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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 am adding to my irregular series on getting connected with prepaid SIM cards while overseas. Other entries in this series: DenmarkSwedenHoi An, VietnamNikoi Island, Indonesia.

My Denmark and Sweden entries get many views every day, so I hope the information I share below on UK prepaid SIMs (Three and EE) is useful.

Three
I was in London in January this year, but did not share my experiences with Three UK (amendment: I did share something about Three UK). Back then the £20 SIM cards were easy to pick up from Vendpoint vending machines at Heathrow Airport.

However, unlike my previous visit, the vending machines were only stocked with Lebara, EE, and one or two other brands. None were as good as the all-you-can-eat data plus 300-minute 3G cards from Three.

As Three SIMs were not available, my family and I made our way to the store on Oxford. Even though the Three staff are friendly, knowledgeable, efficient I would rather avoid the crowds at Oxford!

The process of switching to a Three SIM is straightforward.

  1. Pop out the old one.
  2. Insert the new one in.
  3. Wait for an SMS prompt to restart the phone. If all goes well, you should be connected to Three’s 3G network.

Notes:

  • The SIM is a modern multi-size one. Push out the size you need for your phone.
  • The connection is not 4G, but it is speedy enough. It might be a compromise for having unlimited data. (The new packaging says 4G comes free, but I have no way of verifying this as the SIM was in my wife’s phone while I used EE.)
  • There is no tethering with this plan.
  • According to a sales associate, if you have a dual-SIM phone, leaving the other SIM in might prevent access to Three.
  • Do not expect your phone to work in the Tube as tunnels are so deep underground. A few stations along select lines might have wifi (see EE note).
  • The fastest way to pay for a Three SIM packet from a machine is a contactless credit card, e.g., MasterCard Paywave. Tap card, select row and column code in machine, collect SIM package.
  • If you opt to use cash, you will need to use exact change in the form of £10 or £20 notes.

EE
We arrived late at Heathrow thanks to the airline schedule and an unplanned flight delay. I decided we needed data and texting should we miss the very last Heathrow Express train and I needed Uber to get us to our Airbnb-rented home.

I resorted to getting an EE 4G data-only SIM (6GB) for £30.

Setting up an EE SIM is not as reassuring as Three. On popping it in, you will receive an alarming text message informing you that you have “used up your data”.

The message will include a URL that you tap or click on to register the service. Tip: Provide as little personal information as possible. After registration, you should be good to go.

Notes:

  • The SIM is nano-sized. EE includes adapters in the package for devices with mini and normal-sized slots.
  • I inserted the EE SIM into my phone and it worked fine. It should also work in a slate, mifi router, or USB dongle.
  • When used with a phone, the data can shared with other devices, i.e., you can tether.
  • EE provides a handy site that helps you monitor your data quota.
  • Like Three, the 3G or 4G signal cannot reach trains underground. However, EE cards seem to connect automatically to their wireless network on some train lines. You also have the option of using Virgin Media wifi with your EE creditials.

I did not try other mobile services as they do not offer the same value nor were the walk-in stores as easy to find.

Addendum: Lebara stores were about as common as in Denmark. However, I did not enjoy my previous experience with them. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

This part of my reflection on my visit to London for Bett focuses on travel tips.

Mobile power
As with any trip, I brought a power pack for my iPhone. The iPhone was a thirsty beast when I was getting directions, taking photos, and surfing for information, so it helped to have a portable oasis.

Local prepaid SIM
Before leaving for London, I asked around and did my research online for a suitable prepaid SIM. This wiki was a good start, but its information might not be current.

I settled on Three’s PAYG All In One 15. It might cost GBP15 if you live in the UK and can get a free SIM, but it will cost you GBP20 if you buy it over the counter or from a vending machine like the one below.

The SIMs from the vending machine come in a three-in-one pack (normal, mini, nano sizes). The SIM is set to go; there is no need to activate them by calling a number, scratching top up cards, or typing in codes. Take out your old SIM, put the new one in, restart your phone, and start surfing/using your new number.

This prepaid plan gave me 3000 SMS, 300 minutes of calls, and unlimited data over a month. You cannot tether the phone and thus share your Internet connection. However, you can if you have a jailbroken phone like mine.

