Staying connected overseas can be confusing as heck, especially when those weird ‘roaming data’ messages start popping up on your screen once your plane touches down on international soil.
What’s the best way to stay connected in another country? Is an eSIM cheaper than carrier roaming data, or is it just easier to waltz up to the counter at our mobile kiosk and let them sort it out for us?
Well, we created a fake vacation to investigate whether an eSIM is cheaper than a carrier roaming data plan, and we think you’ll find the results interesting!
First up, let’s explore how each type of data is charged …
How are prepaid eSIM packages charged?
With an eSIM data package, you’ll pay upfront for a specific amount of data to use over a certain number of days (usually seven days or 30 days). If you don’t use any data one day, your remaining data doesn’t budge.
You’ve pre-paid for a certain amount of data, and it’s yours to use as you please. The fact that it’s a prepaid data package means there are never any surprises or unexpected fees! You will NOT pay roaming charges, even though ‘Data Roaming’ will be switched on for your eSIM to keep you connected on international networks.
How are carrier roaming data plans charged?
Carrier data packages are usually charged on a per-day basis. The daily rate is usually pretty high, though, because they know their customer might spend the entire day moving around, connecting to different networks.
Whether you use your data for two seconds or two hours on a given day, you’ll still pay that same daily rate. And you’re not purchasing data — you’re paying for the ability to use your regular monthly data plan. So if you have a small plan to begin with at home, that’s what you’ll be using on your trip … and if you go over, it’ll cost you a bundle in roaming charges.
How much does eSIM data cost?
An eSIM data package can cost as little as $4.50 for a week’s worth of data. The cost of eSIM data depends on how expensive data is in a particular country or region, as certain parts of the world have much higher rates to stay connected.
For a one-week trip to France, for example, I’d pay $5 for 1 GB of eSIM data.
If I needed more data, I could easily top up my eSIM. But if I decided 1 GB was plenty, my total cost would be five bucks for the full week. No surprises, no additional charges.
How much does carrier roaming data cost?
Rates vary between carriers, but I reached out to my own mobile carrier and pretended I was traveling from Canada to Paris, France. I told them I’d definitely want data on my phone during my (imaginary) vacation, and I wanted to know what it would cost.
Now, carriers LOVE when their customers ask about an upcoming trip because it means (A) they get to up-sell me on something I don’t currently pay for, and (B) by telling me the price now, they’re lowering the risk I’m going to storm in and bark at them when I see a very high mobile bill after my vacation.
My carrier told me they could certainly set me up with a carrier roaming data plan, and that the pricing breakdown was “very easy.”
The verdict? My carrier told me I could pay $15 per day to roam with the data from my regular plan. For seven days, that’s $105.
Now, I already pay about a monthly bill of about $50 for my phone package, so this seemed extreme. Whether I’m using my phone or not touching my phone at all, that $50 is automatically deducted from my bank account each month.
So if I were to spend just one week in another country, using my carrier’s $15/day travel data plan, I’d pay an additional $105 on my next mobile bill. One hundred and five dollars for ONE WEEK of travel data!
The sneaky secret behind carrier roaming data
Just when I thought $105 was bad enough … I read the fine print.
I’d be paying $15/day to use my existing carrier roaming plan. But if I were to go OVER my plan’s data limit, I would be charged the pay-per-use rate for any additional data.
With my carrier, that would be $5 for every MB of extra data I used, above and beyond my regular data plan. Now, a megabyte is TINY! There are 1,024 MB (megabytes) in a single GB (gigabyte). Five dollars x 1,024 megabytes = $5,120, but most carriers will cap data roaming fees at $100 per billing cycle.
So if I went the route of a carrier roaming data plan, I could potentially pay $205 to use my phone internationally for a single week.
What about phone calls and texts?
Now that we have the pricing for two different methods of getting mobile data (eSIM vs. carrier roaming data travel plans), let’s explore what that means for calling and texting.
Carrier roaming data plan ($105 for one week)
Phone calls: Included with my roaming package for France
Texts: Included with my roaming package for France
eSIM data package ($5 for one week)
Phone calls: $2 per minute on my regular number (or free using FaceTime/Messenger/Hushed)
Texts: 75 cents per text on my regular number (or free using iMessage/Messenger/Hushed)
Even if I decline a carrier travel data package for France ($105 for the week), my carrier will still give me the option to call and text using my regular phone number. BUT they’ll charge extra for this service, as I use it, since it’s long-distance.
This is a nice feature, because it means I’ll be reachable overseas in an emergency since my friends and family know my phone number. And since I’ll only be charged for phone calls I make or accept, I won’t mind paying $2 per minute if I really need to answer something important. If not, I can just send a (free) iMessage to the person to see what’s up.
Cost breakdown: prepaid eSIM vs. carrier roaming data
So on my fictional one-week trip to Paris, here’s a quick breakdown of my two options for having data on my phone:
OPTION 1: Prepaid eSIM for France
MY DATA COST (7 days): $5
NOTE TO SELF: Keep Data Roaming ON for my eSIM and OFF for my primary SIM, so my carrier can’t add roaming charges to my next bill. And if I want to answer any phone calls that come in, I’ll pay $2 per minute.
OPTION 2: Carrier roaming data for France
MY DATA COST (7 days): $105+
NOTE TO SELF: Keep Data Roaming ON for my primary SIM so my regular carrier can connect me to a network in France. And keep a close eye on data usage, so I don’t end up paying $105 plus $100 in capped roaming fees.