Cheapest Way to Stay Connected in Southeast Asia?

Connected in Cambodia by Caroline on Crack
Caroline on Cambodia

Connected in Cambodia.

Planning my epic six-week solo trip to Southeast Asia, one of my biggest concerns — second only to how to prevent mosquito bites — was how to stay connected abroad, cheaply. Friends chided my attachment to my phone because I’m supposed to be on VACATION. But, come on. Nowadays your phone is your map, taxi hailer, restaurant finder, travel guide, translator and currency calculator. A connected phone is an asset when in unfamiliar territory.

I have a Verizon account so already had experience with its TravelPass international plan. It’s when you can take your domestic plan abroad for $5 or $10 a day depending on country, no surprise roaming charges. But since I would be gone for 44 days that was too cha-ching for my budget.

How an elephant takes a huge step down

Fortunately enough, Verizon lent me a TravelPass-equipped Google Pixel smartphone for my adventures. That way I could see just how seamless the connection was, whether hiking with elephants in Thailand or sitting on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam.

For good measure I also brought my own Verizon iPhone 6S+. That way I could test out using SIM cards in other countries since they were touted as a cheap and easy option. Note: This only works if you have an unlocked phone. But all of Verizon’s phones come unlocked!

Here’s how both plans fared.

Verizon TravelPass International Plan

Google Pixel with Verizon TravelPass by Caroline on Crack

The Google Pixel with Verizon TravelPass was especially handy in China considering WiFi with VPN was soo slow.

For international travel, in addition to the TravelPass, Verizon offers a monthly plan that’s $15 to $40 for 100 MB of data, depending on country. Or there’s the expensive-sounding pay-as-you-go option, which is $2.05/MB of data.

For the first part of my trip through Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand I primarily used the TravelPass phone. And it was like using it in the U.S. in that you didn’t have to worry about mystery charges. In terms of a signal, just like back home, there were only a few remote spots in Cambodia where I got nothing. No biggie, though.

In China, the phone worked wayyy better than when I used WiFi, and I was literally and figuratively lost without it. While sitting at the Bund in Shanghai planning my next move, I realized I lost my signal. After a brief moment of panic, I figured that I must be in a dead zone so just walked away from the river till I got a signal again. Pfew!

Bonus was that even though everyone else in China has to use a VPN to access Instagram or Facebook, I was still able to post on social media with the TravelPass phone. Plus the connection speeds on the Google Pixel were faster than when I was on WiFi with my iPhone, which was essentially a brick in Shanghai. (I didn’t buy a SIM card in China since I was only there for a couple of days.)

At the Bund in Shanghai by Caroline on Crack

Panic when I lost my phone signal in Shanghai.

The downside was since the Verizon phone had limited data I had to wait till I got WiFi to post pictures and video on social media. If you have an unlimited plan, however, this is a nonissue.

The data thing may not be a big deal if you use your phone the way you do at home but in another country of course you’re gonna use it A LOT more to get around. At $10 a day the Verizon TravelPass option is expensive but will do in a pinch. For longer stays this is where the SIM card is the better bet, especially considering an unlimited data SIM card in Vietnam is about $12 and in the Philippines it’s $20 for 8GB.

Pros: No hidden roaming charges, easy to get, seamless service

Cons: Can get expensive at about $10/day, limited by how much data you have on your plan (but if you have unlimited hooray!)

Local SIM Cards

A cappuccino and iPhone by Caroline on Crack

My personal iPhone with SIM card was my primary phone while in Vietnam.

People online have complained about how getting a local SIM card abroad can be a pain in the ass, especially if you don’t speak the local language. The good news is a lot of Southeast Asian airports, at least the ones I traveled to, are littered with SIM card kiosks where the salespeople speak English. The bad news is even though these will be licensed vendors their prices are marked up considerably because airport. So research which phone company offers the best deal and best signal before you arrive.

If you have a local friend, ask them for their opinion. My Airbnb host in Vietnam recommended phone company Viettel, saying it had a better signal if I was planning on going to the countryside, which I did for the Cu Chi tunnels tour. But if you don’t get a chance to research before the trip just tap into the airport’s WiFi and Google the SIM card companies before buying.

Even though I knew the prices at the airport are higher than outside I went for it because I wanted to get online as soon as possible. It’s an addiction, really. And if you’re the same way just make sure that you get what you pay for.

I didn’t have any issues myself but reports from other travelers who had also bought Viettel cards from the Ho Chi Minh City airport complain they were shortchanged. Many shared stories like paying for five days of unlimited data only to have their card stop working after two days! I know, yuck.

With a local SIM card you get the good and bad with local service. In Vietnam connection speeds were fine. But in the Philippines they sucked big time. When I complained to my cousin there she said that’s just how it is in the P.I. and the signals are notoriously bad. I had gotten a Globe card because I read online that it had less traffic than the Smart SIM phone company but it was still difficult to connect.

By the way there are some SIM cards that you can use in a number of countries, like Viettel can be used in Cambodia and Laos, too.

