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I reflected twice on getting a mobile connection while travelling in Malaysia. The first time I relied on a Digi prepaid SIM; the second time I went with Maxis Hotlink.

I just returned from a short trip, this time with neither a mifi device and nor a Malaysian prepaid SIM card.

Local telco providers have made it a bit more convenient to get connected overseas. Emphasis on “a bit“ and not on “convenient“.

If you are on a postpaid plan, you might have the option of applying for a data plan without removing your sim card and not breaking the bank. However, these options are not likely to be as cheap as getting a Malaysian SIM the moment you land in a Malaysian airport. The telco kiosks for such prepaid SIMs are typically positioned right before you hit immigration counters.

A better deal might be had with a Singapore prepaid SIM. I use StarHub and I could use my allotted local data overseas. I ensured that I had:

  • enough purchased data
  • activated the data roaming option in the app (see screenshot below)
  • activated the data roaming setting in the phone
  • ensured the APN was set correctly (see screenshot below)
  • at least $3 in the prepaid app’s wallet

Data roaming setting in StarHub prepaid app.

The prepaid app provided clear instructions and automated the APN setting. I only found out the minimum wallet amount after receiving an SMS from StarHub once I arrived in Malaysia.

$3 minimum wallet amount required in StarHub prepaid app for roaming.

Your telco might disable the tethering function. This means that you cannot share the prepaid data plan with other devices. This was the case with my prepaid plan with StarHub. However, I discovered that the tethering was enabled once connected to Malaysian providers. Your mileage might vary with the overseas country’s telco service you connect to.

It has taken years for us to reach this “seamless” state and I very much appreciate it. I can still remember a fellow traveller and I getting anxious about getting connected in Denmark just four years ago.

Note: I have not been asked to describe or promote the service by StarHub nor have I been paid by the telco to do so. I am sharing my experience as a reminder of my travel needs and to help others in their decision-making.

I am adding to my irregular “getting connected” series where I share my processes and thoughts on getting prepaid SIMs when travelling overseas.

I recently travelled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and did my homework first on how to stay connected. In the past, I shared how I either sought prepaid SIMs once I arrived or rented a travel router (mifi device) with SIM from Changi Airport. I skipped the rented travel router as I had my own and the rental unit was not worth the cost.

This time around, I also had to factor in my telco’s own offering of 4G roaming data. It has taken local telcos several years to partner foreign telcos to offer seamless roaming data. However, I quickly rejected my telco’s offering because the convenience did not outweigh the cost. I had to pay SGD40 for 2GB of data in one bundle or SGD50 for 3GB of data for another (see DataTravel Global).

I found one service at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, Airport Telecom*, that offered 7GB of data for 35 euros (about SGD56). While this cost more than my telco’s offerings, it had more benefits because I:

  1. Got my new local phone number in advance by email
  2. Planned to use the prepaid SIM in either a spare phone or mifi device to tether the data
  3. Wanted to share the data with my family members

*Side note: This store was located in Arrival Area 2 and located in a tight triangle of the I Amsterdam store and AKO bookstore. The former was useful for information and collecting my pre-ordered I Amsterdam card (GVB travel and museum entry); the latter was where I picked up other travel cards (GVB and train.)

Lyca mobile prepaid SIM package.

Getting a local phone number in advance was convenient for making calls while in Amsterdam. It lowered barriers if local contacts wished to call or text me. The image above was the package I collected– it had my name and number on it.

I initially planned on using a spare phone as a travel router by tethering data, but I also brought a mifi device along for the ride. The latter had a long-lasting battery, better range, and more security options. I could not make calls on it, but I found out how prompt the Dutch were via email.

I also found out that Dutch law enforces tethering to maintain competition between the telcos there. The sales representative was also very knowledgeable and helpful in setting up the connection.

I initially used the spare phone for setting up and transferred the SIM to the mifi device. The sales rep had ready-made slips of paper with APN settings for Lyca mobile:

  • APN: data.lycamobile.nl
  • Username: lmnl
  • Password: plus
  • Note: Turn on data roaming

In hindsight, I was glad I took the Lyca prepaid SIM and mifi option.

I was in Amsterdam for a week and on the second-last day I received a text notification that my family had used 80% of our data. If I had gone with either of my telco’s plans, I would have run out of data and started paying per MB roaming prices.

We were able to quickly get directions, translations, and information on the go. What modern traveller does not need to do this? While most places we visited offered free wifi, those connections were never as reliable as the mifi.

If I could do something different it would have been to order a local SIM and have it sent to a local address. Why? This cost even less and I already had the address of the apartment I was staying at.

I found out via a wiki that free prepaid SIMs are typically mailed to local addresses. I calculated that the equivalent of my 7GB data plan could have cost just 25 euros (SGD40) instead of 35 euros if I had done this. The cons of doing this are not having a prepaid SIM enroute to the apartment and having to set everything up myself. The extra 10 euros I paid was a convenience and comfort fee!

There is much and varied planning that must happen before going on a trip. My telco tried to simplify one component, but a bit of homework about local offerings saved me money and helped me learn more about the way other systems do things. I got to travel before I travelled.

