Validity / expiry of SIM cards
As the validity of your balance or the whole plan of your SIM card is not overtly specified with many providers, this article addresses basic rules about validity or expiry of SIM cards and their balance. They can be essential if you want to keep the SIM alive when leaving the country. The reasons for not giving exact rules here are simple: they depend very much on your individual top-up activity and can be extremely complicated differing even within the same operator between tariff lines. Moreover, they differ widely between various regions of the world.
Reasons to keep a SIM card alive
There may be many reasons for you to stick to your SIM and plan, even when you leave the country for a certain period and are not going to use it for a while:
- You can leave some balance on your card which is not going to be lost,
- You can skip purchase and other start up procedures (e.g. mandatory registration and ID presentation) and costs when re-entering the country,
- You can keep your phone number,
- You are, in most of the cases, able to keep your tariff plan and never lose it even if it is discontinued in the future,
- You can start right away on your existing SIM card after having crossed a border.
- Your plan may include 'roam like at home' (especially if travelling around the European Union with a European Union-issued SIM card) which saves you money and other hassles in the next destination (check your plan).
Whether you are actually able to keep your SIM card alive, depends on a variety of individual as well as provider- and country-specific factors:
- How long you are going to stay out of the country,
- The validity or expiry policy of your credit and SIM plan and the necessary activities to prolong SIM life or prevent expiry,
- And whether these necessary activities can be done from outside the country.
Validity and expiry policies for balance
About many SIM cards, we actually speak of two separate dates when it comes to balance and SIM card validity, as they actually “die” in stages:
When you have activated or topped up your SIM card, your are in the active period. Then you can do all activities as long as you have balance and this credit remains valid.
After your credit has expired the rest of it will be lost or at least frozen depending on provider and country. You won’t be able to make outbound calls, sent SMS or receive data anymore. In countries where incoming calls are charged (like USA, Canada, China and Singapore) you won't be able to be called either. But in most other countries, this time is considered as a grace period for you to top-up again to keep your plan or unlock the frozen assets.
After this passive period has elapsed and you haven’t topped up or did some other necessary activity (see below), your account will be suspended and your number and credit will be lost forever. Your SIM card has become useless except as a souvenir of your trip.
There are different rules in place depending on country and provider whether you will be able to get back the loaded balance. With small amounts, it’s not worth the effort.
Most providers employ these three phases and the most rigid plans like in Thailand expire after only 45 days. Other providers give you much more time to reload while your SIM card will be put into a passive mode. Many networks in Europe and a few other countries simply skip the yellow grace period and credit stays valid as long as the SIM card is active. This different recharge policy is reflected when it comes to the whole plan.
Validity or expiry policies for SIM cards
Depending on each network's policy, nearly all SIM cards remain valid for a specified period following one of these actions or a combination of them. These are most common used by providers:
(1) Balance increase
You buy a top-up or recharge to increase your balance. This involves a certain validity period too. Most networks outside Europe operate only this policy, as do a few in Europe. Often the validity period depends on the amount of the balance increase. This approach is shown in the previous section.
(2) Balance decrease
Any chargeable usage prolongs SIM life for another period. Often a 1-second incoming roaming call or a roaming SMS will generate the smallest possible balance decrease. A few networks impose a minimum amount for this policy. Most European providers follow this approach, but networks from South Africa, UAE and other non-European countries have adopted a similar policy. These providers often skip an special expiry deadline for top-ups and maintain the loaded balance and the whole plan as long as you do some minimal activity. This is sometimes advertised as "forever" or "lifelong" validity.
(3) Other methods
There are some single providers whose policies differ from the two main approaches:
- Few operators like Giffgaff (UK) accept a non-chargeable balance usage (instead of a chargeable, e.g. an incoming call or a call to a free number) as a minimal measure to keep your SIM alive. This takes account of the fact that the network receives a small amount of revenue from a third party for the non-chargeable usage.
- Very few providers like Netzclub (Germany) don't have any requirements and their SIM card stays valid forever. But this is very rare.
- In some countries like Mauritius, Thailand and the UAE you can pay a fee to buy extra validity for a specific period.
Not all providers follow these categories. Some adopt a combination of two major methods for instance when they employ a strict deadline for top-ups combined with a more relaxed approach for the whole SIM plan.
In most of the countries your credit will be lost when the SIM card is suspended. Only very few countries like Germany legally require that the operator reimburses your credit on your request.
Implications and considerations
The balance increase approach (1) is strict and costly in the long term, as you need to buy airtime to keep your SIM card alive, even if you can't use it out of the country. The balance decrease method (2) is much more convenient, as you may only use a minimum amount of your loaded credit for the same goal.
The stricter the rules are, the more you need to consider whether the following apply:
- if you are pretty sure to return soon to this country: What is meant by “soon” differs immensely and can range from a few days to more than a year.
- if start-up rules and fees are high or availability of cards and shops are scarce: Then you save some time, efforts and money when you can still use your old SIM card.
- if you want to keep your number: This is not of importance for data, but when you want to be called and give out your number before leaving for your destination.
- if you want to keep a standing balance on your account: Then you don’t lose the rest of your credit and don’t have to run it down to zero before leaving.
- You need to be connected right away on your existing SIM card after having entered the country.
On the other hand, if leaving a country with a SIM card that requires periodic top-ups without knowing whether you are going to return soon or for sure, the sole advice is to run the SIM card balance low towards zero. Thus your losses will be minimal.
Whatever approach is taken by your provider you still may be face some more obstacles that should be checked out before you plan to keep your SIM alive:
- For (1): there needs to be a way to top-up by an international payment system online with the operator. Not having this, you can only pile up vouchers as long as you are in this country and redeem them from time to time. With some operators, commercial top-up agencies can be an option too, but they will charge you a premium for it and for some countries like Estonia there is simply no way from abroad.
- For (2): the network needs to provide international roaming in your country for you to perform the necessary debits.
- SIM cards of some providers, e.g. in the US and Canada, pose the additional problem that you are on a mandatory combo plan even for prepaid. This involves an automatic deduction of the plan fee every month. You may discontinue the plan simply by running low on credit. But as soon as you recharge to maintain the validity of your card, the monthly fee will be automatically deducted again regardless if you can use it or not in this month. So when you intend to pause your plan, always try to set it to a base plan without any monthly charges.
Reselling of SIM cards
On websites like eBay and other platforms a secondary market for SIM cards has been established. Some travellers try to resell their previously used SIM cards to new visitors. While this sounds like a good idea in the first place and you can save start-up fees and procedures, it involves some problems. As a buyer, you will be given a remaining credit on the SIM which you can’t verify as long as you haven’t received the SIM. Since the seller is rarely able to prove it too, this remains a matter of trust.
This even more, if you want to sell your used SIM card online, especially if it has been registered in that country on your name. In many countries personal registration is mandatory. You will never know where the SIM in your name ends up and for what activities it will be used. So this is clearly not encouraged, even if you don’t plan to return to that country again. On the other hand, there are absolutely no objections to resell an unregistered SIM (or a SIM with a fake online registration). You are also free to buy from a seller who resells new SIM starter packs, either unregistered or doing the registration on your or someone else’s name.