Roaming on cellular data overseas can be a painful – and costly – experience, as many people have experienced. Most people having been burnt by bill shock – it’s so bad it even has its own well-known name – have found alternatives, like using free WiFI or buying local SIM cards.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Free WiFi is, well, free. But it is hardly secure and can be easily be used to siphon off your passwords and other personal details. Buying a SIM is just technical enough to make it too complicated for most people – although travelling with a portable wireless hotspot (known as a MiFi) is the best alternative. You buy a SIM card, pop it into the MiFi, and tether your phone to it using WiFi. You still have your home SIM card but use your phone’s WiFi for connectivity. I’ve been doing it for years. It isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy, but it’s significantly cheaper than roaming.
Earlier this year, I used another option and one that is bound to make waves when it becomes broadly available. Many companies offer a universal SIM card for travelling, that has very cheap per Gigabyte (GB) rates or unlimited all-day rates. Some come in a MiFi. They are obviously easier but always more expensive than the DIY route with a MiFi.
But a new upgrade to the SIM card means life can even simpler. Called an electronic SIM or eSIM, it is a way of linking your phone, using software, to a SIM (usually in a server rack at the service provider). The new iPhone Xs, which I am using, has an eSIM built in.
Earlier this year I flew to Spain for the annual MWC Barcelona conference, where I tested an eSIM from KnowRoaming, a clever company started by South African Gregory Gundelfinger (you’ll have heard of his famous father Billy).
Instead of a MiFi, you simply scan a QR code and activate the eSim on the phone. Instead of having to charge two devices and make sure the MiFi doesn’t burn a hole in whatever pouch or pocket it’s in (because it generates significant heat), you use your primary device.
Instead of schlepping with data when you’re overseas, you can easily use your primary device. By keeping your home SIM card in, you can get SMSes, keep your messaging apps connected (they are linked to your mobile number) and instantly make calls when you have to.
KnowRoaming offers an unlimited package of $3.99 a day (R56) in most countries and $5,99 (R84) in the United States. Ironic, no? It currently works on the iPhone Xr/Xs and Google Pixel 3 – but expect it to expand and this new eSim functionality reached critical point. It’s a whole new ballgame for mobile networks.
South African network operators have fiercely resisted the dual-SIM models that major manufacturers, including Samsung and Huawei, offer. If you want to buy a handset, then you have to do it directly and never through the network.
Dual-SIM phones offer the potential for using data from another network, but eSIM phone even more so. No network is going to refuse to sell the latest iPhone even if it comes with a Trojan Horse through the eSim.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail