One of the least appealing aspects of international travel is the hurdle of having to face data-roaming bills. If you are not looking for an unplugged getaway, you are likely going to want to share your experience with friends and family back home using your data and/or call/text. One of the best ways to get around the fees you can rack up with data roaming charges is to purchase a local SIM card.
What are the best SIM card options for East Asia? Some of the best mobile carriers that offer SIM cards for tourists traveling to East Asia are China Mobile, CSL, Asia-Pacific Plus, and Chunghwa Telecom. The appropriate carrier depends on the country you are visiting and how long your trip will be.
Using a SIM card while abroad can enhance your experience as it allows you to stay connected to your standard conveniences such as email, text/calling, and social media. This is especially important for people who are traveling for business reasons and who do not have much flexibility in their need to maintain cell service. Here are a few of the best SIM card options for East Asia by country/region.
Why Use a Local SIM Card When Traveling Overseas?
Those who are blessed with a travel bug would do well to know as many tips and tricks as possible when it comes to planning long-distance trips, especially those outside of their home country or overseas. When you are out and about, exploring this great big world, you want to have as many aspects of your travel experience planned as far ahead of time as possible. One of those aspects is a cellular connection.
One of the most annoying things that can happen when traveling abroad – or anywhere, for that matter – is the loss of connection to a cellular network. This can be a major inconvenience for a variety of reasons, whether you are on a business or leisure trip, but especially if the lack of connection impedes your safety (particularly if you are a solo traveler).
However, one of the biggest obstacles to having this cellular connection is the ever-present data roaming charges. Every network has them, and every network is ready at the drop of a dime to toss them your way. If this is not the case, sometimes it is as simple as your network does not operate in specific regions or countries. So, how do you get around this?
No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!
One of the most convenient ways of combatting this problem is by purchasing a local Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card in the area you are planning to travel to. There are numerous options on types of SIM cards and duration of service, so you should begin planning far ahead of time which SIM card you are going to use during your trip.
Advantages of Using a SIM Card Overseas
The biggest advantage of using a local or international SIM card when traveling out of the country is the avoidance or significant reduction of data roaming fees. These fees are charged by the minute or day, depending on the carrier, and so can rack up extremely quickly. Just a few phone calls or an hour or so of scrolling through social media can do some damage to your cell phone bill.
Another plus of having a destination-specific or international SIM card is that you do not have to disconnect completely – unless that is your intention, that is. We have all spent a trip here and there with our phone on Airplane Mode for days, wondering what all we are missing while we cannot get social notifications or even just a text.
With a local SIM card, you will still be able to access major forms of communication from wherever you are in the world, like email, social media, and texts. Even little pleasures like streaming movies are out of the question unless you are connected to WiFi.
For solo travelers especially, or generally for traveling to somewhere you are totally unfamiliar with, having a local or international SIM card can be a lifesaver since you can use navigational apps for finding your way around the city and back to your hotel.
Local vs. International SIM Cards
There are two categories of SIM cards: local and international. Local SIM cards are those that only work within a specific geographical area. For instance, an AT&T SIM card only covers the United States and some of Canada – and even within this area, there are regions where coverage is weak.
When traveling outside the coverage area of your local SIM card, it is recommended that you purchase an international SIM card (or one that is local to the area to which you are traveling). This is especially important for those that are traveling for business purposes, or generally, require a cellular connection for travel-related purposes.
International SIM cards are also known as Global SIM cards or Travel Data SIM cards and, as the name implies, can operate in more than one country. These will be even more strongly recommended if you know that you will be visiting more than one country during your trip (as is quite normal when traveling to areas like Europe or East Asia).
Avoid coming back home from an amazing holiday to a terrifying phone bill. I have reviewed the roaming options of many providers around the world. Based on all this research, I managed to determine when a roaming deal is satisfactory or useless. This way, you do not have to figure it out yourself.
Traveling to East Asia
East Asia is one of the most remarkable places to travel in the entire world: This region is comprised of Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. East Asia is rich in culture and history and is the origin of world-renowned (and widely-followed) religions like Buddhism and Confucianism.
It is also the home of unique wildlife such as the Malayan tapir, Asian elephant, giant panda, tiger, and more, making it one the most biodiverse ecosystems in existence. This region of the world offers more than enough incentive to visit!
Many of the sights and experiences you will have in East Asia will be hard – almost impossible – to find elsewhere, so you want to make sure that you can capture and share them to cherish the memories forever. One of the best ways to ensure you do this is by having the right tools to do so, one of those tools being a fully-functioning SIM card.
