March 29, 2012 - Phil Hodgen

Mobile phones while traveling, updated

On my last trip to the Middle East I whined about having a pocketful of phones (three, actually) and massive roaming bills.

I routinely see people in Asia and the Middle East with three phones so that’s not the problem. I’m not weird with three phones. But when your pockets have three phones, a wallet, your passport, and other random stuff . . . well, it becomes all A Bit Much.

Wifi charges at hotels weren’t mentioned in the whine but should have been. The fancier and more expensive the hotel, the more it bugs me to pay for internet access.

Here is what I have done this trip. It has worked well and kept the costs down. It is the new normal for me.

Phones and Related Gear

I bought an unlocked iPhone 4S from the Apple store in Pasadena. I bought a bright red Nokia dual SIM phone in Riyadh when I was there in January.

I also bought a SIM card cutter on eBay (to cut standard SIM cards to microSIM size to fit into the iPhone). Finally, I bought some adapters that hold microSIMs when you need to put them in a standard SIM card slot.

The iPhone was expensive. It cost as much as the roaming bills I have received from AT&T on a single trip abroad. (What would you rather do? Give $800 to Apple or to AT&T? I think I know the answer to that question). The SIM card cutter and microSIM holders probably cost $15 total. Maybe less. The dual SIM Nokia cost about $45.

Prepaid Numbers

In Indonesia I bought a prepaid SIM from XL Axiata with a 500MB data plan, and paid 100,000 Rupiah. That is about $12. This went into the iPhone and that was the total cost of phone calls and data while I was there. I bought hotel wifi once for 200,000 Rupiah, or about $24.

In Dubai I bought a 5GB data plan and topped up my Etisalat account. This cost me AED 595. The data plan was AED 295, or about $80. I used my trusty SIM cutter to take the standard SIM and cut it to fit in the iPhone.

This allows me to tether my computer and avoid the hotel wifi entirely. At AED 100/day (about $27) for in-room internet at the Ritz-Carlton in the DIFC, this makes me happy. At this point I also have 70 minutes of free international calls credited on my account.

In retrospect I could have saved myself AED 150 by buying a smaller data plan. I have used about 400 MB and I have one more day left here in Dubai. I could have purchased the 1GB plan. That’s the plan for next time.

Dual SIM Phone

For my two AT&T mobile numbers I used the Nokia dual SIM phone. This is what took me from three phones to two phones in my pocket. I use the microSIM adapters for this because both AT&T SIMs are the tiny kind that go in an iPhone and the Nokia takes standard SIM cards.

The funny thing about the dual SIM phone is that right now one AT&T number is running on Etisalat and the other AT&T number is running on du. Why one phone with two AT&T numbers will select two separate mobile carriers is beyond me. 20120328-175913.jpg

When I Get Home

When I return home the Etisalat microSIM goes in the drawer until next time. The Etisalat number is mine for life and I am in the region often enough so it is worth keeping the same number. OK the number expires in 2037 — that’s as close to lifetime as it gets. Will we even have mobile phones in 2037? (The Dubai number is 0501729183 in case you want it. Drop the leading zero and add +971 on front if you’re dialing from outside the UAE. It is only in use while I am in the GCC.)

The Indonesian SIM expires in May and I won’t be back there until mid-summer so that SIM card went in the trash.

The AT&T phone numbers go back into their iPhones. (By the way, I am moving my mobile phone life over to +1-626-999-4000 so if you are using the old number, please update your records.)


Now I carry two phones, not three. I can avoid the $20-25 per day wifi charges at the hotel and the ridiculous tariffs that AT&T charges. These savings paid for new iPhone.

What’s Next, Maybe

A couple of Australian friends who came to my mother’s funeral in February alerted me to a product that will be released sometime soon, I hope.

It is an iPhone case that includes a slot for a second SIM. Jailbreak your iPhone and it effectively becomes a dual SIM phone.

It strongly resembles vaporware to me. But I hope I’m wrong. This would mean I can move about the planet with one phone in my pocket.