This is the latest addition to my “Getting connected in…” series on overseas prepaid SIMs.

In my previous Getting connected in Malaysia, I recommended the prepaid Digi SIM.

This week I tried Maxis Hotlink while I was there for a conference. I had done my research online beforehand and targetted the 1GB for RM10 plan (less than SGD3.50 at the current exchange rate).

My flight took me to KLIA Terminal 2 and there were prepaid SIM kiosks right before the immigration counters. I found out that it would actually cost RM30 for the plan because I did not already have a Maxis SIM.

Most folk would recommend buying the SIM outside the airport, but here are some reasons I ignored that advice.

  1. I avoided the hassle of trying to find a SIM kiosk outside the airport. I have found that convenience stores often offer only top-ups or have a poor stock of prepaid SIM packs.
  2. RM30 is about SGD10 and this is less than what I would pay for a rented travel router from Changi Recommends (CR). CR charges SGD12 a day and has a daily data cap of 400MB.
  3. I wanted to be connected as soon as possible. How much faster could be even before I cleared immigration?
  4. Unlike the tedious setups I experienced the previous times I went with Digi, the setup for Maxis Hotlink was even quicker than UK’s Three prepaid SIM. After quickly registering with my passport, the salesperson at the counter popped the new SIM into my iPhone and it was ready even without restarting it.

Maxis Hotlink app interface

Note: In the screenshots, my iPhone has Digi in the top left because that was the roaming network my Singapore SIM was on. I was using wifi via my travel router which housed the Maxis Hotlink SIM.

I had expected only what my plan offered. However, there were three bonuses.

  1. I received data bonuses by virtue of arriving on a weekend. The plan also came with RM15 credit that allowed me to get even more data (500-750MB depending on what I chose).
  2. Maxis has an excellent mobile app that allowed me to monitor my data quota and purchase more data without fiddling with an SMS menu system.
  3. The prepaid SIM worked flawlessly in my travel router. The SIM also did not have to be in my phone for the mobile app to work.

Maxis Hotlink app interface

I did not get to test a fourth benefit. Apparently Maxis allows throttled access after your data quota runs out. This is a boon if you rely on text-heavy social media apps like WhatsApp, Twitter, or Facebook.

Here is some general advice that bears repeating.

  1. Use a travel router if you have one. This way you can share the connection with more than one device. A travel router is likely to have a battery that lasts the whole day or come with interchangeable batteries.
  2. Bring a spare or dual SIM phone if you do not have a travel router. The spare can be a cheap device for sharing bandwidth, is less tempting to would-be robbers, and allows you to receive calls at your normal number.
  3. Keep your home country SIM in your original phone. Sometimes the foreign telco carrier will force setting changes or downloads that can make your phone misbehave when you return home.
  4. Most of your contacts already have your phone number, not your new SIM number. While you save them some money if you get a local SIM, you have to remember to update all of them. This might be furthest from your mind as you travel.

Disclaimer: I was not asked or paid to promote Maxis. The information I provide is meant to help travellers and is accurate at the point of sharing. I also provide opinion along with facts that could change over time. Caveat emptor.

This is a contribution to my irregular “getting connected” series on using prepaid SIM cards overseas.

My largest collection of SIMs must be from Malaysia given that it is Singapore’s closest neighbour. I have SIMs from Digi, Xpax, and Tune Talk.

Digi prepaid

I have the most number of SIMs from Digi as my research revealed it to be the most value for money and they are the easiest to find at kiosks, malls, or roadside shops. I stumbled on the other two only when Digi was not conveniently available.

The set ups vary between providers and over time, so I do not think that a description is useful. You need only hand over to a shop staff your phone (for set up and top up) and passport (for registration).

What I thought might be useful was to compare what the process is like in different parts of the world.

  • In countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, the process is manual, but there are always people to help you set things up.
  • In the Scandinavian countries, Australia, and New Zealand, the process of calling, topping up, setting up, and so on, is also manual, but you might have to do it yourself.
  • In the UK, you can buy a SIM from a vending machine, pop it in yourself, restart the phone, and everything just works.

The SIMs and prepaid Internet plans in SE Asia are very cheap and some providers might not have all three SIM sizes. Elsewhere they command a premium and do not require that someone has a SIM cutter.

Me in Georgetown, Penang.

I was in Georgetown, Penang, recently for four days (see my Google Photos). What I paid over the entire time would have only covered just one day of travel router loan from Changi Recommends (CR). Getting my own SIM from Digi also meant I also had a larger daily quota (1GB over CR’s 400MB).

An all-you-can-eat data SIM from Three UK costs a lot more (see entry), but it also comes with perks like free roaming in several countries.

I have also noticed how SIMs in our part of the world do not detect or block tethering. Such SIMs tend to work seamlessly in mifi devices. These travel routers have long-lasting batteries and share one connection with several users. This reduces the drain on phone battery and wallet.