Tip: Visiting multiple countries in East Asia and are looking for cheap flights? Book with AirWander and add stopovers! Not in a hurry yet? Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog and get notified when ticket prices for your preferred route(s) drop!
Best SIM Cards for Traveling in East Asia
Below I will analyze the best SIM card options of the Eastern Asian nations so that you can avoid roaming fees.
One note though: I have never been to North Korea and will not be going there anytime soon. Some sites claim that tourists can buy a North Korean SIM card when they visit the country, while others say that it is not possible. As the information regarding this topic is inconsistent, I have excluded North Korea from this article. Once I manage to get official information about this topic or go to North Korea myself, I will update this post.
With that out of the way, here are some of the best options for local SIM cards to consider when planning a trip to beautiful East Asia.
China SIM Cards
Millions of tourists visit the incredible country of China every year. With its breathtaking locations, known for stunning architecture and the rich history and culture of places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and more, China should definitely be on your top 10 list of travel destinations for the near future.
Of course, to share your experiences with your friends and family, you will need to make sure that you have the best mobile service possible: The three major mobile phone carriers are China Unicom, China Mobile, and China Telecom.
You have probably heard of the Great Firewall, which restricts users in China from visiting several websites, such as Google, Facebook, and Instagram. If you wish to access these websites while in China, you would need to use a VPN.
China Unicom is the second-largest mobile carrier in the country and the only one that has 3G compatibility with foreign cellular devices. Although its coverage is not as extensive as China Mobile, it can still offer you very strong service – hey, more than you would have otherwise, right?
China Unicom covers nearly 90% of the country’s population, so, even though it is not thought to be as far-reaching as China Mobile, chances are, you will still be covered no matter where you travel in the country. China Unicom operates a GSM/WCDMA/4G LTE network with nationwide coverage, offering voice, text, and internet browsing – along with the bonus of high-speed WiFi hotspots.
This carrier is highly flexible as well, not requiring contracts or hidden fees in case you only need a SIM card for just a week or long enough to live there for a while. China Unicom offers a pay-as-you-go prepaid plan for those who need only short-term coverage.
A SIM card with China Mobile offers coverage for mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. China Mobile offers a wide variety of SIM cards based on your travel needs, including Hong Kong Connecting Tone, Call Forwarding Service, Conference Call Service, Mobile Data Service, and more.
China Mobile SIM cards can also be purchased through many different avenues: CMH shops, convenience stores, and telecom product shops or dealers. With all these different options, you can choose to plan and purchase your mobile needs ahead of time, or just go with the flow and purchase a SIM card on a whim as you walk through the streets of Beijing.
There are prepaid SIM card services for travelers based on length of stay, country of origin, and where in China you plan to travel to. Users can purchase service from as low as 2G up to 4G. The outbound SIM card service for Americans and Canadians can be used in the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong with up to 50 minutes of local airtime, tethering, connection to any social networking and Hong Kong website, and more.
China Telecom offers a few different options for the traveler and local plans – you can decide which you need depending on the length and purpose of your trip.
For instance, if you are visiting for a short leisure trip, you have the option of a 14-day plan or a 60-day plan. For the 14-day option, you get 4G LTE speeds for the first 2 GB and unlimited data afterward, unlimited nationwide talk, unlimited international calls to 10 countries, and unlimited international text for $28. The 60-day plan comes with unlimited data, of which the first 5 GB are on 4G LTE speeds for $49.
The international countries you can call to are:
- China (P.R of China, which includes Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau)
- South Korea
Local plans, on the other hand, offer similar amenities – except unlimited international calling in up to 20 countries, more GB offered at 4G LTE and dual numbers at various prices. The local plans, however, are offered exclusively in 30-day periods, so they may not be the best option for travelers looking for coverage on a brief excursion.
The four local plans start from $19/30 days up to $49/30 days ($19, $29, $39 & $49). The difference between each plan is the 4G LTE speed allowance you get, which are 500 MB, 4 GB, 7 GB, and 10 GB.
Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog for your flights to China!
Hong Kong SIM Cards
Do yourself a favor and visit the breathtakingly beautiful Hong Kong, home to unique cuisine, peaceful nature and wildlife, and lively traditions. In 2017, over 58 million tourists made their way to East Asia to visit this spectacular place. That many people cannot be wrong about the magnetism of this bustling city, so make sure you can share all of your memorable experiences with your friends and family with proper mobile coverage!
