So, you’re planning a trip overseas. How do you use your cell phone from foreign countries? Here are the best international cell phone plans that will work while traveling.
After traveling the world as a digital nomad for the last 10-years, I’ve received a lot of questions about how to use your cell phone from other countries when you’re traveling.
So I thought I’d talk about the different ways you can use your phone to stay connected anywhere in the world. It’s actually easier than you think!
You can keep your own number, and get full access to cellular data (mobile internet) too.
Using Your Smartphone While Traveling
If you are traveling as a tourist, maybe visiting a few countries over the course of a few weeks or a month, it’s pretty straight forward. Signing up (or upgrading) to an international cell phone plan with one of the options below is the best deal.
Your number doesn’t change, and you may simply have to activate the higher speed internet options once you arrive at your destination. Works great for two factor authentication (2FA), so you can securely sign into your apps & websites.
For Digital Nomads
The international cell phone plans featured here may not be the best option for long-term digital nomads who travel overseas frequently, for months at a time. Most of these plans are set up for tourists, not perpetual travelers.
There is generally a cap on these international plans, where if you don’t return to the United States within a few months, or if you are outside the country longer than 6-months a year, they will cancel your plan.
In this case, buying a dedicated international SIM card (or eSIM) where you pay as you go might be a better option for digital nomads, if you want to keep a US number.
Top International Cell Phone Plans In 2022
Basically, a Google Fi account allows you to pay one monthly fee, and use many different cell networks, depending on which one works best.
It hops around on networks owned by Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular — and uses WiFi networks too. It does this internationally as well, with other countries’ cell networks. It will give you high speed data too, up to 4G (without needing to spend more).
While data is unlimited, the speed does get throttled after 22GB (but that’s a lot of data).
PRICE: International plan with unlimited high-speed data & tethering costs $70 USD per month.
T-Mobile’s Magenta Plans offer unlimited talk, text and 5GB of high-speed data in Canada and Mexico. Unlimited texting and 2G data in more than 200 countries.
International calling starts at 25 cents per minute. Data speeds are about 128kbps (2G) for Magenta and 256kbps (3G) for Magenta Max.
That’s just enough for checking email, Facebook messaging, Google Maps, and basic web browsing.
However you can upgrade to faster 4G speeds for an additional daily fee. Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll receive a text message that lets you upgrade to the faster speeds.
The Magenta Max Plan also gives you unlimited free in-flight Wi-Fi via Gogo.
PRICE: The plans cost $70 – $85 USD per month depending on the options you pick.
International SIM Cards & eSIM
You can now purchase “global” or “international” SIM cards that allow you to use your cell phone at reduced rates around the world. Some examples of this include:
Basically, these services have special agreements with cell service providers around the world, charging you a slightly inflated fee to use them.
It’s a good option for people who don’t want to mess with buying a separate local sim card in each country they travel to.
Global prepaid SIM cards are best for travelers who are visiting a country (or many countries) for a short period of time.
In addition to physical SIM cards for international travel, there’s a brand new option called “eSIM”.
A regular SIM card, or “subscriber identity module”, must be inserted into your phone to let cellphone carriers know that you are subscribed to their service and give you access to their cell towers.
With the new eSIM technology, there’ no physical card that needs to be inserted into your phone. It is an electronic, or embedded, SIM “card”.
Make Sure Your Phone Is “Unlocked”
Is your smartphone unlocked? If you are from the United States, your smartphone might be “locked” to AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon (preventing you from using other service providers).
This can limit your options for using cheap international cell phone & data plans overseas.
One option is to buy a separate cheap unlocked international phone to use specifically when you’re traveling.
This international smartphone even has dual SIM card capability, so you can use one slot for home, and one for traveling.
Another option is to call your current provider and ask them what steps you need to take to unlock your phone, which may require paying a fee.
Once your phone is unlocked, you can use sim cards & global data plans from other companies when you’re traveling.
Buying Local SIM Cards
If your phone is already unlocked (so you can use SIM cards from different mobile carriers), then it’s possible to buy a local SIM card when you arrive at your destination and use a local prepaid cell phone plan.
Depending on the country, service can be pretty cheap. Usually 5GB of data costs about $20 – $50 USD.
Data speeds with a local mobile cell phone plan are often very fast with 4G LTE where available.
Often, you can buy these local SIM cards and plans at the destination’s airport. Just remember, your phone must be unlocked for it to work!
Examples From My Travels
- In Mexico I used TelCel. I paid about $25 USD for 5GB of data.
- In Thailand I used TrueMove. I paid about $30 USD for 14GB of data.
- In Italy I used Vodafone. I paid about €30 EUR for 15GB of data.
Every country will have their own local cell service providers. I generally like to go with the most popular one — simply ask locals once you arrive.
Other Ways To Stay In Touch
If you don’t plan on needing your phone 24/7 when you’re traveling, you can also stay connected to family and friends using VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) applications and video messaging programs like Google Voice, WhatsApp, Signal, and Skype.
One major benefit to using Google Voice or Skype, is that these services offer the ability to use a US-based phone number.
This means family, friends, or colleagues can reach you on a US number, even when you’re overseas. I have a Google Voice number that I use for my business.
But to use VOIP, your phone or computer must be connected to WiFi. Maybe at your hotel or a coffee shop, or by using mobile data from your cell provider.
My Travel Cell Phone Setup
At the moment I travel with a factory unlocked iPhone 13 Pro that I bought without a contract. This means I paid full price for the phone.
Normally they are subsidized by your carrier when you sign up for a contract.
My US number is usually connected to a Google Fi account (yes, they work with iPhones now). If I think I’ll need a local number, I’ll pick up a local SIM card when I arrive.
Finally, because my phone allows dual carriers, I also have a backup eSIM with global coverage from Nomad that I can top-up whenever I need. I’ll switch to this so my Google Fi account doesn’t get canceled if I’m going to be out of the country for many months. ★
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I hope you enjoyed my guide to international cell phone plans! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:
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