Pros: Cheaper especially for stays longer than a day, local phone number

Cons: Hassle of finding a good deal, danger of getting scammed


Starfish in Palawan by Caroline on Crack

In the Philippines, since the local phone company’s signal was horrible I had to stick to WiFi.

Nowadays free WiFi is more readily available, which is great for posting your vacation photos and videos to Facebook. But when you’re abroad you’re going to actually need a more reliable signal to guide you through unfamiliar countries. Whether you go for something like Verizon’s TravelPass plan or local SIM cards depends on how much effort you want to put into it and how much you want to spend.

3 Responses to Cheapest Way to Stay Connected in Southeast Asia?
  1. Lara Dunston
    December 16, 2017 | 11:32 pm

    Fantastic advice for American travellers, Caroline! What a really helpful comparison that is.

    Hope you don’t mind me adding some points, based on my experience of living in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and travelling between all those countries frequently, and South East Asia more widely, over 14 years:

    1. Language – people shouldn’t worry about language being an issue in South East Asia. I’m not sure why they do. In years of travel in SEA, I’ve never had challenges with the local language in any SEA countries, especially in airports and cities – everybody who works in tourism and hospitality or who works in international spaces, such as airports, speaks English. In countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar, which were British colonies, everybody speaks English. In all of those countries, plus Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, kids are learning English in high school. Filipinos I’ve met have had great English skills too. It’s only in more off the beaten track cities, towns and villages that don’t get many tourists that it can be a little challenging, but miming and phrase books generally work.

    2. SIM prices – I’d love to know exactly where people are getting ripped off at the airports, because in my experience everywhere except for Malaysia (where we were ripped off), the airport prices are pretty much the same as in town and the beauty of the airport is that they’re so used to dealing with so many people quickly that it’s so fast. Sometimes, however, this can mean that the sales person has accidentally skipped a stage, so I ALWAYS get them to test it by getting them to call me and I call them, getting online and googling, and sending an email, to make sure it’s working before I leave.

    Sometimes I think people *feel* they’re ripped off because they’re tired, maybe jet-lagged, are a little disoriented, suspicious because it’s a strange foreign country, haven’t yet come to grips with the currency and people, or they don’t understand the package or amount of data they’ve bought. Sometimes it takes people a while to understand local accents or this can cause communication issues. I’ve had clients/travellers about how they argued with the guy who wanted to up-sell them at Siem Reap airport and make them buy $5-10 more of data when they didn’t need it, only to complain again the next day when they ran out. That’s because they bought a $1 SIM which only has a day’s data on it (just for emergencies; you’re really just buying the SIM) and then you have to load $5 or $10 or whatever on it.

    Note also that while many SIMs in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos can be used in neighbouring countries, once over the border they usually move automatically into Roaming mode with Roaming charges and you’ll find that a SIM that’s so far lasted 3 weeks in, say, Vietnam, will run out in a day in Laos. Still, it can be handy and at least you’re not wasting the credit.

    Some years ago I had a Thai SIM that I was able to use almost the whole route of a 3-day Mekong River cruise from Thailand to Laos.

    A few tips:

    * if your readers have booked a tour in the destination they’re heading to, the staff at the tour company are by far the best people to ask about what SIM to buy, as their guides and product managers (the ones who create the tours) are always travelling around and know what SIMs work where;

    * if they haven’t booked a tour, they should visit the local expat community pages on Facebook and ask for a recommendation. Expats are great resources and generally love to help because a lot of expats in these countries work in tourism, hospitality and retail;

    * local Time Out-like websites are also great sources as even though their main audiences are locals and expats, they will generally have some travel info with practical tips on communications, currency, weather etc, somewhere on the site. Every city in Southeast Asia has one or two of these sites;

    * whatever people do, I do not recommend randomly googling and I definitely do NOT recommend Trip Advisor. I was recently on the TA forums as we were getting some traffic to our site as a traveller had shared a link. I was horrified at what I saw some self-proclaimed ‘local experts’ based in places like Melbourne, Edinburgh and Washington, telling people. It was generally vague, out-dated and incorrect; and

    * the same goes for a lot of blogs and travel sites, written by people who were only in a place for a few days. If people have googled and think they have found some good advice, then they should check the date and About page and see how much experience the writer has in that place. If they live there and it’s current, then they can probably be trusted. If they were there for a week four years ago, they should give it a miss.

    I will always use local SIMs as I’m based in the region, have unlocked phones, I find it easy to buy them, and have never had any issues. But I think for Americans what you outlined is a great idea, especially if people have two phones.

  2. Lara Dunston
    December 16, 2017 | 11:33 pm

    Wow! That was almost a blog post in itself, wasn’t it?! Sorry about that!

    Just wanted to let you know that I’ll link to this from my FAQs page on my site as I think this will be helpful for American travellers.

  3. Take My Shift Team
    April 17, 2018 | 6:28 pm

    With summer quickly approaching the time for travel is definitely on our minds, and we couldn’t help but notice this old post! Amazing resource post. This definitely put Southeast Asia on the map for us. Thanks for the inspiration.

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