International roaming is a tricky and expensive thing to handle, but things are getting better.
Whether you fly overseas for business regularly or just a couple times a year, budgeting out how much you'll need to spend to keep your phone connected abroad is never fun. When the editors here at Android Central travel overseas we employ a variety of tactics, from buying roaming packages from U.S. carriers to getting dedicated international hotspots and just buying local SIM cards when we arrive. This year at MWC 2015 I chose to give the KnowRoaming SIM sticker a try.
1. What it's all about
In contrast to the other roaming options out there, KnowRoaming works by putting a small sticker on your current SIM card to enable new roaming options when you travel abroad, without changing how your SIM works at home. The sticker on your SIM "tricks" the SIM into thinking it's something else when you arrive in a new country, and the software on KnowRoaming's side manages the billing and connections. The basic pitch is that you'll pay something closer to local data rates rather than what your home carrier would charge, while also giving you a local number for cheaper calls and texts.
The sticker package itself will set you back $29.99 — currently including $10 in credit — from the KnowRoaming website or Amazon. KnowRoaming's call and text rates vary depending on your country and where the person on the other end is, but you can look to pay around $0.15 per SMS and $0.10 per minute — for example T-Mobile charges $0.20 per minute internationally. Pay-as-you-go data is still extremely expensive at $0.15 per MB, but the real winner for KnowRoaming is a flat rate package at $7.99 for 24 hours (you can buy longer packages if you'd like also) of unlimited data access. That's cheaper than most other options out there.
2. Applying the sticker
So, about this sticker. It's a pretty clever mechanism, and until I actually had it applied I questioned how well it would work. No matter what size SIM card you have, you simply put your SIM in a slot on KnowRoaming's applicator and press down on it with an included tool. After about 30 seconds of pressing, you peel off a sticker on the back of the device and pop your SIM out — it now has a super-thin sticker on it with new contacts that give your existing SIM super powers.
Put a little sticker on your SIM, give your phone roaming super powers.
Pop your SIM back in your phone, and you can carry on using your phone at home just as you always would. The only difference now is that your phone thinks that it has two SIM cards. Android phones are set up to handle two SIM cards with the included "SIM Toolkit" app, and it'll show up in your app drawer and notification shade as soon as your phone reboots. The basic utility will let your phone automatically detect the country you're in and choose what SIM to emulate, or let you handle the switching manually by country.
The phone will always tell you whether it's on the "Home" or "KnowRoaming" SIM as well as the network you're currently connected to, which is good to know but gets quite annoying over time if you don't travel often. My Moto X seemed to get rid of the notification on reboot sometimes, but others it'd be up there no matter what, and I wish there were better options for that.
3. Using it
The idea of KnowRoaming is that you can land in a foreign country, reboot your phone and instantly be connected to a local network and getting data. When I recently traveled and landed in England, the experience unfortunately didn't line up too well with that. Because I have a postpaid T-Mobile line that supports free data roaming (at reduced speeds), it was immediately fighting against the KnowRoaming SIM for dominance in connecting to a network — something KnowRoaming didn't warn about in any way. I instantly had to turn on the "manual" SIM switching and force the phone to use KnowRoaming, where it then took a good 20 minutes of tinkering and rebooting to get connected to a network.
I was eventually able to get connected to a network and opened up the KnowRoaming app to pay for a $7.99 24 hour data package, but the catch here was that my phone was already connected to a data network and syncing up with the last 9 hours I spent without data on an airplane. All of that data usage — at $0.15 per MB — was coming out of my pre-loaded balance while I waited for the KnowRoaming app to load and give me my $7.99 pass. It only totaled a couple dollars of usage, but it's annoying that KnowRoaming doesn't better handle that to block all data until you choose what you want to do. $7.99 for 24 hours is a great deal, but not if I inadvertently spend more money trying to give them money in the first place.
It isn't a perfect system, and T-Mobile's roaming is still far simpler to use and switch between networks.
I'd strongly recommend not pre-loading your account with money, and instead keeping the account at $0 and loading the exact $7.99 amount for a data pass at once time to get around this. If you choose to pre-load your account with money would recommend buying data passes in three and seven day chunks so that you're never paying the per-megabyte rates between renewal of passes. KnowRoaming is hyper-active on sending you text messages with alerts as to your account balance and when your data pass will end, almost to the point of being spammy. I was able to just turn off notifications from KnowRoaming since I use Hangouts for texting, mitigating the issue, but most people will probably enjoy having up-to-date information on the state of their account so they aren't overcharged.
Once I was finally set up and on a data pass, things went pretty smoothly. Just like other roaming options you end up connecting to a variety of local networks depending on what has the best signal where you are, and you can hop into your cellular settings and connect to a specific carrier if you know that one is best. Data speeds weren't great on my Moto X and I was unable to connect to anything other than HSPA+ (you always need to check the radio bands in use in each country), but of course this was far faster than the free throttled data from T-Mobile. You won't ever see the speeds of buying a local SIM since you're still technically roaming, but this is far less hassle than buying the new card.
4. Is it a good choice?
After spending two days of my most recent trip using KnowRoaming and the other four on T-Mobile's international data offering, there are fewer people I'd recommend KnowRoaming to than I thought at first. KnowRoaming's $7.99 package for 24 hours of data in a ridiculous number of countries is a pretty amazing deal, and will be worth it for anyone taking shorter trips on a somewhat-regular basis that don't want to deal with getting a local SIM card and want data right away when arriving. If you need to make a few calls KnowRoaming can offer better rates than your current carrier, too. Unfortunately the issues with getting the SIM set up when you arrive and the finicky nature of potentially getting charged a steep $0.15 per MB between data passes with no control over what's happening will rub people the wrong way.
U.S. carriers are getting a little better at offering data overseas with packages you can pre-purchase and use without any further setup, and in the case of T-Mobile you can be connected in seconds of your arrival on a limited (but serviceable) connection with no fear of overages or wasting your limited international data bucket. T-Mo will also charge you just $25 for a week of 200MB of high-speed data if you want it. And when you buy from your home carrier, you won't have to bother buying this $30 sticker and applying it before you leave.
But if you chose a carrier other than T-Mobile and are on the fence about the roaming rates, I think KnowRoaming could be the option for you if you plan to use it more than once and your trips aren't too long. KnowRoaming sits in that middle ground between very short international trips that are best served by just buying data from your home carrier, and long trips where buying a local SIM is always a better deal. If you fit into those criteria, and don't mind a little tinkering, I say give it a shot and potentially save yourself some money when roaming overseas.