Mobile Service Abroad

I recently returned from a trip to Asia with the family; we visited Japan, Malaysia, and Taiwan – though the main reason for the travel was my grandfather turning 100! Whereas in the past, traveling meant being disconnected or paying huge roaming fees, this trip was a learning experience in a few different areas. If you’re travelling to one of these three countries, perhaps something we learned will help.


Japan was one of the first countries to see nearly ubiquitous mobile data access, with people regularly using mobile portals from feature phones way back in the late 90s when I spent a good amount of time there on business. Unfortunately, for a long time, it wasn’t possible to use a foreign phone in Japan; phones there used a TDMA system incompatible with GSM (for 2G voice and EDGE data) as well as an entirely separate PHS system designed for urban use. So even if you were prepared to pay through the nose for roaming, it wasn’t possible.  Fortunately, there is 3G support, so if you have a 3G phone (this chart says the 1700MHz and 2100MHz bands are supported), then you can at least roam there.

Unfortunately, you can’t really get a prepaid SIM in-country, unless you’ve got resident status in Japan. You can apparently rent a phone or SIM, but you need to arrange this in advance, and the fees I saw associated with this were relatively high if you’re traveling there casually and don’t seriously need to remain connected.  Since we had just a few days in Japan, it wasn’t worth it so we skipped this altogether.

Sadly, Google Maps doesn’t support offline maps for Japan yet, so in one case we had to rely on caching directions while in hotel Wi-Fi range before heading out.  Free Wi-Fi isn’t that prevalent there either, unfortunately.


Connectivity in Malaysia was a much easier affair; as long as you bring your passport, a litany of stores in almost any major shopping mall (and KL seems to be 50% major shopping mall by area) will sell you a prepaid 3G SIM. Light research ahead of time suggested that Maxis and Celcom were the two recommended operators from a coverage perspective. Celcom doesn’t charge you for the SIM, it just requires that you do an initial top up of RM80 (a little over US$25). While that’s not a lot, we went with Maxis for four foreign phones we brought with us – there’s a initial SIM charge of RM5 ($1.60), but beyond that, you can top-up whenever you like. Local voice calls were about 0.18 sen ($0.06) per minute; per-KB rates for data are huge, but as long as you’ve got the balance, you can get 1GB of data to use within a week for RM12 ($4) – and if your stay is shorter, you can pay just RM2 ($0.65) per day for up to 200MB of mobile data usage! I wound up paying just RM25 (a little over $8) over 8 days – RM5 for the SIM, RM14 for data, with the remaining RM6 being sufficient for a few dozen short calls to stay in touch with fellow travelers.

If you do go with Maxis, their current brand name for their prepaid offering is called “Hotlink”; you just need to pick up one of the packages that, as of our visit, looks like this:

In both of the stores we went to, there were separate lines for Hotlink vs. Maxis’ regular postpaid service, and the Hotlink lines were shorter.  Coverage in KL was better than T-Mobile in the U.S. – though granted, we were right downtown not far from Maxis HQ, so it would be pretty sad if coverage wasn’t good. They’ll happily file things down to micro-SIM proportions if you need it, as we did for a couple of Nexus 4s.

While there, we also signed her up for a data plan on her Nexus 4; I wish we had the option of a RM68 ($22) 5GB plan over here!


Like Malaysia, Taiwan also has a number of operators that will gladly sell you a prepaid GSM SIM card, given the necessary identification. However, reading various message boards, Taiwan Mobile (referred to locally as Da Ge Da, and recognizable via a logo that looks like a colorful dodecahedron) was the recommended choice if you want both voice and data. While the information I found may have been out of date – and my 3 days in country didn’t make it worthwhile to shop around – other operators apparently offer mobile data intended for computers, or voice plans intended for phones, but not both on a single SIM.

We paid just NT500 (roughly US$17) for an introductory package that included 1GB of data (to be used within a month) and NT400 of credit towards voice calls (to be used within 6 months). After the first month or 1GB of use, you had the option of buying additional data in 1GB / 1 month chunks, or switching to a postpaid plan if you wanted unlimited service. At least that’s the gist I got; here, the whole conversation was in Chinese, and my Chinese is… non-existent. Still, we left with a fully functional foreign phone that had a local number plus data service, all for under 20 bucks!


Okay, the USA isn’t a foreign country, but there are a few things you should do before leaving home:

  • If you just want voice access in case of an urgent need, make sure to enable roaming. Even though I’d roamed (for voice) with T-Mobile in the past, they added something over the past year or so that turned international roaming off by default! It was easy enough to go in and turn it on – T-Mobile calls it “WorldClass International Service”, which you can activate for free online – but I didn’t realize that this was why even roaming didn’t work until after arriving in Malaysia.
  • Unlock your phone! Obviously, if your phone is still tied to your local network operator, you won’t be able to stick any old prepaid SIM in it. I had an unlocked Galaxy Nexus, but for Valerie’s myTouch 4G Slide, we needed an unlock code from T-Mobile. Fortunately, though I don’t know whether there’s specific legislation around this, U.S. operators seem to be pretty reasonable about unlocking your phone if you’ve owned it for a while and paid your bills. Still, it can take several days or longer to get the unlock code, so if you’re even thinking about traveling overseas, might as well get it unlocked ahead of time.
  • Use Google Voice. While you can’t forward your Google Voice number to the international number of your prepaid SIM yet (though this would be awesome), you’ll still get voicemail (with transcription) and SMS messages to your Google Voice number while traveling (if you have data service), and it won’t cost you a thing (besides a small amount of data use). And Google Voice is pretty awesome domestically too – being able to call anywhere in the world, at standard mobile voice quality (i.e. no reliance of Wi-Fi or VoIP-on-3G), at the same low rates you’d pay calling from your PC is mind blowing when you realize that you’re paying 1/10th or less what your operator would have charged you for international calling from mobile. However, if you do use Google Voice to make your calls domestically, you’ll have to turn this off while traveling, as it won’t work.

It’s actually pretty stunning when I look at my actual use of mobile voice and data to see how much more I pay here in the U.S. than I would on a prepaid plan in any of the countries I visited; I’m pretty sure I’d be below $25/month or so for combined voice, data, and text (I pay close to triple that now). I can only take solace in the fact that Canada was even more expensive!


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