Handling sim cards and 2fa codes in countries

How to use a phone when travelling a lot? Different numbers, data plans and 2FA codes – a guide

If you are travelling a lot to different countries then you definitely had a problem with handling a lot of phone numbers, data plans and 2FA codes. Let’s share the best practices on what works best as a digital nomad / long-term traveler when it comes to phones, phone numbers, international data, and 2FA codes while abroad.

How to handle different phone numbers and data plans?

  1. Your main phone should be network unlocked (not restricted to one carrier) and eSIM-compatible (or at least dual-SIM compatible – my personal recommendation is the Google Pixel). Also make sure it has a case + screen protector to prevent damage.
  2. You should also have a network unlocked, inexpensive backup phone (ideally also dual-SIM and/or eSIM-compatible if possible, but not a deal-breaker if not) that you keep in your luggage at your apartment/accommodation and that you only use in the event your main phone gets stolen, broken, or lost.
  3. If your main home country phone number is not an eSIM, you should transfer the number to (or get a new one from) a free (or inexpensive) VoIP service and ditch the physical SIM card. For Americans, I recommend Google Voice and for Canadians, I recommend Fongo. And even if it is an eSIM, consider making the switch to those VoIP services anyway because they’re free (usually). Why pay for a service that you don’t need to pay for? Note: if you’re neither American nor Canadian, see what you can find on Google for VoIP phone number apps for your country or simply use an American/Canadian one for your 2FA needs. Also, if you don’t want to ditch your physical SIM card from home, then at least keep it safe by keeping it in your backup phone while you’re abroad.
  4. If any of your accounts allow you to use authenticator apps (like Authy or Google Authenticator) as opposed to 2FA SMS codes to log in, switch over to them.
  5. For the accounts that do not allow you to use authenticator apps, use your VoIP number for the 2FA codes.
  6. If you are unable to use your VoIP number for the 2FA codes on some accounts because the texts do not arrive (the only problem with VoIP numbers, but it’s becoming less and less of a problem over time), I recommend seeing if a non-nomadic relative is willing to let you use their number for the account and text you the codes on WhatsApp when you need them. I personally use my mom’s number for this for a few accounts. Note: if you do not have any non-nomadic relatives able to assist you with this, then the next best option for you is to get a cheap SIM card from your home country that allows you to receive texts to it on a basic talk & text plan. You can usually get one for $5-10/month. Keep that SIM card in your backup phone.
  7. Ensure your backup phone has all the same important apps installed on it (especially the VoIP app) and logged in/set up so that in the event that your main phone becomes unusable, you can still instantly log in to all your accounts that you need.
  8. Consider switching your WhatsApp number to a VoIP number (if you’re not able to transfer your main number to a VoIP service in the first place) so that you can easily get back into your account if you lose your physical SIM card at any point.
  9. When traveling abroad, either look into local prepaid SIM cards for data (here is a good resource for that: https://prepaid-data-sim-card.fandom.com) and/or if your phone is eSIM-compatible, then eSIM data plans (I recommend https://esimdb.com for that) and get yourself connected to the internet.
  10. If you need to make phone calls or send texts back home, your VoIP number should allow you to do so for free (or maybe for a small fee). As for making calls or sending texts to local numbers in the country you’re traveling in, if your local prepaid SIM card or eSIM plan don’t allow you to do so, then you can usually use the same VoIP apps to make those calls and send those texts for a fee as well. Either way, try to use other services and apps as much as possible to talk to people, both at home and abroad, to avoid this in the first place. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram are all great for this.

Additional Unrelated Tips:

  • Similarly, you should also travel with a backup debit card, credit card, and cash (about $250 is good) that you also keep stored in your luggage at your apartment/accommodation in case of emergencies. If you want to be extra safe, then keep some money in a PayPal account as well. If you are able to keep those cards locked via your banking apps as well, that’s a bonus too.
  • While we’re on the topic of debit cards and credit cards, be sure to use ones that have no foreign transaction fees, conversion exchange fees, or ATM withdrawal fees so you’re not paying for fees you don’t need to pay for. Ideally, get yourself a debit card that even refunds 3rd party ATM fees too (like Charles Schwab for Americans).
  • Never exchange cash when you travel to a country with a different currency because currency exchanges almost always rip you off. Instead, use your no-fee debit card to take out cash from an ATM as soon as you arrive. Research ahead of time which ATMs have the lowest withdrawal fees (unless you have a bank that refunds 3rd party ATM fees, in which case it doesn’t matter), and always decline the conversion suggested by the ATM, opting to let your bank do the conversion instead. Try to use ATMs in actual banks if possible as the standalone ones in tourist areas can sometimes be compromised. Always hide your PIN and try tugging on the card slot before sliding your card in to make sure there isn’t a card skimmer placed over it.
  • Get yourself a good power bank so you can charge your phone on the go. Keep it on you with a spare charger + cable when you know you’ll be out sightseeing all day. Also, keep at least one extra charger + cable in your luggage in case you lose or forget yours somewhere. Oh, and get yourself a 6 foot charging cable for when you’re staying in an accommodation that has badly placed power outlets. Ideally fast charging ones for all of the above too (at least 18W for power banks/chargers & 3A for cables).
  • Also consider traveling with an extension cord and/or plug adapter that you can use to increase the amount of power outlets available to you. And if you’re traveling to a country where they use different power outlets, then obviously pick up a few adapters for that as well (look into the difference between travel adapters and converters).
  • Other useful things to travel with include a small lock for when hostels don’t provide you with one, ear plugs for when your hostel roomies snore, and digital copies (i.e. pictures) of your important documents (like your passport, visas, driving license, etc) saved in the cloud (like Dropbox or Google Drive). Be sure to keep your actual passport safe in your luggage at your apartment/accommodation too, don’t take it out with you when you’re exploring.

Marcus Richardson

I tinker with IT and music.

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