The 3G and 4G signal was relatively poor in East London where I stayed and also where the ExCeL Centre was located. I would often get only a 3G, one dot/bar signal. This was often not enough bandwidth to tether. Fortunately, there were lots of free wifi spots at the Centre, museums, libraries, etc.

Finding your way around
Google Maps might be your best friend. It was mine.

The Travel for London (TfL) site’s journey planner is mobile-friendly and fast, but I got more mileage out of Google Maps. It not only provided different options, travel times, and congestion warnings, it also provided greater details like walking directions and which exits to head for.

There is no 3G/4G service underground, so it is important to cache information beforehand. The eastern train lines are over ground so that might buy you some surfing time.

The Tube map and signs underground might look confusing. But they are clear when you realize that you must have TWO pieces of information: Your destination and the terminating point of your train (this also applies to the bus services).

If you are taking a more than 30-minute train journey, it is rare that you stay on one train. You train hop to get from one point to another. When underground, you might lose your sense of direction especially when moving from one platform to another. Often one platform might serve trains going to two or three end points. Make sure you get on a train whose terminating point allows you to travel to your destination.

Accommodation
I opted to go for an Airbnb place because hotels around the conference centre were expensive and filled up quickly.

I stayed in someone’s home for a week and used that as my base of operations and travel. Not only was the deal cheaper, I was able to live like a local and get tips from the couple that hosted the stay.

The following were added after publishing due to a revisioning problem.

Groceries
London is the land of Tesco. There are thankfully more of these grocery stores than there are McDonald’s joints. But I found that some items were cheaper at Sainsbury’s Local.

These grocery stores are great for buying bottled water, snacks, and cheap meals. If you really have to eat on the cheap, Pret A Manger is a chain that seems to be everywhere.

Cash or card
While it is useful to have cash on hand, a credit card that supports wireless payment is fast and convenient. I used my MasterCard’s PayPass at the prepaid SIM vending machine, Oyster PAYG travel card kiosks, and grocery self-checkouts.

About six months ago, I shared how I purchased mobile Internet access in Denmark and Sweden.

The reflections were popular leading up to the year end holiday travel season. I wondered out loud in a rise above reflection if I should share how I got connected in other places.

Rather than share months or years old information by recalling what I did in the past, I am opting to share more recent information. This is what I did when I travelled to Hoi An, Vietnam [photos] last week.

I flew to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) first and then got on a domestic flight to Da Nang. It was a 30-45 minute car ride to Hoi An.

When I landed in HCMC, I had to exit the International Terminal and walk to the Domestic terminal on the right. There were a few SIM card providers near the exit of the International Terminal.

I had done my research online and read about Vietnam’s dominant telcos: Mobifone, Vinaphone, and Viettel (use Google Translate for this provider’s page).

The line at Mobifone was longer as it was closer to the exit than Vinaphone, but I found out how a few steps could save me a few dollars. I did a quick comparison at the Mobifone and Vinaphone counters and discovered the latter offered more bang for the buck.

vinaphone-sim

I bought a 1.8GB data-only 3G micro SIM for 87,000 VND (about SGD 5.00). The setup was simple and the customer service impeccable.

The SIM was preregistered so that there was no need for me to call a customer service centre or set up anything on a phone. I only had to insert the SIM card into the phone and restart it.

The counter staff was friendly and obliging. She showed me how to verify and check my data balance (dial *110*0#) and to find my number to send and receive SMS.

wireless-workshop

I promptly popped the SIM into my trusty mifi device (in auto detect mode) and the connection was nearly flawless the entire trip. The only times the signal dropped were in dead or low reception zones at airports or in parts of Hoi An Ancient Town.

Three parting tips (previously shared tips):

  1. Bring a dual SIM phone if you have one. You keep your original SIM in the phone and insert the new SIM in the other slot. Remember to deactivate the first slot when dialling *110*0# to check SIM balance or other Vietnamese numbers.
  2. An iOS device that uses a nano SIM will incur an additional 25,000VND (SGD 1.50) fee. If you have an alternative phone, a mifi device, or a SIM cutter, you could spend that amount on some excellent Vietnamese iced coffee!
  3. Invest in a reliable VPN service like Private Internet Access (I am not paid to promote them BTW). Establishments in Vietnam might offer free wifi, but it easy to snoop on the other devices on the shared network.

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