A smartphone with a data plan is about as essential to modern life as food, shelter and clothing, particularly in Thailand. How do you expect to be able to get around Bangkok without a map app? How hard would life be without translation apps? And could you imagine having to do all of your banking in person when the procedures and processes Thai banks follow vary from day to day and branch to branch?

You can do amazing things with a modern mobile phone and a good data plan. In fact, you can manage your entire expat existence from a small touch screen, from working to invoicing to transferring money overseas to paying bills to ordering food. That being the case, it’s essential that you select the best data plan for you.

What do you want from a good data plan in Thailand?

Phone service providers in Thailand - as with anywhere else in the world - will often pad out their plans with a lot of extras to make their offer seem like an especially good deal. However, all you really need is a fast internet connection and as much data as you can realistically use in a month (plus a little extra for emergencies). Precisely how much data that is depends on your habits and requirements.

It’s useful to bear in mind that the vast majority of common uses for the internet are actually quite light on data. Sending emails, loading web pages and online banking all use extremely little data, unless you’re sending large attachments. The biggest data hog will generally be streaming high-definition video.

The packages offered by Thailand’s leading companies usually include a bunch of free minutes and text messages. Do people still make hundreds of minutes of phone calls instead of using free VOIP services like Messenger, LINE, WhatsApp, FaceTime or Skype? There will be those whose businesses are heavily reliant on phone calls, so this addition might not be completely useless, though it perhaps takes a lower priority to such details as the amount of unused data you can roll over to the next month.

Some of the added bonuses can be quite helpful. Some packages include overseas data roaming - very helpful if you travel around a lot for work. Others include a Netflix subscription and a free copy of the mobile version of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds - very useful if your job gives you a lot of free time.

What data plans do AIS offer?

AIS (which stands for Advanced Info Services) is the single largest mobile phone company in Thailand, mostly by virtue of having pioneered many of the technological leaps in mobile technology, though also through a number of shrewd deals and buyouts. AIS operate over 100,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots around Thailand, which can help to make your data plan stretch a little further.

The main packages available from AIS are tailored to different types of user. The NEXT G Flexi Speed package comes in three price tiers offering different amounts of 3G/4G data.

- 60 GB of data costs 750 baht per month

- 40 GB of data costs 550 baht per month

- 20 GB of data costs 450 baht per month

If you manage to use all of your 3G/4G allowance for the month, you will still have internet access, but at a much reduced rate of 384 kbps for those paying 750 baht and just 256 kbps for those paying less. All tiers get 200 minutes of call time.

As the name implies, the speed of your internet connection is also flexible and can be adjusted according to your needs, though this does not alter the cost of the package. That being the case, the purpose seems to be just to help incorrigible internet users ration their usage to make their data allowance last the full month.

AIS also offers the NEXT G Max Speed package, which focuses more on entertainment than anything else. Given the need for a rapid internet connection when streaming video or playing online games, this makes a lot of sense, though the fast connection could potentially have business applications.

There are eight tiers of this package, ranging in price from 499 baht per month up to 1,999 baht per month. They all come with a three-month subscription to Netflix, HBO and Warner Brothers TV and a 12-month subscription to PUBG M. The main differences between them are the amount of data and the amount of call minutes. At 1,099 baht per month and above, the 3G/4G data becomes unlimited and you’re up to 700 minutes of call time per month. At the very top end of the scale, you hit 2,000 minutes. You would need to be on the phone for over an hour each day to use it all in one month!

Advantages to using AIS: Packages include a lot of data for a good price.

Disadvantages to using AIS: Unlimited data is not available without the gimmicky extras.

What data plans do True offer?

TrueMove H is the mobile subsidiary of the enormous True Corporation, which has fingers in virtually every communications and digital services pie in Thailand, from TV channels to banking. They even own the Bangkok United Football Club. After AIS, True are the second largest mobile service provider in the country.

True have very specifically tuned packages which focus on providing the lowest possible cost for particular types of users. Their U-Max package, for example, is aimed at university students. It offers free data for social media apps including Facebook, Instagram, LINE, Twitter and TikTok. Addressing the aforementioned fact that kids don’t really use the ‘phone’ part of their phone anymore, instead favouring VOIP services like LINE, these packages come with no free minutes. There are three price tiers available.

- 50 GB of data costs 550 baht per month

- 40 GB of data costs 450 baht per month

- 20 GB of data costs 250 baht per month

Probably True’s best package is the 4G+ Super Net Unlimited, which boasts the “fastest speed with most data”. The speed is the standard for 4G - about 300 Mbps, which all 4G providers offer. As for the amount, there are six packages available ranging from a poultry 3 GB of data for 299 baht per month up to unlimited data for 1,099 baht per month, though the limitless data only lasts for the first 12 months. Again, none of the packages offer call time, instead boasting a pay-per-second rate of 1.80 baht per minute.

Advantages to using True: Unlimited data on social apps reflects typical phone usage.

Disadvantages to using True: Unlimited data is only unlimited for a year.

What data plans do dTac offer?

dTac’s name rather bizarrely means “Total Access Communication”, with no explanation given for the “d”. They possess about a third of the Thai mobile market, making them the third largest provider in the country. The company belongs to the Norwegian-owned Telenor Group - one of the largest telecom companies in the world - and shares the same logo.

What helps dTac to really stand out from the competition is the addition of international data roaming in their packages - no doubt a result of dTac belonging to such a world-spanning organisation. The standard dTac GO package comes in eight price tiers, with steadily increasing amounts of call time, data and countries where 5 GB of data is free.

- 5 GB of data and 150 minutes costs 399 baht per month, with data only available in Thailand

- 10 GB of data and 200 minutes costs 499 baht per month, with free data in Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia

- 16 GB of data and 300 minutes costs 599 baht per month, with free data in Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia

- 20 GB of data and 300 minutes costs 699 baht per month, with free data in Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia

- 30 GB of data and 400 minutes costs 899 baht per month, with free data in 25 countries across Asia, Australia and the US

- Unlimited data and 700 minutes costs 1,099 baht per month, with free data in 25 countries across Asia, Australia and the US

- Unlimited data at 1,200 minutes costs 1,499 baht per month, with free data in 72 countries worldwide

- Unlimited data and unlimited calls costs 2,199 baht per month, with free data in 72 countries worldwide

Where dTac compares less favourably against its rivals is the choice of packages. The GO package is effectively the only post-paid option available, other than tariffs designed specifically for tablets.

Advantages to using dTac: Free data available in up to 72 countries worldwide, removing the need to buy a local SIM card when travelling.

Disadvantages to using dTac: Poor choice of packages and extras.

Which is the best mobile data plan in Thailand?

When picking the right mobile data plan for you, the first thing to calculate is how much data you will actually use. According to research, people in the Asia Pacific region currently use about 3.3 GB per month, but that’s expected to rise to 26 GB per month by 2024. Since that’s an awkward number to work with, we’ll round it down to 20 GB per month.

If this is the case, the clear winner is True. While the U-Max package may be primarily aimed at students, the fact that it provides 20 GB of 3G/4G data per month and free data on popular social media apps, all at the lowest price among its competitors, makes it an excellent choice.

However, that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to completely discount dTac and AIS. For starters, these two companies have the best service coverage around Thailand, so they can connect in places which True can’t reach. However, if you’re mostly going to be in and around the major tourist and expat hubs like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya and others, this difference will be barely noticeable. On the other hand, the bonus features they offer - free data roaming overseas and comprehensive entertainment packages - do make them worth a second glance and, if that kind of thing particularly appeals to you, perhaps also a few more baht.