Preparation

Cell phones in Iceland, the final word: Icelandic SIM cards

Buying an Icelandic SIM card

Updated December 2017 with new cell phone recommendations.

The SIM card is the little thing, sometimes orange, that identifies the phone number of your cell phone. On this iPhone 5, for example, there is a tiny hole you need to push a small paperclip (or a similarly shaped SIM card remover tool) into the hole to pop the card out.

Sim card

If your phone works like this, make sure to bring a paperclip or a similar SIM card removal tool with you!

Also, while we’re at it, don’t forget to bring the right power adapters for Iceland.

The process and options for getting an Icelandic Sim card are a little bit tricky. Before we dive into it, let’s walk through a step-by-step summary of how to make this work.

Steps to get a Simin or Vodafone SIM card in Iceland

Step 1: Buy a SIM card. There are three main companies that provide mobile phone service in Iceland: Siminn, Vodafone, and Nova. And they are listed in order of both quality and price. That is, Siminn has the best coverage, but also costs the most.

In most cases, we recommend getting a Siminn SIM card at the airport; we’ll cover that down below. But Icelandair will now sell you a nice Vodafone SIM card package on the airplane, which you can order ahead of time: Icelandair Vodafone SIM card. Enter your flight details, and they’ll hand you the SIM card on the flight. Cost: About $27, including 2 GB of data, unlimited calls within Iceland, and 50 minutes of International calling. (If you don’t order ahead of time, you should still be able to buy it from the duty free catalog on board the plane.)

Step 2: Install the SIM card. When you land, insert the SIM card into the unlocked phone you brought with you. If you want a hassle-free unlocked phone, check out the new Moto E4 on Amazon; it’s $100 if you are an Amazon Prime member, and $130 if you are not. There’s a ton more detail down below about unlocking your existing phone, or buying an unlocked phone.

Step 3 (optional): Add more data or minutes. If you want to add more data on Siminn, or a credit for making US calls or texts, open a web browser on your phone and navigate to:  www.siminn.is/english.  Click on “Top Up.”

That will take you here: https://thjonustuvefur.siminn.is/MittFrelsi/kaupa/siminn.is?locale=en

Here you can buy another Gig of data, or 5 if you never want to think about data again. Or you can buy a 500 or 1000 krona ($4 or $8) credit to make phone calls or texts. (100 minutes and 100 texts to Icelandic numbers are included.)

For Vodafone, top up here: https://vodafone.is/english/topup/

Remember that you will have a new Icelandic phone number, which should be printed on the cardboard envelope the SIM card came in. Because of this, I found it easier to just use data for calls and texts, using something like Skype or Whatsapp. The Icelandic minutes and texts do come in handy for confirming tours, restaurants, etc.

 


Yes, that was kind of complicated. Why bother?  Let’s compare what we just did to some options you can add to your existing phone:

Extra fee Talk (per minute) Megabytes of data Text (per outgoing text) Text (per incoming text)
AT&T #2 $60 $0.50 300 Unlimited Unlimited
Verizon #2 $40 100 included 100 100 included Unlimited
Siminn Prepaid Deluxe $24 100 Iceland; $0.20 – $0.60  / US 1,000 100 Iceland; $0.18 US Unlimited

(Siminn includes 100 minutes and 100 text messages to numbers in Iceland. Siminn calls are about 20 cents a minute to landlines in the United States, and 60 cents for calls to cell phones in the US. See https://www.siminn.is/english-tourist/international-calls/nanar/item715/ for call prices for the United States, or find your country here: https://www.siminn.is/english-tourist/international-calls/.)

So for less money, you get 3-10X more data, and no risk for exorbitant overage charges. And if you want to add, say, 5,000 MB of data, that will only cost you another $20 or so.

Other Siminn Prepaid SIM cards in Iceland

On the Siminn web site, you can also choose two other packages. See the prepaid SIM card options here: https://www.siminn.is/prepaid/

siminn-prepaid

The first one (Prepaid Data) is data only– you will NOT be able to make phone calls or send text messages, though you should be able to receive them. This can be a good option if you plan to do all of your calling and messaging through Skype or Whatsapp. But it may be nice to have the option to call  your rental car company or a tour operator. The last one (Prepaid Deluxe) can be refilled with extra data, minutes, or both.

