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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.

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.

Last week I took my family on a trip to Georgetown, Penang.

My first visit to Penang was almost 40 years ago as a child. All I remember was the beach and my first Ramly burger from a street hawker.

My second trip was one borne of circumstance. I was a teacher accompanying students on a climbing trip in Thailand, but one of them needed a hospital due to an injury.

My most recent trip was thanks to this tweet about Georgetown.

That was enough to intrigue me and I planned a Peranakan-focused trip.

We stayed at a relatively new boutique hotel, Seven Terraces, which was in the heart of the heritage district. The story of how it was transformed from pre-war shophouses to what it is today is down to the vision of its owner, Christopher Ong.

I learnt much about my own culture from the tour of the place. Every item there had significance be it a door or decoration.

I also found out how hospitable the staff were. We were given a late check out when they found out our departing flight was late in the evening. I had hoped to leave our bags there while we explored some more, but they extended our stay to 6pm despite a 12noon checkout. They also let us rest in the library and served us refreshments even though we were technically no longer guests.

The warmth and politeness I experienced seemed to be a reflection of the attitude of the people in the heritage area of Georgetown as a whole. We were greeted warmly and tended to attentively.

Where we could, we had extended conversations with the locals. Cynthia, who sold jewellery at the Pinang Peranakan Mansiontold us what the weak ringgit was having on the population. Mary, the author who gave us a private tour of Seven Terraces, told us why she was now a resident of Christchurch, New Zealand. The father and co-owner of Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine who served up the most delicious beef rendang and kapitan curry chicken told us how his son was only just living with them.

We also visited Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a living museum that tells the baba story from the perspective of one particular family.

I might remember a Ramly burger from my first time in Penang. I hope my son remembers the Peranakan museum.

Who am I kidding? He might only remember the food and the toil of walking about with his parents. Maybe I can use that to help him recall the other things that matter.

I learnt to use Instagram more actively. Inspired by a TNW author who only recently jumped on the Instagram and Snapchat bandwagons, I decided to use the trip to put the platform to good use.

I had to get used to taking square photos. Even though Instagram displays non-square ones, its thumbnail previews are still square.

The platform is mobile-heavy and this meant doing everything quickly on my phone. I took snapshots, edited them quickly if needed in the stock iOS Photos app, and posted them sans Instagram edits or filters.

The only thing that slowed me down was the poor cellular reception in some indoor areas (see the latest addition to my “getting connected” series).

I learnt that I was doing two things wrong in Instagram. First, I did not hashtag my photos. Second, I posted them too often (once a day is a lot, once a week is acceptable).

But I live and learn, and I live to learn.

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.

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