Overall, Airalo eSIMs have relieved so many headaches for travelers and are finally cashing in on the promise of eSIM technology.
|No physical SIM card needed||Data only, no phone number provided – aka, you still need to have a phone number|
|Pretty cheap data options locally||Need to have a phone that supports eSIMs; some phones only allow for a couple|
|Regional data options that cover multiple countries (Europe, Asia)||Data does expire after a certain period of time, depending on how much you purchased|
|Good coverage and reliability – uses local networks in each country|
We’ll get into the Airalo review, but first come on this journey with me. Before the time of eSIMs, there were really two options for travelers:
- Get a local SIM card
- Pay for your phone plan’s exorbitant roaming fees
For most, the first option has historically been the best; the roaming fees on U.S. providers (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) were just way too costly to be an option.
The only problem with getting a local SIM card was, well, getting the local SIM card. From the time when the plane lands and you find a SIM card, you are virtually data-less. Sometimes you could find them at the airport, sometimes you’d need to find an actual office in town. Then there were weird stipulations about each local SIM that you might not know or think about unless you’re a local. For example, once I accidentally purchased a SIM card in Denmark that required an actual address – that was about $50 down the drain.
And then what if you were traveling to multiple countries? Do you need to get a new SIM card each time? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Then came Google Fi – the seemingly PERFECT phone service for every traveler. Easy to use and set up, unlimited international data pretty much all over the world. Then Google decided to shoot itself in the foot and require you to use Google Fi “predominantly in the U.S.” – if you go longer than 90 days abroad, you have to be back in the U.S. for 30 days to “reset” your abroad roaming clock. Lame Google, very lame. So if you’re a digital nomad, you’re basically screwed by Google Fi. But it’s still an acceptable option if you are an occasional traveler.
So what is one to do? Enter Airalo.
What is Airalo?
Over the last couple of years, eSIM technology has become more prevalent. This allows phones to connect to a cellular network without a physical SIM card.
When the iPhone XS first came out with eSIM technology it, this seemed like an absolute boon for travelers – no more swapping SIM cards, no more struggling for data, and no more tethering to a single provider. Unfortunately, the adoption of eSIMs was relatively slow at first. But finally, companies like Airalo have brought eSIM tech to the masses.
Airalo is an eSIM store that lets travelers buy regional and local eSIM cards. That’s pretty much it. Though it sounds simple, this has solved so many damn headaches dealing with crappy phone providers and even worse data.
Airalo offers eSIM data plans worldwide – you can buy local eSIMs specific to your country or even regional ones that cover multiple countries – Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
How do you set up Airalo?
The process is pretty straightforward. Download the Airalo app from the Apple or Android app stores, make an account, search for a local/regional plan that works for you, and follow the instructions.
You can purchase the eSIM before your trip and wait to activate it until you reach your destination. Once activated, you can install the eSIM on your phone, and you’re good to go.
If you get through all your data, you can easily top up your Airalo eSIM with more data without activating another eSIM.
Things to know about Airalo
There are a few things to know about Airalo, and eSIMs more broadly, that could be a headache.
First and perhaps the biggest, not all phones are compatible with eSIMs – make sure you have a phone that supports eSIM technology. If you’re an iPhone user, anything newer than the iPhone XS and using iOS 12.1 or later. On top of that, and perhaps most annoyingly of all, not all phones allow for unlimited eSIMs to be installed and activated. For example, on the iPhone 13 & 14, you can have multiple eSIMs installed but only two active at any given time. On previous versions, such as the iPhone XS, you can only have one eSIM activated at any time. So be sure to check your phone’s full compatibility with eSIMs. For more information on iPhones, check here.
Second, Airalo – and many other eSIM providers – are data-only SIM cards, meaning you DO NOT get a phone number. You need to have your own phone number from an existing carrier installed on your phone. There are ways to get around this:
- Keep a U.S. phone plan that gives you a phone number. You can keep this at the cheapest possible plan and just turn off data usage. For example, Google Fi is just $20/month without data usage. Be aware that you’ll still be charged for international phone calls/texts.
- Sign up for a Google Voice account and get/transfer a phone number to your account. The downside is that Google Voice is VOIP, and not all apps, like WhatsApp or some two-factor authentication services, work with VOIP providers.
These might not be too big of an issue if you only travel for a few weeks at a time and keep a home phone plan anyway. But if you’re a digital nomad, it’s worth thinking about your options. Personally, it hasn’t been too much of an issue for me – between iMessage and Whatsapp/Signal/Telegram, there aren’t too many times I’ve needed an actual phone number. And when I have, I bite the bullet on a couple of cents each text might cost.
Third, check and make sure your countries are supported if you’re buying a regional plan. This is usually not an issue, but there are some instances where some countries you might assume included in a regional plan are specifically not. For example, Airalo’s Europe regional plan doesn’t include Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it does include neighboring countries like Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro. This is a specific scenario, but just something to consider when buying a regional plan.
Is Airalo Reliable?
What does having data matter if it’s completely unreliable? I haven’t done any empirical testing of this, so this section of the Airalo review might be a little subjective, so bear with me.
At the time of writing this, I have been using Airalo in the following countries:
So far, I have absolutely zero complaints about the service and reliability of my data. Sure, there will be intermittent drops driving through valleys, mountains, or just random spots here and there – but those are pretty few and far between. Even better, I’ve had 5G pretty much the entire time, which I wouldn’t get with my Google Fi plan (at least for iPhone 12s yet – lame Google, very lame).
For more anecdotal proof, I’ve been traveling with friends using Google Fi, and my data connectivity has been much more consistent than theirs over the past five weeks. In places where they’ve had no service, I’ve had LTE or 5G. Again this is anecdotal, but those situations have been noticeably frequent.
Airalo isn’t the only eSIM marketplace out there. Two others that offer similar features to Airalo are Nomad and Holafly – and I’m sure there are others. I haven’t used Holafly or Nomad quite yet, so I can’t provide insight into how they stack up to Airalo. From a price perspective, they seemed similar enough, so you’ll be splitting hairs.
The one thing that pushed me away from Nomad is that after looking into them, they use Truphone as their provider:
Truphone is another GSMA which you can also buy eSIMs from, but I’ve read some not-so-great reviews about their reliability. So I ultimately went with Airalo because they use local carriers directly (at least that’s what they say).
I’ll test out both of these eventually.
Another great option is to check esimdb.com to compare many different eSIM providers. Nothing wrong with shopping around.
I can’t recommend Airalo eSIMs enough. After getting burned by Google Fi, I looked for other options that could provide me with cheap and reliable data abroad. Overall, Airalo has relieved so many headaches for travelers and is finally cashing in on the promise of eSIM technology.
So if you’re a:
- Digital nomad looking for an easy, reliable, and relatively cheap data option or;
- a frequent traveler looking to avoid high data roaming fees
Airalo is amazing. Just keep in mind some of the restrictions about phone numbers and eSIMs to make sure it’ll work for your situation. And be sure to shop around for other eSIM data options that might be cheaper where you’re going.
January 29, 2023: A few months after using Airalo, I started noticing strange behaviors on my phone. Most notably, I could no longer access TikTok, and whenever I would add a new WhatsApp contact, the country code defaulted to Hong Kong. Curious. This only started happening after MONTHS of usage, and oddly only once I got to Albania. After digging into it, other users have reported similar issues. Turns out Airalo might route data through Hong Kong and Israel servers. This is a little concerning for two reasons:
- They market themselves as local and regional eSIMs.
- Potential latency issues. I haven't noticed much latency on my end, but your experience may be different.
I reached out to Airalo for more information.