Sunday, November 27, 2016

Painlessly Traveling with International Data

We might waste time on our smart phones at home, but a data connection is a practical luxury when traveling. Wasting time on Facebook is the last thing on our mind on vacation. Our focus returns to the planet around us and to more practical needs. We might translate a menu, navigate to a hotel, or research how to get from Brussels to Maastricht.

Despite the benefits, many of us rely on cafe wifi instead of buying a local mobile plan. We don't want to waste time finding a shop and haggling over a SIM card in French. We want to go directly from our plane to the incredible spectacle of Sainte-Chapelle. We also don't want to pay our carrier expensive roaming fees and risk shocking overage fees.

I spent weeks researching solutions. I found many past-as-you-go international plans offered, but not many good reviews of them. Most of these providers make it difficult to understand how much they charge per megabyte and what kind of connection they provide. I would hate to pay more than my domestic carrier would charge for international roaming. I also want to have access to modern LTE speeds. I don't want to starve to death before finding a decent restaurant!

After a lot of digging, I ordered a GigSky SIM from Amazon. GigSky seemed to offer clear, reasonable rates and seemed to offer LTE connections in most countries. Other providers did offer lower “starting” rates, but I was unable to find documentation of the specific rates I would get. Very few of the other providers gave any indication that more than 3G speeds were available. I was astonished and skeptical that such basic information couldn’t be found for many providers.

In October 2016, I used the GigSky SIM in my unlocked iPhone 6s Plus in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.

GigSky sells data by country. When I was in the Netherlands, I purchased data for that country. As my train to Brussels crossed into Belgium the data stopped. Data service in Belgium required a separate purchase.

As fussy as that may seem, GigSky accommodates even spontaneous travel. The GigSky SIM is configured to provide data to the GigSky app even before you buy data. This means you can purchase a plan without needing WiFi. Within minutes of payment, data is available to all other apps.

Aside from the national boundaries of the GigSky plans, there are also time limits and data caps. For the Netherlands, a $15 plan buys you 100MB of data that lasts 3 days. $25 equals 400 MB over 7 days, $35 is 800 MB for 14 days, and $50 gives you 3 GB lasting 30 days. Prices can vary by location, but this illustrates the trend. More expensive plans give you much more data per megabyte. You can find details on the pricing in each country here

During my travels I usually was able to get a fast LTE connection using GigSky, although occasionally I would have 3G in more remote areas. Aside from a few understandable situations in buildings with thick walls or in caves, the service never left me without data. I was quite thankful to have GigSky at one fancy hotel — the GigSky LTE connection was much faster than the crummy hotel WiFi.

To prepare for my trip, I took several steps to minimize my data consumption. First of all, I downloaded map data in the Google Maps app for most cities I would visit. Downloaded Google Maps lets you see your location and also the map data without any sort of data connection. It also means that when you do have a connection, less data will need to be downloaded when using the app. Despite the local map data, to get directions Google Maps still requires a data connection.

I also disabled background app refresh for all apps on my phone. Background fetch allows apps to fetch data even when you’re not using them — not something I wanted to pay for. I especially didn’t want to pay for social media apps to distract me on vacation.

The GigSky sim was fairly easy to use. I ejected the iPhone’s sim tray using a safety pin and swapped in the GigSky SIM as my 777 descended upon Amsterdam. The one tricky bit was adjusting the cellular settings after installing the SIM card. I saved the GigSky APN configuration file on my iPhone using an Evernote Premium offline notebook to make it easier. A few minutes after landing I was connected to the local carrier and able to buy data through the GigSky app. Seconds after clearing customs, I hailed an Uber.

When I returned to the US, I simply swapped the SIM cards back and my phone was back to normal.

My data usage for the entire ten-day trip averaged about 100 MB a day. Some days I used a little more data, others a little less. I took advantage of free wifi where possible, and I mostly used the data for directions, researching attractions, and communicating with people we were meeting.

My main frustration with GigSky was that the SIM only provides a data connection. If you’d like to send a text message or make a call, you’re (sorta) out of luck. I planned to meet a friend in the Netherlands, and I needed the ability to make phone calls and send SMS messages to make the rendezvous.

Although Skype will let you send cheap SMS messages and inexpensive international phone calls, you can’t receive text messages. Also, unless you buy a phone number from Skype, you can’t receive phone calls either. In both cases, the sending number is one just temporarily used for that purpose.

Other popular solutions for free international text messaging turned out to require verification through a traditional text message. Bah! The whole point was that I couldn’t SMS. Even a SMS app that I previously configured seemed to realize that my SIM had changed and wanted to re-verify by sending me a traditional SMS.

Ultimately I used Skype to communicate with my friend. I explained the odd phone situation so everything worked out.

Since Apple’s iMessage uses data instead of the SMS system to deliver messages to other iMessage users, it worked fine with GigSky. I did have one problem though: for some time I had been inadvertently saving my contacts to my SIM card instead of iCloud. Since I had removed my domestic SIM card, I lost access to many of my contacts. Many of the messages in the Messages app had been reduced to phone numbers. Everything worked fine when I returned to the US and installed my T-Mobile SIM. I’ve since migrated all my contacts off the SIM card.


  • Buying data is quick after the initial setup
  • Data is affordable in larger increments
  • GigSky offers flexibility — an impromptu crossing of borders isn’t a bit deal
  • No contracts
  • The cost of the GigSky SIM Card is offset by offering a free 100 MB plan in the first country you use it in (it expires in 3 days)
  • In most places I received fast LTE connections


  • You can’t use an iPhone as a wifi hotspot with GigSky
  • SMS messaging and Phone calls won’t work with the GigSky SIM card installed
  • You lose access to any contact information you store on your main carrier’s SIM card 
  • Initial configuration will take a little time — I suggest installing the app and activating the card before a trip
  • Smaller data plans are pricey and expire quickly
  • Data plans are tied to a single country
  • The GigSky instructional and marketing material can be confusing

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