At the end of 2016 Siminn removed the, the middle package (Prepaid Starter) from both their web site and from Icelandair airplanes. You may still be able to find it in the airport or other retailers, but that’s not guaranteed. This option comes with a credit that can be used for calls or texts to the US, which is nice. But it doesn’t have data. If you want more than 1 GB of data, this is a great package; add 5 GB to it from the top-up page and you’re all set. One tip: if you plan to purchase data, do so BEFORE adding the 2000isk credit to your account. Data will work for a short period of time to allow you to top-up; you don’t want to use any of the credit for the data you use getting to the top-up page.

I’m torn on which card to recommend. If you’re flying Icelandair, the Vodafone package is very well thought out for travelers to Iceland: a good amount of data and some international calling. But if you’re heading to East Iceland, coverage might be spotty in a few places.

If you want the best coverage, buy a Siminn card, and then add the data or minutes you need. Just remember you can’t add voice to the Prepaid Data card. But if you’re flying Icelandair, just go for the Vodafone card and have them hand it to you on the plane.


Nova: The other carrier in Iceland

We haven’t yet touched on the third main carrier in Iceland, Nova. Nova’s web site doesn’t have much English on it, though their rates are a little cheaper: See https://www.nova.is/thjonusta/verdskra/.

If you are flying Wowair, you can buy a Nova SIM card, which also costs 2000isk. Here are the relevant details from their duty free catalog:

https://wowair.us/travel-info/duty-free/

But for 2000 krona you get 1000 right back as a credit for international calls and texts, and you also get 1 GB of data. There’s unlimited calling to other Nova cell phones too, which could be nice if you want to get cards for more than one phone for your family.

Nova coverage map: https://www.nova.is/thjonusta/thjonustusvaedi

Siminn coverage map: https://www.siminn.is/english-tourist/coverage/

But there are many reasons why we’re only highlighting Siminn and Vodafone above:

  1. Vodafone: You can buy a SIM card and receive it while you’re still on the Icelandair airplane. I think there’s something nice about having the card delivered to you. Thought this isn’t an advantage if you’re flying a different airline. If this card is all you need, buy it and you’re done.
  2. Siminn: Siminn has the best coverage in Iceland. Nova is fine if you are staying in and around Reykjavik. But ask any Icelander out east what carrier they use, and they’ll tell you that Siminn is worth the few extra dollars.
  3. Siminn: Siminn customer support has responded to my questions when writing this post. Nova and Vodafone have not.
  4. Siminn: Siminn’s web site has a fantastic English section. Nova’s web site is in Icelandic, and Vodafone doesn’t list all of the options like Siminn does.

Buying your SIM card in the Keflavik airport in Iceland

There are a few stores in the airport that will sell you a Siminn SIM card (and maybe Vodafone too?) When you arrive, you will end up in the arrivals terminal, which has an Elko store that sells them. See the map of the arrivals area here. Here’s what the store looks like:

elko store keflavik airport sim

But, when I arrived in the airport, it was early, I was tired, and we were just thinking about finding our passports, getting our luggage, and getting out of there. The Elko store is in the secure area, and there’s no going back once you start the process of going through customs and immigration. So if you miss the Elko store, just head to the 10-11 that is on your right once you exit the secured area. Here’s what it looks like:

kef airport 10 11 sim cards

Just ask at the counter for the Siminn SIM cards, and they will show you the options they have in stock. remember that they may not have all three versions here.

Note that for any of these 3 carriers, you don’t need to worry about the size of Sim card you have. The kits all come with cut-outs around the card. (And this is first hand– we bought one of each!) You just need to match the size you extract to the size your phone needs:

vodafone-sim-zoomed

Look carefully at the image above and you can see the “perforations” for at least one of the smaller sizes. I used Vodafone for this example just to be nice, but Siminn works exactly the same way.

