Looking to stay connected in the land of windmills and tulips, canals and bitterballen?
The Netherlands has plenty of free Wi-fi in cafes, bars and even on the trains, but if you prefer your data to be mobile, the good news is that buying a local SIM card is easy and doesn’t have to be particularly expensive.
There are some big differences between vendors, however, and the top-up process isn’t always straightforward.
Here’s what you need to know.
- We recommend Lycamobile for most travellers
There are three main cell networks in the Netherlands, operated by KPN, Vodafone and T-Mobile. KPN has the largest network, followed by Vodafone and T-Mobile, but its resellers offer better pricing for prepaid customers.
I tested with Lebara and Lycamobile SIMs, which both use the KPN network.
Purchasing either SIM card was extremely simple. I just walked into the nearest mobile phone shop with a Lycamobile or Lebara sign in the window, and had a working connection within a few minutes.
In both cases, the vendor activated the SIM for me, but as instructions are in both English and Dutch, you could probably do it yourself if necessary. You don’t need to be in a major city to buy a card — I picked up mine in Leiden and Utrecht, for instance.
Getting set up with a data package on Lebara was also straightforward — I just asked the vendor to add credit to my SIM after he activated it, and then texted the code WEB1GB to a given number.
It wasn’t as easy with Lycamobile, however. For reasons best known to itself the company operates a strange dual-pricing system, which essentially means you need to buy different packs for data versus calls and texts if you want a good deal.
To make matters worse, none of the three places I tried in Leiden (two phone stores and a major supermarket) had data top-up packs available.
In the end, buying data credit online was the easiest and cheapest option. There was no problem using an international debit card to do this, and took a lot less time than walking around the shops!
I paid a total of 20 euros for the Lebara SIM and 1GB of data — €10 for the SIM (with €5 of credit), and €10 for the data package.
Compared to the competition, that’s not a great deal. The Lycamobile SIM, for instance, cost 5 euros with the same amount of credit on it, and 5GB of 3G data was on special at the time, costing just €5. Those specials change all the time, so check what's on offer before you commit.
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You can buy top-ups almost anywhere you see a sign for Lycamobile or Lebara — which in the Netherlands, seems to be about every hundred metres.
Supermarkets, convenience stores, mobile phone stores and many others sell them, or you can buy online (at least with Lycamobile) and save yourself the hassle.
COVERAGE AND DATA SPEEDS
When it came to data speeds, Lebara was a total disappointment. Despite being on the KPN network which spans the entire country, I’d regularly see my phone struggling to maintain a data signal as it switched between HSPA+, 3G and Edge while standing in the centre of a major town or city.
I ran speed tests in Utrecht, Leiden, Amsterdam, Maastricht and The Hague, and never got a download speed above 1Mbps, or an upload speed of half that. Web pages would often timeout, or take minutes to load.
Given the higher cost and poor data speeds, I just can’t recommend using this company in the Netherlands.
Lycamobile was much better, although still not particularly fast. Speeds were similar to those shown in the screenshot below, regardless of where in the country I tested.
If your phone supports the right bands, you’ll get LTE coverage throughout the Netherlands with Lycamobile, but not Lebara. Note that you’ll need to buy a different data package, however — at the time it was €7.50 for 3GB, which still wasn’t a bad deal.