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Why I will always get an eSim now for travelling

I lost contact with the world when my phone stopped roaming and it was not only frustrating, but if I’d been travelling alone, it would have been scary!

We just spent three weeks in the United States, hubby and me, road tripping through Texas, then four fun days in New York City and then over to Palm Springs and Los Angeles.

I did what I always do: use the global roaming plan on my cellphone. I’m with OneNZ (formerly Vodafone) and for $8 per day you can use your data plan, receive and make calls and texts, in most countries. It’s super convenient and I figure, works out about the same as buying data cards, which need replacing when you burn through them.

We used our roaming data plans a lot; as GPS maps when driving in Texas and to Palm Springs, we used it to hail Ubers and of course, I was updating my socials too!

Using cell phone data in car
Using data plan in car. Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash

We had an absolute blast, and you can read about great things to do and where to stay in other posts, but I took for granted that I would be able to roam with my iPhone and keep in touch with the world.

And I do burn through them. I am online all the time; checking email, updating my socials with pics of my travels, messaging people we’re travelling with re meet up times, keeping in touch with home, making bookings, using my phone to hotspot so I can work on this blog, etc.

All was going swimmingly, until it wasn’t.

Firstly, I got a message saying I was at 80% of my data within two weeks. Not ideal. My husband is on a shared plan with me, so that meant was we made sure whenever we were in hotels we used the free hotel wifi in our room or the lobby. If we used all our data our speed would be slowed. Yep, our speed was slowed.

But the worst thing was, after turning my phone into flight mode to fly from NYC to LAX, it would not start roaming again.

I searched all the help pages online, turned the phone on and off (several times), took the sim card out and popped it back in. It just kept saying SOS or sometimes E. Meanwhile husband was roaming happily on the same plan. It had to be the phone, right?

So I made an appointment at Apple’s Genius Bar in The Grove shopping center in LA – one of 5 great places to shop in LA – a $60 round trip Uber ride later and even the Genius couldn’t solve the problem. It must be your carrier, they said. Who are you using?

Well it depended on where we were at any given time as to who we were using. At that moment husband’s phone was using AT&T. Sometimes it would link to T-Mobile or Verizon.

But here’s the scary thing about all this: if I had been travelling alone I could not have done basic things like ride in an Uber, because I had no data and would have had no one to hotspot off. I would be unable to call a cab and pay directly from the app. The other uses were more annoying than scary, as I could use wifi in our hotels. However, OneNZ kept charging the daily rate (more about that later).

But I will never take this risk again, hence this post on the wonder of eSims.

Uber driver slouched in car
How casual is our Uber driver on the LA freeway?!!

What is an e-Sim?

An eSim is an electronic data plan (instead of a physical sim card) that you buy online and, once you set it up on your phone, it will automatically allow your phone to use the amount of data you have purchased, or the length of time you have purchased, without having to remove your physical sim card*.

That means your phone number remains the same as you are technically running two numbers.

In the past, ways to save money on roaming overseas was to buy a preloaded sim card with a certain amount of data (say 20GB or 50GB) in the destination. Then when that ran out you got another one – if you could find a store that sold them. It also meant your mum couldn’t text you or call you as you had removed your sim card and replaced it with the local burner card. If you needed to get into your bank account, for example, you’d have to put your own sim card back in, receive a work phone call, etc.

The beauty of an e-Sim is you can use both plans simultaneously.

*Note to users of OneNZ (Vodafone), unless you remove your physical sim card or keep your phone in flight mode for the duration of your travel, you will be charged $8 per day. (I’ve been having email and Twitter conversations about this!) The only way to truly avoid the extra charge is to phone them and have them switch off roaming. Note again: turning off Global Roaming on your phone will NOT preclude them charging you.

*Note to users of Spark NZ, they offer two roaming packages but both only give you 2GB of data. $30 will give you 300 minutes of calls incoming and outgoing in most countries, plus 300 texts, plus 2GB of data. Or $25 for just the 2GB data plan. Therefore if you burn through data like I do you’d be paying $25 to top up your data to 2GB each time. The good news is there is no daily roaming charge by default. So you can keep your sim in your phone while using the eSim.

