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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.

Airalo review

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 (169)

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

  • Reney says:

    I just got back from a road trip in the US a couple of days ago. There were two of us so we did Airalo and This was partly to maximise our network coverage as we were going to places that probably have pretty poor coverage e.g. national parks. Honestly, I did not keep track of whether one had better coverage than the other.

    Airalo worked well for us, I brought 5GB for 2 weeks and used a lot less since I did not rely on my google map and all hotels had wifi. Since you can sign up the day before, you can wait till you have cleared your Covid test and know for sure you are going before paying. I did the full set up at home, as another reader warned you needed the internet to set it up.

    Despite how much I liked the service, few things to be aware of:
    – as stated in the article, Airalo only works on the new phones. One of us had an iphone 8 so Airalo was not an option.
    – there were a few times we needed a US number, one of the rental car companies insisted on it, virtual queuing at restaurants. Also, we had a bit of check in trouble (so had to be on hold to Alaskia Air for 1.5 hours) and car trouble and needed to call the rental company – to be fair we made the calls at the hotel where a landline is possible but I would hate to try to do a voice over web call on the road where the internet connection may not be so good.

    The USA pay as you go sim (recommended over at the roaming thread at the form) which was T-mobile also worked really well for us especially where we needed a phone number. It was probably 3 times the price, and required you to order it one week in advance. You also had to fill out a googleform 48 hours before when you want the sim to activate (although I did it around 24 hours, after Covid test). This means you are committing to the cost before you are sure you are going.

    My conclusion is if I were going to a city where I know doing voice call over skype would be fine, or I won’t need to give a local number then I would most likely go with Airalo. If there was more than one of you, and you might need to do voice calls/ give a local number or going to places where internet coverage may not be great at times and you don’t want to risk it, one of you should get a local sim. There were several times where I was super glad we did one of each option.

  • Mel TS says:

    Airalo looks promising, but for Kenya it appears to use a network provider that doesn’t have any coverage in Kenya!
    I’ve aways used Three PAYG in USA which has been fine, and recently vodafone PAYG in Canada which was also fine ( and would have lasted MUCH longer had I remembered to turn off the photo syncing !)

    • Rhys says:

      In some cases they appear to use foreign sims which can roam in a particular country – at least from what I’ve seen!

  • MQ says:

    Im going to give this a try. Going to Thailand for 2 weeks soon and on Giffgaff. Thanks

  • James Harper says:

    Back before we had roaming rights which have now in the main been taken away from us in spite of the promises of the phone companies and Bunter’s junta, I had a small wireless modem, about the size of a credit card. On arrival anywhere I just bought a local sim and away I went, all worked perfectly.

    My Vodafone package lasts until March 2023 and I guess once it expires, I will go back to that because although I have Vodafone’s global package, it more than doubles in price on renewal.

    • Simon says:

      Who can recommend a small wireless modem?

      My phone won’t support eSims so this is the only option for me.

  • Paul says:

    Agree, can’t speak highly enough of Airlo. I have so far used it in USA, Mexico and Serbia.

    Yes I could have got myself a local Sim probably and saved a few bucks, but it’s not worth the hassle and time spent doing it. As Rhys said, you can have it ready to go as soon as you walk off the plane

  • Gordon says:

    Reading the trust pilot reviews that Daniel posted and the hoops that Reney had to jump through with time lines for activating etc. I’ll pay the premium for peace of mind with my O2 bolt on at £6 a day for unlimited data unlimited calls unlimited texts worldwide….

    • martin says:

      Not unlimited, fair usage of 25gb

    • david says:

      £42 per week with O2 or £8.71 (3GB with Airalo) for 30 days. Not rocket science.

      • Gordon says:

        I will quote again. “Peace of mind” & read the trust pilot reviews 🤷‍♂️

      • Gordon says:

        I see you omitted the 25 GiG a day inc unlimited calls and texts with 02?
        So 25 GIG a day with 02 or 3 GIG for 30 days with Airalo (Patchy signal) 3 GIG won’t touch the sides. 24 hours 25 GIG vs 30 days 3 GIG. Not rocket science you do the maths 😉

    • Bobby says:

      I had a free travel bolt on from O2 which covers countries like USA and Mexico. Didn’t pay a penny extra on my week in Cancun.

  • Jamie56 says:

    Thanks for this article. I did not know about eSims, even though I’ve had an iPhone 12 mini for the past year or so, which I bought with a Three contract on unlimited data, but immediately put a Vodafone SIM into it as Three coverage is poor where I live in the sticks. Prior to now, I have an older iPhone that I put a Lebara SIM into and carried around with me for roaming, ensuring I made a good chunk of calls on the Lebara SIM in the U.K too. What I have now done is this: converted my Vodafone SIM to an eSIM (number and data) and put the Lebara SIM into the iPhone (number and data). Thus two numbers and ‘free’ roaming on the Lebara number. In addition, when I am back in the UK,. I will put the Three SIM into the iPhone because – believe it or not – where I live up north, the local town has just been upgraded to 5G in several places – before EE and Vodafone. Thus best of both worlds – 5G unlimited data in local town and where I can get a Three signal, plus combined Vodafone/3 coverage in the countryside (although the latter is appalling), and ‘free’ roaming using the Lebara SIM. Win win. My understanding is that Vodafone reliably offers eSim at the moment, 3 does not, EE – 50/50. Very useful up in Northumberland where EE are very good in most places. When the 3 and Vodafone contracts are up I’m figuring a future EE contract (presuming eSIM is possible) combined with a Lebara SIM will cover me well both in UK and EEA+

  • TimM says:

    Yes, Lebara for free roaming within EU (including dependant territories, e.g. Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Reunion, Mayotte & Saint-Martin) & EEA countries, with a 10GB pcm ‘fair usage’ roaming limit, & Airalo for a specific country not included or for extra data over 10GB appears a good combination.

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

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