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.
I’ve had a lot of questions about how to use a cellphone 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 cellphone 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 cellphone 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 (a week), 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.
International Cell Phone Service
A whole new industry has sprung up around using your cell phone overseas, due to the ridiculous rates many mobile carriers charge for international roaming. You can now purchase “global” or “international” sim cards that allow you to use your cell phone at reduced rates around the world.
One example is to rent a mobile hotspot device like Tep Wireless, which uses a special sim card and agreements with cell service providers around the world.
Global sim cards or mobile hotspot rental are best for travelers who are visiting many different countries in a short period of time.
For example, GAP year students or those traveling on a round-the-world ticket. It doesn’t matter how many countries you visit, you’ll keep the same phone number, have access to voice, texting, and data, but spend a lot less on your cell service.
Pay as you go and only put money on when you need it. But keep in mind you must have a GSM carrier unlocked cell phone for the SIM card to work.
If your phone is locked to AT&T or another provider, one option is to buy a separate cheap unlocked international phone to use for your trip.
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 country 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 refill with extra minutes or data on demand.
The downside to local SIM cards is they can be confusing sometimes.
It took me a while to figure out why my prepaid minutes would magically disappear in Central American countries. Turns out they were only good for a week before they expired! Every company will have it’s own special rules to learn, which might be difficult if you don’t speak the language.
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.
What’s My Current Setup?
At the moment I travel with a factory unlocked iPhone 6 I bought without a contract (which means you have to pay full price for the phone, as normally the 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 3GB 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 cellphone plan there, giving me a local phone number and internet access.
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.
Every country will have their own providers. I generally like to go with the most popular one — which is easy to find by simply asking locals when 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 NEXT: My Complete Travel Gear Guide
How do you stay in touch on the road?
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