A few more notes on Digi:

  • Doing research before leaving home is crucial. I found out that Digi had a plan for 1GB for RM5 a day (approximately SGD1.65), but the provision shop lady I bought it from was not aware of it.
  • Such plans can disappear as quickly as they appear. Halfway through my stay, the RM5 rate went up to RM7.
  • Such a plan required me to manually renew the data plan every 24 hours. This meant taking the SIM out of the mifi device, putting it into my spare travel phone, activating the new plan, and returning the SIM to the router.
  • The reception in Georgetown was 4G where there were tall or modern buildings, 3G in the heritage areas, and 2G or non-existent deep inside some of the old houses. (Incidentally, while wifi was plentiful, it was not reliable and slower than dial-up at times.)

You get what you pay for and you work for the rest. You define what makes for a quality experience: You can have either convenience or low cost, not both.

I first read about Nikoi Island in a blog. My first question was: Where is Nikoi?

It is in the South China Sea and 2.5 hours away from Singapore over a three-leg journey (ferry-car-ferry).

I really needed a vacation with my family after an exceptionally taxing semester. Vacations can sometimes be more tiring than restful, but I can count Nikoi as truly relaxing.

Their website is not only well-designed, it is also very informative. It provides information on what to do before you go and what to expect once you are there.

The reassuring experience started with the booking and confirming processes. The people behind the technology were very prompt. I recall sending a query one evening on a weekend and receiving a detailed reply after about an hour.

They are also very quick on Twitter. When I returned, I shared this general tweet and they responded even though it was not necessary.

These prompt and personal communications bracketed what must be the most positive and relaxing trip I have had in a while.

Upon arriving on Bintan, staff identified us, sat us in a lounge, and processed our passports and immigration forms. After a quick pass through security, we were whisked into waiting MPVs.

After a windy, undulating hour-long drive, we arrived at another jetty for a 15-minute boat ride to Nikoi. Once there, I started to feel my cares melt away.

I loved being able to wake up to the sound of sunbirds tweeting and waves crashing gently on the beach. The frangipani trees provided a sweet, mild perfume.

What might surprise visitors initially is the lack of walls and doors on the lower level of each villa. There are rudimentary locks for rooms and a personal safe on the upper level, but otherwise there is an open kampung feel to the place.

A central kitchen prepares meals for couples with no kids in one dining area and families in a separate dining area. Both dining huts have sandy floors and it was lovely to dig my feet into the cool, fine grains.

You also have “no choice” on what to eat there, but this is a good thing. They find out when you check in if you have dietary restrictions, but you eat what they serve. The staff indicate every day what the meals are on blackboards and they tell you at the end of one meal what the next meal is.

And what an excellent spread they offer each day. My wife went nuts with photographing every dish to create Facebook/WhatsApp photo envy. Kids get served first (main and dessert) followed by adults (starter, main, dessert).

I should mention that menus were not limited to blackboards. Servers offer iPad-based menus if you wish to drink something like alcohol or espresso.

You will put on weight if you do not enjoy some island activities. Kids get entertained at the Kids Club. My son and I went snorkelling, and my family went on walks and skimmed the coast in kayaks. But I still made deeper footprints and sat lower in the water with each meal!

Nikoi seems to be a model of ecologically responsible development and maintenance. With minor exceptions, the food is bought locally from certified eco-sustainable sources. The infrastructure is mostly driftwood and recycled wood, non-drinking water comes from a well, and lighting takes the form of LEDs and tiki torches.

The lighting options make the place dim at night and this prevents the disorientation of turtles who haul themselves on the island to lay eggs (roughly Apr-Sep). Staff protect the eggs with wire fences to prevent the resident monitor lizards from gorging on them.

On a less cloudy night, the moon provides enough light for you to wander the paths and beach. You might notice lots of coral fragments underfoot. I am told this was due to illegal fishing with explosives and fishing boats dropping anchor in the past.

I like the lack of light anyway. It helped me spot a few fireflies.

Nikoi is not cheap, but the cliche that you get what you pay for holds true. The thing is you are not likely to think about the bill. I was looking at the smiles on the faces of my family and the Nikoi staff and wondering when I would be back there again.

Would I do anything differently the next time round? Yes.

I will avoid the crowds in the Bintan ferry by opting for the Emerald Class. This gets you priority embarking and disembarking as well as reserved seats.

I am not sure if I will get a prepaid SIM card with XL again. Reception was OK on the island but service was not reliable. My phone would display 3G and enough bars, but it would claim insufficient quota one hour and not complain the next.

By the way, prepaid SIMs can be purchased at the kampung immediately beyond the gantry that divides the resorts special zone from the rest of the island. I also spotted an Indosat stall about halfway into the car journey.

I would also bring my own nano SIM cutter as the store holder only has micro SIM cutters.

Yes, I need Internet access even on a relaxing holiday. Staying connected helps me relax. And share my photos immediately!

When you get, give.
When you learn, teach.

That quote has been attributed to Dr Maya Angelou. She speaks the truth.

Rearranging the words results in some other truths.

If you give, you get nothing in return or stabbed in the back or funny looks.

When you teach, you learn (the most). Before you teach, learn.

We should all learn how to teach by getting our learners to teach. Yeah, I see that funny look.


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