UK SIM cards
Most mobile providers in the UK now allow roaming abroad across most EU countries at no extra cost. For the past two years we have been using Three, who allow you to use up to 9GB of data for Pay As You Go customers and 12GB for those on contract on their Feel At Home plan, as well as all your usual voice calls and SMS text messages. However, compared to using a local SIM card, their services are pretty slow with poor 3G coverage, and often no signal in many more remote areas. Another big annoyance is that you are limited to 90 days abroad, and you may not use more than 9GB of data within a 30 day period, even if you top up again- you will have to wait until your previous top up date. On top of this, they do not allow Tethering, known as Personal Hotspot on iPhone, so you can kiss goodbye to connecting your laptop straight to your phone.
Recently other companies such as Virgin and Vodafone have started offering competitive deals for using your phone abroad; you can compare these on Money Saving Expert or by visiting the company’s websites yourself to find the best deal to suit you. Just be aware that many networks have data limits, or time limits, so if you’re planning a long trip abroad this may be an issue.
Our long term solution was simply to buy a big stack of SIM cards before we left the UK and keep switching them over every 90 days when they reached their Feel At Home data limit, but we were limited to a costly Pay As You Go plan, receiving just 9GB of data for £20 which we would end up using roughly every 3 weeks. Once we left the EU we were forced to seek out local network providers as while Three cover around 71 destinations worldwide, this does not cover certain countries in Europe such as Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Which brings us onto our next point…
One of the coolest parts of vanlife is driving way out into the wilderness, pitching up camp for a few days or weeks, living off your own supplies and building campfires at night under the stars, totally disconnected from the outside world. But the rest of the time you’re probably going to need to stay connected while you’re on the road, so here’s an article explaining some of the different options we use for staying connected with mobile data. Because parking your office up in a forest or on the beach is way cooler than sitting in an Internet cafe, right?
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No phone signal all the way out here... Almeria, Spain.
Prepaid Data SIM cards
When travelling through different countries it can work out much much cheaper to purchase a local data SIM card than using one from the UK. Some countries such as Romania, Montenegro and Albania have excellent deals on internet data, some of the best in Europe, and you’ll find you have much better coverage and faster signal overall.
Here are some examples of SIM card deals we got in these countries at the time of writing (19/02/18):
Romania: In Romania we were able to get 4GB of 4G data for 25 Lei (€5), and once we activated the SIM card they gave us an additional 10GB for free! Romania also boasts the fastest 3G/4G signal and wifi in the whole of Europe, and coverage across 97% of the country.
Albania: Telekom Albania were offering their Electronic Beats package for 1100 Lek (€8.30) which came with 10GB of Social Data (for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram etc) and 5GB of Internet Data (for Youtube, Google, Skype etc) for 30 days. We found we had more than enough Social Data but ran out of Internet data quite quickly, so we were then able to top that data up at a rate of 500 Lek (€3.77) for 4GB. Read the full guide on topping up in Albania over on our Country Guides page.
Montenegro: Possibly the best deal we found yet. Crnogorski Telekom were offering unlimited 4G data up to 200GB for €9.99 for 10 days, with a free SIM card. See our Montenegro Country Guide.
To get an idea of which network best suits your need and what kind of deals you can expect we recommend using a brilliant website called Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki. These people have spent a long time compiling all the different mobile phone networks in countries all across the world and the deals they offer. It’s not 100% accurate as mobile phone providers are constantly bringing out new deals and changing their rates, but it will give you a good idea of what to expect.
It is worth noting that purchasing a prepaid data SIM card is not possible in certain countries such as France, who will require you to have a French address and bank account.
Montenegro had some of the best SIM card deals we found... Perfect for posting
photos of the beautiful Kotor Bay!
4GEE Mobile Wifi Device
Before we left for our second trip we invested in a new mobile wifi device, as our old Huawei device was a little bit battered and broken. We went for an EE Buzzard 2 and it has made a dramatic improvement to our online work life. It plugs into the cigarette lighter in your van so there’s no need for cables, it takes a Micro SIM but you can insert your Nano SIM with an adapter, it’s 4G enabled and best of all, although they don’t actually claim this on their website, it seems to have a built in signal booster, as we find that it gives us better connection than using the same SIM card in the same area on our phones.
It can be hard staying connected on the road, especially way out in the mountains!
Now it’s time to get a bit technical. To use your Wifi device you will need to input a different APN address, username and password that matches the one of the network you are using. But don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds. There’s this handy little website called APN Settings which will tell you the settings you need for the particular network you’re on, including the different APN addresses for both 3G and 4G in some cases.
To set up your Wifi device with a new network you’ll need to perform the following steps:
1) Insert the SIM card into your Wifi device, turn it on and connect your computer to the network (or your phone, but you’ll find it easier on a computer).
2) Open your internet browser and type into your address bar (if it doesn’t come up automatically): http://192.168.1.1/html/home.html. This is the standard IP address for all mobile Wifi routers.
3) Log in and go into Device Settings. If this is your first time using the device you will need to log in using the username and password that came on a little slip of paper in the device box. If your device did not come with one then trying logging in with the Username: admin and Password: admin.
4) You will need to unlock the SIM card with the PIN number provided (often there will be a little SIM card icon in the top right corner of the page letting you know you need to do this) before you can proceed. The PIN number will have come in your SIM card package from the shop, but you can also try the default PIN code: 0000.
5) In Quick Setup, create a New Profile. Now input the relevant settings from the APN Settings website for your network. Most often you will only need to input the APN while leaving the other fields blank or filling them in with whatever username and password you like.
It should read something like:
Profile name: Telekom2 (default)
6) Restart the device. With the EE Buzzard the power light should turn green after a few seconds which means you are connected. Happy surfing!
Nothing beats working with that view outside your door.
So that’s just about everything covered when it comes to the wonderful world of using your mobile data abroad. We hope that this guide is useful to you, and feel free to share any other tips and tricks you may have in the comments.