Unlocking your cell phone

Of course, before you can put an Icelandic Sim card in your phone, you need a phone you can put it in. That phone needs to be an unlocked phone. You have two options here: Either unlock a phone you already own, or buy an unlocked phone. Let’s start with an unlock discussion for each of the major US carriers:

Unlocking your AT&T phone

AT&T will handle an unlock online for you, provided that the phone is no longer under contract. This can be a phone you are actively using now, or a phone that you stuffed in a drawer once you upgraded. (Do you remember where you put your iPhone 4?) If it is still under contract, you can make a payment to pay off the rest of the cost of the phone. If you just got the phone, this could be $500 or more. But if you’re just a couple of months away from the end of your contract (which can last from 18-24 months), you may be able to pay $100 or less. And that’s money you’ll have to pay anyway; you’re just prepaying it. Start the unlocking process here.

Remember that just because you upgraded to a new phone, the old phone is not automatically unlocked. (I wish this is how it worked!) You shouldn’t have any issue with unlocking it, but you still have to ask.

Unlocking your Sprint phone

Sprint isn’t as good as Verizon, but still offers the thoughtful option of an international unlock. “Sprint customers remaining abroad for an extended period of time may want to try to use their Sprint device with a foreign carrier. As a courtesy for our customers, for certain devices, Sprint may be able to unlock the device SIM slot for a foreign carrier’s SIM card to be inserted.”  You must have had the phone for at least 3 months. Sprint claims you can do this online, by choosing the “’Unlock device to use int’l SIM’ option from the ‘Manage this device’ drop-down menu.”

Two thoughts on Sprint. First, as of January 2016, they do offer free 2G (slow) data service in Iceland. I’m not sure how well it works, but anecdotal comments online indicate you may not want to rely on it. Second, like Verizon, Sprint uses a CDMA network, which is not used in Iceland. Many newer phones support both CDMA and GSM, however. See if your phone is one of them at willmyphonework.net.

Unlocking your TMobile phone

With the International roaming plans, TMobile was the original positive exception, offering free 2G (slow) data if you have the right plan. But the general consensus seems to be that Tmobile service in Iceland may be terrible. (Let me know about your TMobile experience in the comments!)

If you do want to unlock your phone and make sure you can use reliable service from an Icelandic carrier, TMobile’s terms are roughly similar to AT&T. For example, if you are on a monthly plan, you must have had the phone for at least 18 months. See the rules here. You’ll need to contact customer service. (Technically there is an Android unlock app, but it’s only meant for use on a single model of phone, and even then it seems to almost never work.)

Unlocking your Verizon phone

With unlocking devices, Verizon is head and shoulders above everyone else. Their unlocking policy page has this nice and clear language: “We do not lock most phones or tablets that are activated with our postpay service, either during or after the term of your service contract or Edge installment sales agreement.”   Note that Verizon uses a different network than is used in Iceland (CDMA vs GSM) so you do need to make sure you phone works in Iceland.  Verizon’s Trip Planner will answer that question. Or you can check willmyphonework.net. That site is excellent, but I think they are off on recent iPhones. Any iPhone that is a 4S or newer should work, regardless of what willmyphonework says.

Buying an unlocked cell phone

If you typically buy the latest and greatest iPhone or Android phone, buying an unlocked phone might sound crazy. Going out and buying an unlocked iPhone 7 will set you back a minimum of $649.

But there are surprisingly adequate Android phones that cost as little as $60. And for under $150 you can get a phone you might just want to keep using once you return home. If you don’t have a phone to unlock, or your carrier is going to make you pay early to unlock, consider buying a new phone for your trip.

Unlocked cell phone recommendations  – December 2017

Take a look at the new phones that Amazon is offering to Prime Members. Before we get into specifics, I should warn you that Amazon is subsidizing these phones; in exchange, they put ads on your lockscreen. But Cnet says: “If you’re on the fence about letting Amazon show you ads in exchange for $50 off your phone, don’t be. You’ll hardly even notice them.”

A fairly new offering, and one we recommend, is the Moto E4; it’s $100 after the Prime discount. The phone has 2 GB of RAM (good enough to play Pokemon Go!) and expandable storage. It will handle the fastest 4G speeds in Iceland. And, since it’s factory unlocked, it will work on any carrier once you get back home. For $100 you don’t have to worry about unlocking your cell phone, and you have a phone that one of your kids can use once you get back. You will need to be logged in to your Prime account to see the discounted price.

