The last time you returned from a trip abroad, the huge cellphone bill that hit you at the end of the billing cycle made you cringe. Then you saw the advertisement for a cost-cutting device called a country-specific subscriber identity module (SIM) card and you wonder: what is it all about? We found out.
You have three options when you go abroad. One, use international roaming on your cellphone. This is the one that gave you a missed heartbeat when you saw your bill. The second one is a calling card that is the cheapest option, but doesn’t give you the option of receiving calls. The third is a country-specific SIM card that is much cheaper than international roaming and more convenient than a calling card as you can both make and receive calls through it.
“With country-specific SIM cards, you can save around 70% on your mobile bill, depending on the number of days and country you travel,” says Abheek Singhi, partner and director, Boston Consulting Group India, a happy user of these cards.
Sample this: A call from the US to India would cost you around Rs42 per minute through a country-specific SIM compared with Rs165 per minute through international roaming and Rs5.50 per minute through a calling card. A call you receive from India on a country-specific SIM and international roaming will cost you around Rs14 per minute and Rs90 per minute, respectively.
These, as the name suggests, are specific to a particular country or region. So, if you plan to travel within Europe, you can simply buy a Europe-specific SIM card instead of different SIM cards for different countries. But if you buy a country-specific SIM for UK, you may not be able to carry it across various countries. Also, a SIM specific to the US can be used only in the US.
These can be used with any unlocked GSM handset. Some companies provide a handset at an extra cost to those whose handsets are not tri-band. The SIMs enable you to surf the Internet, but that too at an extra cost. In India, Delhi-based Matrix Cellular Service, Clay Telecom and Reliance Communications Ltd offer these cards.
How do they work?
There are pre-paid and post-paid country-specific SIM cards. They work like any new SIM card that assigns you a new number. You can start using this number as soon as you reach your destination. Once you are back from your trip, you will have to return it to the company you bought it from.
Under the pre-paid option, you would have to decide an amount you would need in advance. You can top it up online as and when required. Usually, a pre-paid card comes for a minimum Rs1,500 on which you get a free talk-time of Rs500.
You get a post-paid card at your doorstep once you submit the required documents, including a copy of your passport, visa, photo identity and residence proof. The requirement may vary between companies. And the card gets activated by the time you reach your destination. The bill comes 15 days after you return from your trip.
Though most companies do not incur any charges for the SIM, some make a credit card authorization block for Rs5,000-10,000. This means that if you have a credit limit of Rs1 lakh on your credit card, the SIM provider will block your credit card for Rs5,000 as a security and you would be able to use your credit card only till a limit of Rs95,000. Once, your pay your bill and return the SIM, the credit card can be unblocked.
What are the costs?
This varies from country to country and the number of days the SIM is used for. The tariff rental can be daily, monthly or even annual for frequent travellers.
Graphic: Yogesh Kumar / Mint
A frequent corporate traveller says, “I have been using a country-specific SIM for the last three years and it’s surely economical.”
Apart from a few countries such as the US, Canada, China and Hong Kong, incoming calls in most countries are free on a country-specific SIM card.
For instance, on a UK SIM, you will pay nothing for incoming calls, but around Rs19 per minute for outgoing local calls and around Rs56 per minute for calls made to India. On a Malaysia SIM, incoming is free, while the local outgoing costs around Rs7 per minute and calls to India around Rs51 per minute.
How they compare?
International roaming: While the easiest way to stay connected is to simply activate international roaming on your cellphone, it may not be the cheapest.
Hemani Seith, manager marketing, Clay Telecom, says, “International roaming charges are way too high compared with a country-specific SIM. Since it acts like a local number of the country one is visiting, you get an advantage.”
Calling cards: These are available with most major telecom providers and are more economical than international roaming. For instance, the average call from the UK back to India will cost about Rs5 per minute and from the US around Rs6 per minute. You can use your calling card to make calls to India and over 200 countries across the globe from any local mobile, landline or pay phone. Calling cards are available in Indian rupees and are usually valid for a year. Calling cards do not work for those on business trips as their work may require them to receive calls.
What should you do?
Remember that if you are taking a country-specific SIM card, you will have to take the trouble of circulating the number among all your contacts. However, the fact that it works out much cheaper can work to its advantage.
Perhaps, it won’t make sense to take a SIM if you are travelling only for a few days, but for longer trips it will definitely have a cost advantage.