Many of the ideal SIM cards for Hong Kong will overlap with those for Macau; however, I will focus primarily on Hong Kong-only SIM cards for this section (even those that are marketed as Hong Kong only will be functional in both Hong Kong and Macau).
CSL: Discover Hong Kong Tourist SIM Card
This option is ideal for those who are hopping between countries or on a spontaneous trip across the sea, as it is only a 5-day SIM card with 5 GB of local mobile data. Although this is the most popular option, CSL does recommend the 8-day pass, also with a 5 GB allowance. This SIM card offers unlimited calling, CSL WiFi, and data at 1.5 GB at 4G.
There is also a $30 credit included for overseas phone calls – so you can keep your loved ones up-to-date even if they are back at home! You can order your CSL SIM card ahead of your trip, even at the last minute: with their fast shipping to North America, you will receive your card within 7 business days. This SIM card is available in sizes nano and micro.
China Mobile Hong Kong
China Mobile takes the stage again for one of the best SIM cards on the market; however, this particular card is specific to Hong Kong and, in fact, will not work elsewhere. This is an inexpensive option for those that are sure they will be staying in Hong Kong for longer than 8 days and do not plan on visiting anywhere else.
Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog for your flights to Hong Kong!
Japan SIM Cards
Japan is indisputably one of the most beautiful places in the world! It offers a plethora of attractions and getaways for all types of travelers: art, natural scenery, cultural and religious events, and more. Some of the most popular places to visit include Sapporo, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka. All of these options for tourists of every strain are ideal for staying as connected as possible while abroad.
There is a wide variety of SIM cards you can get for traveling to Japan, ranging from as little as 8 days up to 31 days. Available plans have a considerable range of flexibility in the data included as well, some getting up to 31GB! For those who are traveling on a short-term basis, three of the best SIM card services you will want to look into are those that offer a large amount of data over a short-term agreement.
This carrier offers several different plans – those tailored for long-term travelers or short-term travelers. With the Mobal SIM long-term plan (more than 90 days), you will have access to unlimited data, free incoming calls and texts, a Japanese phone number, and customer support in English. All of this is offered with no contract, so you are free to cancel anytime – perfect for even the most spontaneous of travelers!
Travelers with plans to bounce around countries or just stay for a short time can opt for the short-term plan, which is offered at 16, 30, 31, 60, and 90 days. Depending on the length of your SIM card service, prices may vary and options for unlimited data on talk and text being to open up.
Mobal also offers many different sizes of SIM cards to fit all different kinds of basic- and smartphones.
Japan SIM Card
Although it is not the most distinct name, the Japan SIM card is right up there with Mobal in terms of abundance of data and flexibility of short-term service. The service ranges from 5 to 21 days and offers unlimited data with each plan.
You can have this SIM card delivered to you anywhere in the world, and, when finally in Japan, you will have nationwide coverage from Japan’s Docomo network at 4G LTE. The only catch with this SIM is that your device must be unlocked for it to function in full capacity – so do not expect to get notifications while your phone is locked in your pocket or overnight when charging.
This SIM is also offered in multiple sizes: nano, micro, and standard. A significant disadvantage of this SIM card is that it does not offer voice or SMS – rather, it exclusively offers data. Note, too, that the use of more than 3GB of data per day will result in reduced data speeds for 24-48 hours.
B-Mobile offers SIM cards for periods of either 10 or 21 days, with 5 or 7 GB of data at 3G LTE speed. If you wish to have your SIM card before you arrive in Japan, you have the option to purchase your SIM card ahead of time online through stores like AEON, Yodobashi Camera, and BIC Camera. There is an airport pickup option as well.
There are limitations to B-Mobile, though, as your visitor SIM can only be used when your device is unlocked and is only compatible with LTE devices, and devices that are safe to use in Japan.
Find out if your device is safe to use on the Docomo network website
Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog for your flights to Japan!
Macau SIM Cards
Over 400 years ago, the Portuguese invaded the region of Macau (or Macao) and renamed the country “Macau” after misunderstanding the indigenous community’s name for the bay: A-Ma-Gau (meaning Bay of A-ma). The name comes from the A-Ma Temple, constructed during the Ming Dynasty in 1488, near Macau’s harbor that is dedicated in worship to the Honored Mother A-Ma, a goddess.