For $20 more, you can opt for the next model up: the Moto E4 Plus, with a slightly larger screen, and slightly better camera, and a much better battery. And if you don’t want a phone with the Amazon ads, or if you don’t have prime, keep an eye on this phone. The price without ads fluctuates, but often you can find it for around $135.

Unfortunately, there are fewer options if you want a cheaper phone that may not see much use once you are back home. Amazon used to have a $60 phone from Blu in their Amazon sponsored phones, but not any more. You can take a look at the $50 phones from Blu and Alcatel, but I recommend making sure you buy these directly from Amazon, and not a third party reseller.

When you get home, you can use any of these as a Wifi only device, or get a cheap prepaid plan and use it as a backup phone or a phone for one of the kids. For an extremely inexpensive plan once you’re back home, TMobile has a $3 a month plan that gives you 30 credits good for a minute of talk or a text message. (This is for use in the United States.) If you have another use for it, the $130 phone may seem like a very good deal.

If you are planning to use your own unlocked phone, or purchase a different unlocked phone, here is a very nice site that will tell you what data speed your unlocked phone will provide you on various carriers in Iceland:  willmyphonework.net

If you get frustrated with your carrier’s customer support, remember that you can just solve the problem by buying an unlocked phone for $100. I splurged on a Moto 3, which at the time was $179, and it worked beautifully.

Mifi hotspots from Trawire

Renting a portable wifit hotspot seems to be becoming more popular; the company I see mentioned most is Trawire. And this does sound very easy: Show up, pick up your rented device, connect your phones / laptops / tablets to the wifi provided by the device, and that’s it. You don’t need to think about unlocking your phone or which SIM card to get.

But you’re paying for that convenience. The rental costs $10 a day. And, you cannot avoid additional delivery fees. If you’re going to pick it up and drop it off at an N1 gas station, you only pay $15 extra. The pickup and return presents a new set of challenges: Make sure you know how to get to the gas station, since you won’t have wifi data yet. Make sure the gas station is open. Don’t forget to drop the device and its charging cord into a mailbox before you leave.

But the biggest issue I see is price. If you’re staying for 7 days, that’s a total cost of $85. With a little bit more work (and an Amazon Prime membership), you could literally purchase the brand new Blu cell phone above for $60, and a Siminn SIM card for $17. That’s slightly less than the Trawire rental, and you end up with an extra cell phone (for one of your kids, or a backup, or to resell) at the end! Yes, you don’t get unlimited data, so Trawire does look better if you have massive data needs. Just remember that you’re paying for the convenience.

Problems with your SIM card

In all of our phones, the we popped in the SIM cards and they “just worked.” There are some rare reports of phones not updating their settings properly. If this happens, you may need to update your setting manually. For that, check out the APN Settings web site for Iceland. Click through the carrier you’re buying a SIM card from (Siminn, Vodafone, Nova, etc.) and print out the instructions, or save them to your phone. I doubt you’ll need them, though some Verizon users are having problems.


For our trip, we brought old unlocked cell phones, and I bought an unlocked Moto phone. We had no problem buying SIM cards and refilling them; that’s what I recommend.


I don't like subscribing to e-mail lists. Usually I just end up with a bunch of clutter in my inbox.

So I'm trying to change that. Here's what you'll get in exchange for your e-mail address:

  • AT LEAST 50 subscribers will receive a totally free review copy of our book, Iceland With Kids, when it is released later in 2016.
  • ALL other subscribers will receive an exclusive discount coupon to purchase the book.
  • You will receive occasional, curated content about Iceland- news stories you may not have seen.
  • We will not sell your address, or send out spam advertising e-mails.
We'll work hard to make this a valuable use of your valuable e-mail address. Thanks!

                        


This page has some Amazon affiliate links. We hope you see that as a reasonable trade off for the free information this web site provides. But let us know if you have any concerns. Thanks for reading!

Cell phones in Iceland, the final word: Icelandic SIM cards was last modified: December 6th, 2017 by Eric