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Validity of SIM cards

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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 Edit

There may be many reasons for you to stick to your SIM and plan, even when you leave the country for a certain time 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 and costs when re-entering the country
  • You can keep your phone number
  • You can start right away on your existing SIM card after having crossed a border

So it might be of interest to you to get to know the validity or expiry policies of your plan.

Generally, it has to be said, that it only makes sense to keep your card:

  • 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. This does not apply if a SIM card can be kept alive without periodic top-ups.
  • 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.

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. This way, your losses will be minimal.

Keeping a SIM card alive Edit

Whether you are actually able to keep your SIM card alive, depends on a variety of individual factors:

  • how long you are going to stay out of the country
  • the validity or expiry policy of your SIM plan
  • the necessary activities to prolong SIM life or prevent expiry
  • and whether these activities can be done from outside of the country

Nevertheless, it’s often not so bad to start up new when returning to this country. In most places start-up fees have come down considerably and the procedures are quite easy and swift. You already know them, as you have done it before. If you use your card for data, it’s not important to keep “your” number as you won’t be called on it. Many cards need a lot of “care” to be maintained from abroad and some are simply impossible to be kept.

Validity and expiry rules Edit

About many SIM cards, we actually speak of two separate dates, as they “die” gradually. First, after a defined period, your topped up credit will be lost (or at least frozen) and you won’t be able to make outbound calls or receive data anymore. In countries where incoming calls are charged (like the US, China, Russia or Brazil) you will not be able to be called either. But in most other countries, this time is considered as a grace period for you to top it up again.

After this grace period has been expired and you haven’t topped up or did some other necessary activity, your account will be suspended forever and your number be lost. Then you can throw away your SIM card, as is has become useless. There are different rules in place whether you will be able to get back the loaded balance. With small amounts, it’s not worth the effort.

So when we talk about validity or expiry, it’s often not so clear, which date is meant exactly. But when you try to stick to your SIM, you want to avoid losing your credit in the first place. That’s why we refer in the following part mostly to the first date as validity when your credit is going to be lost.

To sort out the different rules and obligations basically we have to distinguish between cards issued in Europe and those given out in the rest of the world, because they differ widely.

Validity and expiry rules of non-European SIM cards Edit


In most places outside Europe, namely Africa, Asia and Latin America, the rules for validity are straight forward. Every top-up buys you a certain period of service validity at the same time. In most cases, the top up amount specifies this time period: The higher the top-up is, the longer your card balance stays valid. This can be only a few days for a minimal top up, but more than a year for a high one.

In some other countries in North America or Australia, this scheme is not enforced so strictly by many providers: there, only the date of the top-up is what counts, irrespective of the amount.

Anyway, to keep a SIM card alive in these countries means to top it up from time to time. Some operators additionally sell you extensions (by time) or a year’s validity for a surcharge. So these plans don’t have a straight expiry, but a very variable one according to your personal refill behaviour.

There are countries in which a SIM needs to be topped up at least every 30 days; in others this will do every year but may require a high amount. If you want to keep the SIM alive, ask for their specific top-up policy.

If this is OK for you, then the main obstacle remains, how to top it up from abroad. You have a chance only if there is a way to top-up by an international payment system online on your account 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. But to do so, you need to be sure, that your SIM works with international roaming in your home country or that you can do it online. With some operators, commercial top-up agencies can be an option too, but they will charge you extra for it.

Cards of some providers from e.g. the US and Canada pose the additional problem that you are mandatory on a monthly base 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. 

This shows that in many places (outside Europe), it’s very complicated to maintain your SIM especially when you are outside of this country for longer, because you have to top it up occasionally. It’s up to you to decide, if it’s worth the effort.

Validity and expiry rules of European SIM Cards Edit

This rigid top-up policy is not enforced by most European providers, especially from the EU / EEA. They'll be already satisfied if you use your SIM card from time to time. So if there is some occasional activity and a small balance on your SIM, it will practically stay valid forever. To do so, it’s sufficient to send a text message or do any other minimal activity once or twice a year. This should not pose a problem, as long as the SIM card roams in your home country. European providers offer generally very widespread international roaming on their prepaid cards. So it’s very likely.

Basically, the critical perspective on keeping a SIM alive from outside Europe needs to be reversed for European plans. While you are shut off for not having topped up after 45 days e.g. in Thailand, you normally have at least one year (including grace period) in Europe until you will lose your credit first and finally your number. Some countries such as France and Lithuania are an exception with very short validity periods.

This makes these SIMs much more attractive to be held for another visit to this country. Even if you have not cared for them in the meantime, there is a chance that they will be still valid and operative. With widespread international roaming on European prepaid SIMs, you can check it out before you return to this country. As long as you can connect to a roaming network on this SIM card, you can be sure than your plan is still active.  

Summing up Edit

If you want to return to this specific country soon, it may make sense to keep a SIM card alive, because it gives you some advantages. Outside Europe, you usually need to top it up periodically to do so. Make up your mind, if this a choice for you and worth the effort. With European SIMs you have better cards: There, only minimal activities are sufficient. But in the end, it all depends on how long you are going to be out of this country and how sure you are to return after this period.

Reselling of SIM cards Edit

On web sites 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.

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