Asian Cell Plans 101

by Colin Berkshire

I get asked all the time by Americans who want to travel to Asia how to get a local cell phone. I also see Americans here in Asia who complain about the $2.50 per minute roaming charges and $200 monthly data allowances giving them 0.2 GB of data internationally.

We Americans are conditioned to view signing up for cell service as a two year commitment of $75 a month, with credit approvals and a need for a billing address. So usually, we don’t even think of the possibility of getting a cell phone in our country of destination. But signing up for local phone service can be one of the best experiences of interacting with locals and in discovering that other countries not only look different but that they do business differently.

So how do you go about getting a SIM card in an Asian country? Here is a step-by-step-instruction list:
1) Go to a store, such as 7-11 or mobile phone store, and buy one.

Yup, that’s it. They will sell it to you and install it and get everything working.

One of my first experiences was in Hong Kong. I asked the hotel how to get a local SIM card for my phone or where the local cellular company was. They pointed at the 7-11 across the street and told me to go there. I didn’t quite believe they had understood my question and thought perhaps they had confused SIM card with something like “donut” so I rephrased the question. Same answer. So I walked across the street and asked the clerk. She pointed me to a back wall that had about half a dozen hanging cards that looked like they were selling phone service. As Hong Kong is bilingual, everything was printed in both Chinese and English.

I ended up picking up what later would prove to have been the best choice: from China Mobile it was called an IDDD card and cost HK$98 (US$13.)
So what do you get for your $13? It’s not exactly easy to tell from the included instruction booklet. While written in English, they use terms that have localized meanings (just like they call an overpass a “flyover.”) but here is what the deal was: 6 months of service, 240 included minutes, and a local calling area of 31 countries including the US.

Yes, the local calling area includes 31 countries. Call 2+ Billion people from China to the United States for the same airtime charge of about 3cents a minute. Somehow, it just seemed wrong for the entire US to be simply a local call from Hong Kong. But then, so were Japan land lines and Australia. We Americans are just not conditioned to think of the global economy as including free calling to other countries.

In Thailand you can also go to any 7-11 store and pick up a SIM card. Calls within Thailand are 1-Baht (3-cents), incoming calls are free, and calls back to the US are 10-cents a minute. A month of 3G data service costs $30, provided that you sign up for the plan before you start using it.

Cambodia, Vietnam, and China are equally easy, but with a few variations. The common pattern is that there are no 2-year contracts, no activation fees, and for $10 to $20 you can walk away with a SIM card and a month or more of service. Some countries like China and Vietnam officially require a passport to subscribe to service. This is conveniently bypassed by buying the SIM from a street vendor who will add a few dollars to the price. Technically, in China you are signing up for a year of service. But all of the official phone stores have a way of bypassing that, whether it is putting the account into another name or some other technique.

You do need to do a little preparation in advance to maximize the simplicity when you get to your Asian destination. Know which carriers support your phone. China Unicom is a better choice than China Mobile in China because you probably use a GSM phone. In Thailand you will find that AIS is a good choice while DTAC uses CDMA and probably is not compatible with your phone. If you are not entirely lazy, or you are willing to use the experience of getting a SIM card as part of your cultural experiences, you will be fine.

By the way, I travel with a SIM card punch. I love my iPhone but it uses micro-SIMs. If you travel with a punch you can insert a standard SIM and punch it down to the smaller size. Not every phone store has a punch, although perhaps the majority of them do.

Americans have a somewhat unique problem when traveling abroad. Our carrier-provided cell phones tend to be locked. If you have an AT&T iPhone it is locked to only AT&T. You can’t use it overseas. One option is to go to eBay and buy an unlocked candy-bar phone for about $35.

If you are an iPhone 4s user on Verizon you are very much in luck. Verizon is the friendliest of the US carriers when it comes to international travel. If you have been a customer for 60 days they will unlock your iPhone 4s. This means that you can use it throughout the world by inserting a local SIM card. And, Verizon does it easily and with a smile. For me, this is a compelling reason to be a Verizon customer in the first place. (There are many reasons to be a Verizon customer, actually, including that you will probably have fewer dropped calls within the US as well.)

If you are a frequent traveler to the same countries you will probably want to keep your number. So you will need to learn about expiratipon dates and how to keep your service active. In Thailand you can buy prepaid “top-up” cards. Recharge your account and you extend your expiration date. The necessary amount varies from 50-Baht (us$1.50) to 2400 Baht ($75) but you get this as a credit towards usage and you get a year of service. In Hong Kong you usually have to top-up every 6 months, but you can do it over the internet for China Mobile.

So how do you receive phone calls while in Asia? The simple answer is to sign up for a VOIP service such as and get a local US number from them ($1.50 a month) and forward it to your asia phone number (about 2~5 cents a minute.) You can redirect where your US number forwards via a web browser interface.


If there is any great lesson from all of this it is that getting phone service in the rest of the world isn’t like doing it in the US. It is easy and cheap. We are pre-conditioned to think that you have to sign a 2-year contract. That is now how most of the world works.

Enjoy your travels. And, you will enjoy one more thing: I have yet to ever experience a dropped phone call in Asia. I guess the experience of dropped phone calls is also a part of the American experience.