The ability to turn on your phone and get online the moment your plane touches down in a foreign country is incredibly convenient and reassuring. And thanks to the international roaming service built into many US carrier plans, it’s no longer as expensive as it used to be. But international roaming options from major US carriers typically limit you to slow 2G data speeds and/or charge lofty fees for faster connectivity. If you pop a KnowRoaming Global SIM card ($9.99) into your phone before you land, though, you can get 4G LTE data at a palatable—and sometimes dirt-cheap—price with minimal setup frustrations, making it a worthwhile alternative to carrying a hotspot.
An Affordable Compromise
KnowRoaming’s service is essentially a compromise between the easy but expensive international roaming option (paying your carrier around $10 per day to access the data speeds you’re used to at home) and the cheap but cumbersome local option (visiting a retail store to buy a local SIM card). You’ll have to give up your US phone number for the duration of your international trip, but you get LTE speed as well as and calls and texts at reasonable rates.
The best KnowRoaming service for frequent travelers is the company’s SIM sticker, which you permanently affix to your US carrier’s SIM card. It doesn’t interrupt your normal service when you’re home, which means all you have to do when you land abroad is activate it. Check out our full review of the Editors’ Choice SIM sticker for more on how it works.
The more traditional KnowRoaming SIM card, by contrast, must be used in place of your US SIM card, which means you’ve got to swap cards every time you go on a trip. Fortunately, KnowRoaming makes this process as painless as possible by including a SIM ejector tool as well as spacers for the three main SIM card sizes: nano, micro, and regular. The swap should take less than a minute, which means you can do it after your plane lands so you don’t have to worry about turbulence knocking the tiny card out of your hand.
It’s much easier than applying KnowRoaming’s SIM sticker, which requires watching video tutorials and reading through the manual in order to align it correctly. As a result, it’s a better choice for less frequent travelers who would rather deal with the minor inconvenience of swapping SIM cards on each trip.
Before you install the SIM card, you should download the KnowRoaming Android or iOS app and sign up for an account. This will let you buy a data package and add funds to your account. You won’t actually activate the data package until you land on foreign soil, but you will need the app for the KnowRoaming SIM to work, which means that if you don’t install it before you take off, you’ll have to connect to Wi-Fi to do so.
The process of shopping for a data package is very easy. In addition to buying one directly through the app, you can also sign into your account on the KnowRoaming’s site and buy one there. The app and mobile sites are essentially identical, and navigating your way around is easy.
As easy as browsing for a plan is, though, the selection requires careful thought. As of this writing, KnowRoaming is offering just three unlimited packages: $8.99 for one day, $23.97 for three days, and $55.93 for seven days. All of these packages will work in any of the more than 125 countries in which the company offers service, which should cover pretty much anywhere you want to go on vacation. If you only plan to use your phone for navigation and browsing restaurant and hotel reviews, you might not need unlimited data and can opt for a seven-day plan that includes 1GB for $25. At less than $4 per day, that’s an excellent deal for high-speed data compared with equivalent offerings from US carriers.
The problem is that KnowRoaming frequently changes its data package lineup. For example, in June, the company was offering regional seven-day plans that included 1GB of data for just $10 (for Europe) or $12 (for Asia Pacific). The company also offered even cheaper plans for use only in Russia to coincide with the 2018 World Cup. These plans still show up on parts of the KnowRoaming site, but they’re unavailable to purchase. That’s too bad, because they make far more sense than the global plans for most travelers, who likely won’t be visiting more than one continent on a single trip. If you’re heading to Europe, Asia, or a single country, it might be worth your time to call the company and ask for unadvertised plans you won’t see available for purchase online or in the app.
Using the KnowRoaming SIM
During a recent trip to Germany, I used a seven-day unlimited data Europe plan that KnowRoaming offered PCMag for testing purposes. I activated the plan on a Google Pixel XL as soon as I landed in Berlin, and followed the instructions on the app’s home screen to add a new Access Point Name for KnowRoaming in the Wireless & Networks section of the Android Settings app. It didn’t initially connect, but after I restarted the phone it immediately connected to O2’s LTE network.
During a week of use both in central Berlin and rural parts of Rhineland-Palatinate, my phone alternated between the networks of O2 and Deutsche Telekom. Save for the occasional dead spots (that weren’t KnowRoaming’s fault), the service did indeed offer excellent speeds. I consistently recorded around 10Mbps download speeds throughout Berlin using the Ookla Speedtest app, which is more than enough for both streaming video and making Skype voice calls. It’s also close to the average 16Mbps download speeds that Ookla recorded on the O2 network in Germany. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com’s parent company.)
Average download speeds on Deutsche Telekom are 36MBps as measured by Ookla, though, which suggests that KnowRoaming doesn’t have access to the full capabilities of all mobile networks. If you want the absolute fastest speeds available in the country you’re visiting, you’ll have to do your homework and then buy a SIM card and data plan from the fastest carrier directly.
A few times during my trip, I turned on the Pixel XL’s hotspot feature to share its LTE connection with my laptop. Tethering requires no additional setup beyond turning it on in the Android Settings app, and KnowRoaming doesn’t charge extra for it. This makes KnowRoaming an excellent alternative to renting a hotspot if you need to occasionally connect laptops, tablets, and other devices.
The default process for making calls using KnowRoaming is a bit cumbersome in much of Europe, where incoming and outgoing calls are charged at different rates. In most cases, incoming calls are cheaper. By default, KnowRoaming takes advantage of this by using callbacks: You dial the local number you want to call, and then the service calls you back to connect you with the number you’re trying to reach. You can instead configure your phone to dial directly and pay the higher rate; guides for how to do this on Android and iOS are available at support.knowroaming.com. The app conveniently lists the rates for each call type, as well as how much it costs to call back to the US.
I used VOIP calling via the Vonage app for most of my calls in Germany to take advantage of much lower rates, but during the few times I did call directly, quality was excellent. I also appreciate that every KnowRoaming account includes a free US number to which you can forward calls from your home mobile and landline numbers while you’re abroad. You can also use the app to set up a local number for the country you’re visiting for an additional charge.
A Smart SIM for Savvy Travelers
Global SIM cards like KnowRoaming’s are handy tools for savvy travelers who don’t want to pay their home carrier’s roaming fees or take time out of their vacation or business trip to buy a SIM card at a retail store. The service is easy to set up and offers robust features like tethering, a free US phone number, and multiple SIM card sizes. Frequent travelers will want to opt for the KnowRoaming sticker to avoid swapping cards every time they land in a new country, but the cheaper SIM card is a better option for occasional usage.
As useful and cost-effective as KnowRoaming is, it’s frustrating that the company’s data package selection is relatively opaque. Most travelers won’t visit more than one continent on a single trip, so the absence of consistently available regional or single-country data plans is a significant downside to an otherwise excellent offering.