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It’s widely accepted that using mobile data abroad is a recipe for bankruptcy. There are far, far too many articles on The Daily Mail and The Telegraph of hapless tourists who decided to stream some TV, or download a Neil Diamond album (choice quote: “I’m really not that big a Neil Diamond fan”), only to be stung with a multi-thousand dollar bill.
As a frequent traveler who visited 11 countries last year, I’m in favor of anything that makes it affordable to use the Internet abroad. I should be excited about the WhatSim. But I’m not. In fact, I’m downright cynical, and you should be too. Here’s why.
What’s A WhatSim?
WhatSim is a SIM card available to purchase online for €10, plus €5 shipping. But it’s not like any other SIM card. It allows the user to use Facebook-owned IM service WhatsApp in any country, without limit, for a year.
It’s available in nano, micro, and standard SIM sizes, and WhatSim even promises to refund the $1 fee you pay to use WhatsApp starting from your second year on the service. What could possibly go wrong?
… Terms And Conditions May Apply
When WhatSim talk about “unlimited Whatsapp”, they’re not talking about the full functionality of the app. They’re not talking about unlimited voice messages, and photos. Nor are they talking about videos. They’re talking about text messages.
If you want to share your holiday snaps with your friends, you’d better be prepared to cough up.
In addition to the €10 you pay for your sim, you are also expected to buy “credits” in order to send non-text messages. €5 gets you 1,000 credits, whilst €50 gets you 10,000 credits.
Media messages are charged dependent upon the location you’re in, and by the size of the message sent. A photo in the United States will only cost you 20 credits (€0.10), but the same picture in Barbados will cost you 200 credits (€1.00). A video in Slovakia will cost you 100 credits (€0.50), but the same video in Argentina will cost you 800 credits (€4).
Four Euros for a vine-length video. Hardly affordable, is it? Frustratingly, media messages aren’t listed with a currency value on their pricing page, making it slightly opaque how much everything costs.
Surely there’s a better way.
Are There Any Cheaper Alternatives?
Absolutely. If you live in the EU, you’ll be glad to hear Brussels is gunning for the phone companies, and will soon make intra-European roaming a thing of the past. They’ve already massively slashed prices within the 28 nation block. You can read my coverage on it here.
But what if you’re traveling outside of the European Union?
Well, even there, it’s almost always cheaper to just buy a local SIM card.
Take Argentina, for example. With Argentine network Personal, you can get a SIM card with 5000 messages and unlimited data, valid for 5 days. Total cost? $22.90 Argentine Pesos. That’s about €2.30. Sending just one vine length video with WhatSim costs €4.00.
Looking at the United Kingdom, we can see Asda Mobile has offers 100 minutes, 2000 texts and 100mb of data for only £5. At current exchange rates, that’s close to €6.60. With those 100mb, we could send about 2000 images at 50 kilobytes each. For the same price with with WhatSim, we’re looking at closer to 130 images.
Planing a trip to Abu Dhabi? A gig of data with local provider Etisalat will cost you about €22. With that, you could send around 20,000 pictures at 50 kilobytes each. But at €0.75 a picture with WhatSim, €22 will only get you around 29 pictures.
It just doesn’t compare, does it?
Of course, WhatSim isn’t the first company to take a flat-fee approach to mobile usage.
Last year, crowdfunded mobile network Ovivo hit the UK. Their offering was pretty simple. Pay a flat fee, once. In return, you’ll get a certain amount of minutes, messages and megabytes of data. For free, and for life.
Predictably, this wasn’t sustainable, and Ovivo folded amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Punters who had forked out for a SIM ended up out of pocket, and unable to transfer their phone number to a different phone network.
Also last year, UK community driven MVNO Giffgaff eliminated their (competitively priced) unlimited data packages. The reason? A small section of heavy users made it economically unviable for them to offer all-you-can-eat data.
The lesson? If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
And yes, I can’t predict the future. But I can look to the past, and I can see Ovivo shutting shop as a result of their ludicrously short-sighted business model. And I can see Giffgaff re-evaluating their pricing after it became apparent their service wasn’t sustainable. From that, I can see WhatSim either folding (after all, roaming is very expensive), or having to change their pricing to a less attractive one, as a result of a handful of heavy users. Or, they’ll just keep on charging ridiculously high fees to send pictures, videos and voice messages.
Just Get A Prepaid Sim
If you travel to a lot of countries and you only really want to send text messages, then maybe, just maybe WhatSim is worth getting. But everyone else will find they’ll get a better deal by purchasing a local SIM card when their plane touches down.
Have you got a strategy for using mobile data abroad? Let me know.