Are travel eSIMs like Airalo any good?

Insofar as I can tell, yes–it's a really good option to have.

by Justin Choo

I’ve not travelled in a while, so when a trip came up, I started to explore the use of travel eSIMs. eSIM is basically a digital SIM card, and is a feature that’s mostly found on high-end phones and some midrange phones like budget Pixels and iPhones.

At the same time, Airalo had also approached us to be an affiliate partner, so the timing was perfect. I’ve yet to use eSIMs in any meaningful way, so this was a good opportunity to get up to speed; if the service is good then it makes sense to join the program (this is not a sponsored review, by the way).

Addressing a first-world problem

It felt like only yesterday (honestly, a long time) but most smokers I’ve travelled with will make a beeline to the nearest spot for a cigarette the moment the airliner tyres hit the tarmac. How times have changed–these days, the same people will pull out their phones to check messages and social media updates. The internet connection has long displaced smoking in the unofficial traveller’s hierarchy of needs.

But of course, this is only possible if you’re connected to the local network the moment you land. Of course, there are less frivolous reasons for doing so, like being able to contact your pickup, for one.

Otherwise, you’ll have to wait till you’re done with customs before you can purchase a local SIM card. It’s not exactly the ideal situation, because you need time to work out which deals are best for you, fill out forms and verify your identity, and at the end of that, wait a couple of minutes (hopefully) for the network to activate. That’s fine if you’re not in a hurry, but then again I don’t know of anyone who would want to spend more time at the airport than they need to.

And that’s also based on the assumption that you’re not landing at a godforsaken hour when the shops are all closed.

The good thing is as it stands, there is no shortage of convenient options should you want to be up and ready the moment you land. We have roaming packages and ‘data passports’ offered by our local telcos, and even Changi Recommends provides data services.

The downside? They’re not exactly the cheapest options. But convenience comes at a price, doesn’t it? That sounds perfectly fair. Otherwise, you need to tie yourself down, metaphorically speaking, of course. The closest thing to buying a local SIM at the airport is M1’s Data Passport. For $12, you can use your local data bundle overseas for a month, which is a pretty good thing especially if you always come nowhere close to expending your data in the first place. The catch, of course, is that you have to be an M1 user.

Another interesting option comes in the form of Circles.Life’s JetPac. While you don’t need a Circles.Life line, but it is effectively a subscription service. Its Pro Pac plan costs $25 for 25GB for the first month of use before reverting to 5GB, but its true benefit comes from long-term use as well as the utilisation of its fringe benefits–rolling over unused data, hotel credits and flight delay benefits.

Airalo, the in-betweener

So if you’ve ever wondered–like I did–what the point of eSIMs was then perhaps this is one prime example of its benefits. The way I see it, Airalo feels more like an eSIM shopper that allows you to buy local data eSIMs from the comfort of your own home. With the Airalo app, you can potentially save a lot on ‘roaming’ because it’s priced closer to data SIMs than it is to regular roaming plans.

Airalo has a decent range of data packs.

Airalo’s coverage seems pretty comprehensive with over 200 countries and regions accounted for, though mostly it covers only data rather than voice calls, with a few exceptions like Thailand.

As I was travelling to Bangkok, I had two options: 15GB for 8 days (USD9.90) or 30GB for 15 days (USD19.90). In this instance, it’s effectively unlimited data (throttled to 384kbps once you hit the cap), and you get a local line with 15baht call credit. It’s one of the better-priced plans available because prices on average start from USD5 for 1GB for seven days, and often data-only.

How hard can it be

Going by the lengths they went to provide detailed instructions on how to install an eSIM, I would have thought that it was a rather finicky task. Airalo even makes it a point to include a shortcut for you to take a screencap of the instructions.

After a quick search of negative reviews about the service and I realised it’s plausible that improper setup was the main cause of the many online complaints, so it’s all the more important that you follow the instructions carefully; at least for the first time.

The installation process turned out to be rather straightforward.

And yet–as much as I’m ashamed to say it–I practically YOLOed it and recklessly motored my way through. Do as I say, not as I do, eh? I bought two eSIMs and installed them on an iPhone 14 Pro and a Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and it seemed straightforward enough in both instances. You do have to be patient while waiting for the installation to complete though, as it might take uncomfortably long.

Once it was set up, the only thing left to do was to make the travel eSIM the priority service so that you’re using the right source for data, which I chose to do after I landed. The moment I landed in Bangkok, it connected to the network promptly and I was already b****ing about a fellow passenger even before I left the plane. Ah, technology.

Your mileage may vary depending on the country you’re heading to; specifically the service provider in question, but I can only speak for myself as I say that the service provided in Bangkok (DTAC) worked perfectly. It’s also a 5G network–which is the exception rather than the norm–and I did not experience any issues throughout the trip. Airalo does offer top-up packages, though this is not an option for Thailand.

Advantages and limitations

Perhaps one limitation of using an eSIM data service is that you cannot transfer the service to another phone, not that I see that there is a pressing need to do so, but it’s a reminder that you should not remove the eSIM signature from your phone until you’re done with it. Airalo does make it a point to remind users of this.

What’s great, on the other hand, is that you can store multiple eSIMs on the phone and switch between them. So you have the flexibility to buy multiple eSIMs if you have multiple stops or pick up their Regional and Global eSIMs for a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s in theory; you’ll need to find out how your phone handles eSIMs, just to ensure that you won’t be caught out by technical limitations.

Reasonably priced, but more importantly, you can set it up easily before arrival.

But aside from the convenience and ease of mind of ensuring that you are constantly connected to the internet all the way through, the most compelling reason to go with a service like Airalo arguably would be the price; it competes quite well against options from local telcos and MVNOs. Airalo does have one other advantage in this regard–you don’t have to be subscribed to a particular telco to enjoy the pricing benefits.

Short of a local number, it’s pretty much like getting a SIM card at the airport after you clear customs, but the difference is that you get it sorted out from the comfort of your own home, or on the way to the airport.

Final thoughts

As with all telecommunication services, there’s always a chance that the service may be spotty (even here in Singapore) so perhaps I have been lucky to some extent that it was smooth sailing. But my user experience has been rather good–it’s rather polished, and I don’t mind that there’s a chance that it’s not the cheapest option available. I’m quite certain that you can always find cheaper options if you look hard enough. For example, I was looking at options for Vietnam and Gigago springs to mind as an exceptionally good deal–and almost too good to be true–but that also means I need to spend time checking out their credibility. Not a good time to roll the dice if I’m on a work trip.

Given its online reputation, convenience and ease of use, Airalo is at worst, cheap insurance so that you will never get caught out without data at the worst possible time. And at best, it’s a fuss-free way to get reasonably-priced data for overseas travel at your fingertips, or it can be a backup service so that you can find a more suitable SIM plan at your travel destination. Perhaps in future, I will consider a travel eSIM safari, but for now, I think I’m quite happy with what Airalo has to offer.

Disclosure: as we were satisfied with the Airalo experience, we joined the affiliate program, meaning we receive a small commission for sales generated from links here. Also if you need a referral code, use POTION9490 to get USD3 off.

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