How to use your cellular-enabled iPad on overseas trips

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I travel a lot and find it really convenient to be able to use my iPad to access internet content anywhere, even when I’m not near a wifi hotspot. Sure, I have my iPhone with me, but lots of content is just better on the iPad: reading foreign newspapers, downloading Kindle books for train or plane time-killing, using maps in the car to find your way to a cool tourist attraction… you get the idea. You could sign up for a US provider’s data roaming plan, but the prices are no less than robbery (e.g., $30 for 150mb of data from a provider who shall remain nameless). By comparison, I bought 2GB of data on my latest trip to England for £10 (about $15). Luckily for us, iPads come unlocked from the factory, unlike iPhones from some providers. And once you know the process, getting online overseas is cheap and easy. (The following instructions will work on your unlocked iPhone as well.)

Prepaid data explained: in most parts of the world, people pay for cellular data up front, and when they use up what they bought, they just buy more. No contracts, no paid-for unused data wasted at the end of the month, and no exorbitant overage charges.

Removing your US SIM card: See the photos below for the SIM card holder on your iPad. Unfold a paperclip and poke it into the little hole, press *hard* and the SIM tray pops out. Put your US SIM someplace safe and you’re ready for your foreign SIM.

IMG_2216IMG_2217How to buy a SIM overseas: The easiest way to buy a foreign SIM and have the seller pre-load it with data is to go to a carrier’s storefront. In Europe these are places with names like Vodaphone, Orange, Mobistar, etc. If I’m traveling for work I usually ask a colleague which carrier has the best coverage/price combination. If I’m traveling for pleasure, cab drivers always have an opinion on the best carrier. At the carrier’s shop, you simply ask for a pre-paid SIM for your iPad (take the iPad with you), and tell them how much data you want. In my experience 1gb/week is plenty but I save big downloads like movies when on wifi back at my hotrel, and of course YMMV. The nice thing about buying a SIM in the carrier’s shop is that they will usually install the SIM for you and check that it’s working: if it’s not working they’ll help fix it.

Sometimes in small towns carriers don’t have their own shops, or you may want or need a SIM during off-hours when carrier shops aren’t open. If so, the second way to buy a SIM is through a local retailer like a convenience store. For example, when I was last in Switzerland I bought a SIM at the hotel gift shop. This involves a couple more steps, but is still not hard. You need to be sure you’re buying the correctly sized SIM for your iPad: iPad versions 1–3 take a micro SIM. All iPads after that, and all iPad Minis take a nano SIM. Make sure you get the right size: some shops will cut a larger SIM down for you and this works fine. Or you could carry a SIM cutter like I do ($6.99 on Amazon). You just put the SIM in the tray (it only fits one way so you can’t get it wrong) and slide the SIM tray back in the iPad until it’s flush. Once the SIM is installed you call the carrier on a telephone, tell them the phone number of the SIM which can be found on the SIM package you bought, and use your credit card to add data.

With a local SIM and data loaded up, you’re good to go. You may even be able to us the same SIM when changing countries, but this varies widely. To try it, turn on “data roaming” when using a foreign SIM, but also be sure to turn it off when you re-install your US SIM to avoid huge roaming charges. For example, my UK SIM worked great in Amsterdam, but my Swiss SIM didn’t.

Marc Luoma

I'm an iPad, and iPhone enthusiast, Mac user since '84, world traveler, dog and cat lover, living in Kigali Rwanda for a year.

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