Because of the depth of history and culture that Macau has to offer the world, you will surely be wanting to share your one-in-a-million experience with your loved ones. Some of the best SIM card options are available through ThreeUK Smart Silver, Asia-Pacific Plus, and KeepGo Global.
ThreeUK Smart Silver
This is one of the best SIM card options you have access to is through ThreeUK Smart Silver. With this SIM card, you are equipped with 5 GB of data – one of the few disadvantages being that you do not have voice or text capabilities.
A couple more cons that come with this card are its refill value and duration: this SIM card is only available for 30 days, and so does not offer the same flexibility that many other SIM cards do. It also cannot be refilled, so you are only allotted 5 GB of data for the entirety of the 30 days with no potential for more, and no rollover options if you do not use it all.
All of this considered, this still may be the best option for those who know they will be staying for a while and do not necessarily need to call or text anyone but still desire access to emails, social media, and the like.
This SIM card is available with 4.5 GB of high-speed data for 15 days (if you choose to have coverage in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States as well, otherwise an Asia-only plan is 8 days), which starts at the date on which you insert the SIM card into your device – not the date of purchase/delivery. It is available in standard, micro, and nano sizes, and can operate in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and more.
This is another SIM card that is not refillable, so after you use up your 4.5 GB, your speed is dropped down to 128 Kbps until your 15 days are up.
Though this option is just a tad more expensive than the others, KeepGo Global is still an awesome option for connectivity in Macau. The KeepGo Global SIM card is one of the best options in consideration of data availability, but with this advantage comes a pretty hefty tradeoff.
When you purchase the KeepGo Global SIM card, you get 1 GB of data credit. You can somewhat “refill” it; however, each additional GB costs $10 – so you can end up racking up a pretty hearty bill. There is a bit more flexibility with this SIM card as well, as it works whether the device is locked or unlocked, and is compatible with iPhones and Androids.
Although the KeepGo Global SIM card has many desirable characteristics, the price tag on this one may call for more investigation into alternatives.
Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog for your flights to Macau!
Mongolia SIM Cards
Mongolia is truly one of the most mesmerizing places in the world. This country has been fortunate enough to hold onto deeply-rooted historical practices such as traditional falconry – which you can witness at events such as the Altai Eagle Festival.
Tours of the gorgeous Huvsgul Lake and throughout Ulaanbaatar are available at various points over the year, so keep your cell phone connection up and running to stay in the loop regarding experiences such as these. The two primary providers in Mongolia are MobiCom and Unitel.
Although it is the leader of cellular network providers in Mongolia, MobiCom is a relatively small network, supporting 1.7 million customers. These SIM cards are equipped with 4G speeds and offer to prepaid plans, MobiCard and One. MobiCom offers six different bundles ranging from 600MB to 5GB of data at 3G and 1.2GB to 10GB at 4G. Plans are available for as briefly as 1 day up to 30 days.
Clearly, MobiCom offers a lot of flexibility in available plans, ideal for travelers aiming for casual or formal trips, and a wide range of data speeds and capacity. MobiCom even has packages specialized for tourists called the Tourist Combo data bundles, offering data for 15-30 days with SMS capabilities and reduced international rates.
Unitel is a 100% Mongolian-owned network available at 4G in Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet, Darkhan City, Dalanzadgad, and Tsogttsetsii. Most have concluded that Unitel, when compared to MobiCom, does have slightly weaker coverage but offers more customer-friendly prices.
There are three plans available with Unitel: Smart Talk, Smart Data, and Smart Time. They offer voice and text at 35-70 minutes with optional data bundles available to be added onto the Smart Data plan. All bundles offer Unlimited data but vary in duration from 5 days to nearly a full year, 360 days.
Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog for your flights to Mongolia!
South Korea SIM Cards
South Korea received over 15.4 million tourists in 2018. Some of the most magnetizing destinations in this amazing country are the gorgeous demonstrations of environmental consciousness in the architecture of the city of Seoul, the ancient Bulguksa Temple, the jaw-dropping natural phenomenon of the Jindo Sea Parting, and so much more.
Two of the best providers for SIM cards that can help you stay connected during your trip to South Korea are SK Telecom and kt olleh (Korea Telecom).
This is the largest mobile carrier in South Korea, offering service on both 3G and 4G LTE networks. These SIM cards are marketed specifically for travelers, often available with deals and/or promotions with short-term plans. They are best purchased at the Incheon International Airport. Unfortunately, the SK Telecom website is restricted to Internet Explorer and without an option for translation.
kt olleh (Korea Telecom)
As the second-largest provider in South Korea, SIM cards under a plan with Korea Telecom will have access to data at 3G and 4G LTE speeds. These are available at more moderate prices than SK Telecom and has been reported to have stronger coverage than SK Telecom. You can purchase plans for 5, 10, and 30 days.
