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How do I use my phone while traveling overseas? There are a few options for travelers to keep in touch on the road with international cell phone service and data plans.
I’ve had a lot of questions about how to use a cell phone 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 easier than you think!
Why would I even want a working mobile phone while traveling?
First of all, I’m not on vacation. I run this blog as a small business. Local tour operators, clients, and public relations people need the ability to contact me. Staying active on social media is a major part of my business model too.
While I’d love to tell you that wifi is fast and cheap everywhere, that’s just not the case.
A working cell phone allows me to call locals for meetups, get directions, or ask for recommendations. I can call a guesthouse to inquire if they have availability for the night. I can check on bus schedules, pull up Google Maps if I’m lost, get help in an emergency, and much more.
If you have a cell phone plan with a major carrier in the US, you can usually continue to use your phone while traveling overseas. Keeping the same phone number and everything.
While this is extremely convenient, it can be ASTRONOMICALLY expensive.
These companies (Verizon, AT&T) charge ridiculously high fees for international roaming, and you can easily return home to a phone bill that costs more than your whole vacation did!
But if you’re traveling overseas for a short period of time, and don’t plan on using your phone much, it might be the best option. Just make sure to keep the phone in “airplane mode” when not in use, otherwise, you can rack up big fees without knowing it.
It’s wise to call your provider to make sure the phone will even work at your planned destination, and confirm how much their international plans cost if not included in your regular service.
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 service overseas.
One option is to buy a separate cheap unlocked international phone to use specifically when you’re traveling.
Another option is to call AT&T or Verizon 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 & data plans from other companies when you’re traveling.
International Cell Phone Service
A whole new industry has sprung up around using your cell phone overseas, due to the high rates many mobile carriers like AT&T or Verizon charge for international roaming while traveling.
You can now purchase “global” or “international” sim cards that allow you to use your cell phone at reduced rates around the world. You can also rent mobile wifi hotspots that work overseas. Some examples of this include:
- TEP Wireless
Basically, these services have special agreements with cell service providers around the world, charging you an inflated fee to use them. These options are for people who don’t want to mess with buying a separate local sim card in each country they travel to.
Global sim cards or mobile hotspot rentals are best for travelers who are visiting a country for a short period of time.
For example, GAP year students. Business travelers. People on a week long vacation.
There’s a problem though. These services can be unreliable and expensive. Renting a mobile hotspot can cost $7-$10 a day. Data speeds are often throttled after a certain amount has been used, or coverage is sparse.
In my experience, global sim cards and international wifi hotspots generally aren’t worth the cost unless you’re a serious business traveler with cash to burn.
If you’re a T-Mobile customer, they offer something called T-Mobile ONE Plus International. Basically they give you free international data roaming in over 140 countries.
But there’s a catch. Data speeds are slow, about 256kbps or 2G. That’s just enough for checking email, Facebook, and some basic web browsing.
You can also make voice calls when you travel, but those calls will cost $0.20 a minute.
One bonus is that if you travel to Mexico or Canada, you’ll get the same unlimited data & calling service as you do in the United States.
The Plus International plan also includes free GoGo in-flight WiFi on airplanes!
Local SIM Cards
If your phone is already unlocked (which means you’re able to use SIM cards from different cell companies), then it’s possible to buy a local SIM card when you arrive at your destination and use a local pre-paid cell phone plan.
This is by far the cheapest option out there, especially for longer-term travel. It usually costs $2 – $10 to buy a local SIM card — which you can then fill with talk time or data on demand.
Depending on the country, service can be extremely cheap. Usually 4gb of data costs about $30 – $50 USD. Even if you’re only traveling somewhere for a week, it’s still cheaper than renting a wifi hotspot for $10 a day, plus you can make regular local phone calls!
Data speeds with a local smartphone plan are always very fast 4G LTE where available.
Before I buy a local SIM card, I try to research which company has the best coverage for the particular area I’ll be traveling in. You can go online and ask other travelers who’ve been there recently or wait until you arrive and ask locals which provider they prefer.
Often, you can buy these sim cards/service at your destination airport, making the transition extremely smooth.
What’s My Current Setup?
At the moment I travel with a factory unlocked iPhone 7 I bought without a contract (which means you have to pay full price for the phone, normally phones are subsidized by AT&T or Verizon).
When I’m visiting the United States, I use a Net 10 Wireless prepaid SIM card that gives me unlimited talk & text plus 4GB of data for around $50 a month with no contract.
If I’m going to be living in a foreign country for a few weeks or months, I’ll pick up a local SIM card and buy a pre-paid mobile phone plan, giving me a local phone number and fast internet access in country.
In Mexico I use TelCel. The sim card costs about $10, and I pay about $25 a month for voice, text, and 3GB of 4G data.
In Thailand I use TrueMove. The sim card is free, and I pay about $30 a month for 14GB of 4G data. So cheap!
Every country will have their own local cell service providers. I generally like to go with the most popular one — which is easy to find by simply asking locals once you arrive. If you run out of minutes or data, simply buy more at any convenience store or shopping center. Easy & cheap!
Why can’t American cell companies be more like the rest of the world? ★
Traveling Somewhere Soon?
Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.
READ MORE TRAVEL TIPS
How do you stay in touch on the road? Have any questions about international cell service? Drop me a message in the comments below!