As a frequent traveller, I have tried many ways to stay connected on my phone but there is no headache-free solution.
For one thing, data roaming can get pretty expensive, even on the unlimited plans offered by the telcos. It can also be tough trying to find affordable data SIM cards in your destination country, especially if you are there for only a few days.
My data needs while travelling overseas are fairly simple. Instant messaging is a must. Checking e-mail and social networks is not as crucial.
Using messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Line, WhatsApp and others, keeps me in constant touch with my friends and family. I sometimes use them to arrange a time to meet my wife if we are out shopping separately.
If you, like me, find messaging a priority while travelling, then ChatSim is a cheap and convenient option. This is even though it comes with its own set of headaches.
Its premise is simple. A ChatSim is a SIM with a number from Estonia, and it comes bundled with data credits. It works with global roaming partners in over 100 countries, so connectivity is not an issue.
A flat fee of US$12 (S$17) gives users an annual subscription to the service, which allows you to send text messages across a variety of messaging apps. This includes sending emojis.
ChatSim sets a limit of 5MB of data a month, which translates to an average of about 1,000 text messages.
To get started, insert the SIM into your phone and register a new account, with the ChatSim's number, at www.chatsim.com.
A spokesman explained to me that the SIM uses a "smart system that automatically disables non-instant messaging apps and that cuts unintentional and undesired traffic by up to 90 per cent".
However, I found that the SIM is smart only to a certain level, and I actually have to disable background data on the apps myself.
And even with that done, 10 per cent of data still passes through the SIM - and this is the tricky part. The SIM service will be slowed down once you exceed 5MB of data in a month on the basic plan.
Exceed it by too much and your card will be deactivated.
Once your card is deactivated, you have to log into your account to reactivate it to continue using the SIM. If this happens too often, the SIM card will be suspended.
I did not reach this stage during the review, but background data consumption remains a niggling issue. Short of removing my Google account on the phone, I can see no way of disabling background data completely.
I disabled background data on my Android phone but, apparently, the operating system still consumes a small amount of data in the background. This amounted to 33MB in three weeks, easily breaching the monthly 5MB that ChatSim allocates to each user each month.
I had pre-loaded my plan with €10 (S$15) worth of multimedia credits, which translates to sending about 200 photos, and which would have allowed me to send images via my messaging services. However, all those credits were consumed after three weeks.
The service itself worked very well. I did not have an issue connecting to networks in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. My only beef was that sometimes the phone failed to send notifications when messages came in. When I noticed that I hadn't received any WhatsApp messages in an hour, I went to the app, only to have over 50 messages load at the same time.
With Facebook Messenger, messages appeared at roughly the same time as they did on another smartphone with a local data plan.
ChatSim is not the ideal solution for long-term use, but at US$24 for a year, it is a viable alternative for frequent travellers who simply want to send a message now and then, to keep in touch.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2015, with the headline 'ChatSim keeps travellers chatting'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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