Korea SIM cards are available in three types: Blue, Orange, and Red. The Blue SIM offers Unlimited data at 4G LTE and local voice, Red has Unlimited data on 4G LTE along with international voice, whereas Orange only has 4G LTE data.
Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog for your flights to South Korea!
Taiwan SIM Cards
There is so much to explore on the island of Taiwan – from Buddhist temples, culturally-rich villages and cities, and breathtaking natural spectacles like Sun Moon Lake and the Tainan hot springs. Some of the most popular cities to visit in the country are Taipei, Hualien City, Hengchun, and Xitun. Make sure you can stay connected while roaming the beautiful streets and getting lost in the natural wonders.
Some of the most highly recommended SIM cards for Taiwan are as follows:
As the largest provider for SIM cards in Taiwan, Chunghwa Telecom supports over 10 million users on its network. Their merchandise is easily accessible to the traveler, as it is sold in various locations throughout Taiwan and at airport kiosks.
This SIM card offers Unlimited data at 4G for 3 days to 30 days, with coverage Kinmen, Matsu, and Penghu Islands. When I say unlimited data, I truly mean unlimited. No restrictive fair-use policy or any other gimmick. Want to download 1000 GB of data? Go ahead!
This SIM card is available in standard, micro, and nano sizes, and is one of the most plentiful plans, as it offers 100 NTD to 430 NTD credit for local and international calls and text. You can also share a hotspot with this SIM card.
Considered to be the second-largest provider for Taiwan, Taiwan Mobile offers several different prepaid packages for your SIM card. One of the most popular packages used by tourists is the Taiwan 4G LTE SIM card, and it is most often purchased right after arrival at the Taoyuan airport.
There are three different packages available for the Taiwan Mobile SIM card, each at an internet speed of 4G. The available data ranges from 1.2 GB to 8 GB, and there are two plan lengths available: 60 days for the lower data SIM cards, and 185 days for the highest, 8 GB.
You can also get unlimited plans like Chunghwa Telecom from 300 NTD for 3 days to 1000 NTD for 30 days.
Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog for your flights to Taiwan!
Plan Ahead for Your SIM Card
As you can see, there are many different options for SIM cards for your international travels, and choosing the right one can potentially make or break your trip depending on fees, reliability, and duration of service. It is best to do your research far ahead of time when you have decided to use a SIM card during your time abroad.
Some of these SIM cards will be available to be shipped to you before your trip, others will require you to purchase them in person at local shops or at the airport along with your passport, so it is essential that you have decided which SIM card you are going to use before departure.
There you have it, the best SIM cards for tourists visiting East Asia. As you can see, every country has different standards as to what they offer travelers. Either way, using those local SIM cards will certainly be cheaper than roaming with your provider unless they offer free roaming in any of these East Asian countries – nothing beats free stuff!
What is next?
Looking for the best companies and gadgets to enhance your travel experience? Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! Save money on plane tickets, bus rides, cruises, and accommodation. Besides that, I also list services and items I use to make my life easier – and I believe they will help you too!
Book Your Flight for East Asia
It is time to book your flight. Find cheap flights with AirWander so that you can add free or cheap stopovers in destinations you have not considered yet before going to East Asia. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to East Asia drop.
Book Your Accommodation for East Asia
I am a huge fan of Airbnb because it allows me to live with a local or get a local place for myself. Staying in someone’s house or apartment feels much different than being in a ho(s)tel, especially in East Asia. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in an East Asian hotel.
Get Your Travel Insurance for East Asia
You will regret not having travel insurance once you actually need it and “forgot” to get it. Nowadays, travel insurance is cheap and comprehensive unlike back in the days. World Nomads is by far the best travel insurance for adventurous travelers like yourself. You can even get insured WHILE already traveling in East Asia, which is not something many insurance companies allow you to do.
Get a Travel Debit Card
Travel Cheques are outdated. Paying with your credit card or debit card can be expensive because of all the exchange commissions banks charge you. TransferWise allows you to convert your main currency to the local currency for a small fee (up to 8 times less than with your bank!) Getting a Transferwise Borderless account is FREE, so you will get an instant return on your investment.
Enjoy your trip!