Surfroam lists countries at up to an eye-watering 51 times this rate (e.g the holiday destination of Gambia), i.e. €510/GB!

      • Yorkie Aid says:

        Thanks Tim. I totally agree that if you’re a heavy user and won’t have WiFi access anywhere then Airalo could work out way cheaper. But for someone like me who struggles to get through even 500MB of mobile data per month I think the Surfroam offer looks more appealing. It would be nice to hear from someone who had used them though.

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

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