How to buy an eSim

*There are some affiliate links in this post. That means I may make a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase from my links.

Only newer smartphones can handle eSims. Anything from iPhone XS on and Pixel 3 in Android. There are lots of companies selling eSims, but in my research, three stand out. Of course you should also do your own, but if you want a quick plan now, then you’ll do well with one of these.

In some cases they might not be as cheap as buying a local sim (although pretty close) that you physically swap yours with, but they are cheaper than my roaming plan with my home provider, much more convenient (not having to find a local store) and I like that I can keep my own number too.

Airalo is widely touted as the most popular, and was one of the first on the market. It now offers connections in 200 countries. It provides data only, so you’d use your own number for calls and non-wifi text messaging. Once you’ve installed the app, you can just use it as necessary.

You can purchase a local or regional plan. Local is cheaper, but if you are going to more than one country, you’ll want the regional plan.

Europe 5GB plan for 30 days $30. Worldwide 20GB plan over 90 days $40. If you have trouble connecting to a network once you’ve installed and paid for your plan, just go into settings and select one of the networks manually. A known issue can be the esim trying to connect to too many networks at once, so just override it.

Nomad is the app my niece is currently using as she traveled through Indonesia and is now in Europe. She reported it worked well in Indonesia. It offers coverage in 110 countries, with 30-day and 60-day plans. If you remember to top it up before it expires, you won’t need to activate a new plan.

In some destinations Nomad offers unlimited data plans. A 30-countries plan offers 10GB for 30 days for US$18. That’s a LOT cheaper than my roaming plan at home.

Holafly is another highly rated esim to look into. They offer unlimited data so you just pay for the length of time (5-90 days), although they are more expensive than the ones above. However, to not have to worry about running out of data, I like this one.

Be aware that your Holafly plan will begin from the moment of installation, so it’s best to install it when your trip starts, not in advance. Holafly has a 4.6/5 score on Trustpilot, higher than any other eSim provider. One downside is you cannot hotspot from your Holafly data plan, so I will be relying on hotel wifi to work on my laptop.

If you’re travelling you might also want to read about using a VPN. A virtual private network allows you to connect via other locations, which is especially helpful in places like China where some websites are blocked. In fact, it’s also necessary if you’re outside of USA to connect to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Marketplace!

You can read more of my travel hacks and tips in this post to help you save some money and have a tree-free trip.

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Nicole Fryer

Sunday 2nd of July 2023

This is just what I needed. Was in USA last year for a month and spark roaming was so unreliable to call home (could only call home accidentally at 2am nz time 😬 I was popular!) in the end I just bought a cheap phone and plan from Walmart. Wouldn’t mind the expensive roaming if it worked and if it didn’t it would be nice if the company would own the issue instead of ignoring the customer (a long term loyal customer that is no longer loyal). Thanks for this post, huge help

Megan Singleton

Sunday 2nd of July 2023

Thanks Nicole. Yep, I'll be trialling one of the esims next time I'm away.


Sunday 18th of June 2023

You can use Google Maps to download offline maps of areas that you will are travelling or use an offline map app like Here We Go. Obviously won't give you current traffic conditions, but will save a heap of data

Christine Hutton

Sunday 18th of June 2023

Thanks Megan, love this post and listening to you on Newstalk this morning. Excellent and just in time for my trip next week.


Sunday 18th of June 2023

The $8 a day roaming charge for NZ Telcos sure adds up when you are away for a month or so. On a recent trip to Australia I bought a Woolworths Mobile 12Gb SIM for A$10 (half price at the time) for 30 days. Coles has a similar deal but requires an Australian credit card to register. Also discovered that Telstra pay phones have free calls to Australian landlines/mobiles. Another alternative is using wifi calling - calling/texting using wifi. Keep the phone in Flight mode but have wifi on. Calls/texts are charged as if you are in NZ. I'm looking at for a Europe trip later in the year. Has eSims as well as regular Sims

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!