Most of us need to stay connected. Do you even remember paying for long distance phone calls or even handwriting letters to pen pals? Remember what life was like when you had to develop photos or leave a message on an answering machine?
We are more dependent on our mobile devices than ever. We rely on them for instant communication, sending pictures and movies, viewing maps, researching topics, and more. Just because you leave the country does not mean you need to sacrifice your connection. Cell phone providers in the U.S. are making data usage abroad a little more accessible, but most plans are still expensive and very confusing at the same time. It can be intimidating to try and sort out what the fine print in each mobile providers international plans mean, and if you don’t do your research you could end up wasting hundreds of dollars.
We aim to provide you with the best options for staying connected when traveling abroad.
T-Mobile International Plans
T-Mobile, while claiming to be upfront about all costs can still be confusing when it comes to international travel. They do offer unlimited data with its Simple Choice Plan, which covers 140 countries, but speeds are very slow at 128kb/s. Sure something is better than nothing, but that doesn’t mean it is everything it seems to be with speeds 100 times slower than what they are at home in the U.S.
You can see which 140+ countries are covered in the unlimited data usage here. Remember you must have one of T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans in order to qualify for the free data so if you’re on an old plan, make sure you give T-Mobile’s customer service a call. If the country you are traveling to does happen to fall in the 140 covered countries, you still will have to pay twenty cents per minute for phone calls.
AT&T recently updated its plans to be simpler for travelers with its AT&T Passport packages.
Even with simplified plans, AT&T’s international rates are very expensive.
Charge (One-time for 30 days or monthly recurring)
Unlimited Texting3 (Text, picture & video)
Talk (Per minute*)
Cellular data (Includes email, Web browsing, social media posts, etc.)
AT&T Passport packages: Compatible device with domestic postpaid wireless service (voice, text, and data) required. Includes talk, text, and data coverage in over 190 countries. Actual data speeds vary by device/location. AT&T Passport Silver and Gold packages include Wi-Fi access at participating hotspots in over 18 countries. Must download AT&T Passport app and register to access hotspots. Countries listed at att.com/globalcountries. Requires one-time charge or monthly recurring charge.
Sprint offers free international calling and texting in select countries with its Open World Plan. The Open World Plan is really aimed at Latin America so I guess Sprint forgot to look at the rest of the world. For 20 countries, Sprint offers 1GB of free data usage and bills $30 per GB thereafter. Some of those countries included in the Open World Plan are Brazil, Honduras, Peru, Paraguay, and the rest can be found here.
For the countries not included in the Open World Plan, Sprint does offer roaming in countries for $30 per GB and calls for twenty cents per minute. Like Verizon, Sprint uses the CDMA network in the U.S. and you will need to make sure your current device is a GSM/LTE compatible phone.
Verizon’s international plans are very expensive. 100MB of data is very little these days considering a simple media message can use up to 5MB. Verizon’s phones also use CDMA technology within the U.S., so make sure you call Verizon customer service to see if your phone is compatible with the networks in the country you are traveling to.
One of the best things you can do to minimize data usage is to visit places with free WiFi. Free WiFi will get you off cellular provider networks, and you can use all of the data you want. Many hotels and coffee shops will offer free WiFi for its customers.
Bring an unlocked GSM phone and pick up a SIM card at the airport
One of the best things you can do before traveling abroad is to do your research on how to get local cell service. Many countries other than the U.S. offer prepaid plans on SIM cards straight from the airport. Yeah it might be a pain to locate one of these providers at the airport after a 10 or 15 hour flight, but the time spent up front can save you money and headaches. I’ve traveled to China, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, England, and Scotland in the past few years and having an unlocked phone was a life saver. Especially the tools that translate English into native languages which require data.
At every airport, I found local cellular providers with clear instructions on how to obtain a SIM card with a mobile plan. Airports are great places to buy these plans, because many of the shops are prepared for international travelers.
At London’s Heathrow airport you can visit the SIM Local shop and can even make an appointment in advance. In Shanghai at the Pudong airport, companies like China Unicom are fully prepared with prepaid SIM cards and plans that cost less than $20 for 1GB of data, unlimited calls and texts within China.
You will need an unlocked GSM smartphone if you want to use local carrier networks. Check with your cellular provider to see if they will unlock your phone before you go. If not, consider picking up a contract free phone.
Where to get unlocked phones
If you’re on a two-year contract or financed phone plan through one of the local U.S. carriers, unfortunately your phone may be locked to the provider. Your provider may prevent you from using your phone on another network if your device is not fully paid for. The rules of cell phone ownership are very confusing for a reason – providers can make more money that way.
You should always consider buying your smartphone outright, the only problem is if you want great performance your choices within the U.S. are limited to very expensive devices that can cost over $500. There are fantastic alternatives to those flagship devices, which are picking up steam now, from companies like Huawei, Xiaomi, Meizu, Letv and more. I know you haven’t heard of many of these companies, but Huawei made Google’s most recent flagship Nexus 6P. These companies simply do not have the marketing budget of Samsung and Apple to compete within the U.S. yet.
But you can still buy the unlocked smartphones through third party websites such as Gearbest.com. We frequently list some of the best deals for the devices and they are fully compatible with networks around the world. All you have to do is pop in a prepaid SIM card, and you’ll be on your merry way during your vacation or business trip overseas. You can get the unlocked phones brand new with free shipping for less than $100. Once you get back from your trip, just use the phone as a back-up, or better yet resell it on ebay or craigslist. Or you can even use the phone as your primary device at home in the U.S. There are hundreds of choices to select from.
The smartphones do run full Android so you will be familiar with the software. The only thing that will be unfamiliar is the brand name.
Main Features: Display: 5.5 inch 1280 x 720 HD Screen CPU: MTK6735 64bit Quad Core 1.0GHz GPU: Mali-T720 System: Android 5.1 RAM + ROM:2GB RAM + 16GB ROM Camera:Back camera 8.0MP ( Interpolation to 13.0MP ) with flashlight and auto focus + front camera 2.0MP ( Interpolation to 5.0MP ) Battery: 6000mAh large capacity built-in battery
5.7 inch MEIZU PRO 5 4G Phablet Android 5.1 Exynos 7420 Octa Core 1.5GHz 21.16MP + 5.0MP Camera 3GB RAM 32GB ROM HiFi Main Features: Display: 5.7 inch 1920 x 1080 2.5D FHD Screen, the Third Generation Corning Gorilla Glass CPU: Exynos 7420 Octa Core 1.5GHz GPU: Mali-T760 System: Android 5.1 (Flyme 4.5) RAM + ROM:3GB RAM + 32GB ROM Camera:Back camera 21.16MP with f/2.2 aperture + front camera 5.0MP with f/2.0 aperture Sensor: Hall Sensor, Gravity Sensor, Infrared Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor, E-compass Features: OTG, HiFi Bluetooth: 4.1 GPS: GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS SIM Card: Dual SIM dual standby, Dual Nano SIM
Staying connected through data
As you can see most of the international plans listed above do cost money to make phone calls. There are many apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, WeChat and Line which do allow for free texting and voice calling without incurring additional fees.
WeChat is a free messaging & calling app that allows you to easily connect with family & friends across countries. It’s the all-in-one communications app for free text (SMS/MMS), voice & video calls, moments, photo sharing, and games.
WhatsApp Messenger is a messaging app available for Android and other smartphones. WhatsApp uses your phone’s Internet connection (4G/3G/2G/EDGE or Wi-Fi, as available) to message and call friends and family. Switch from SMS to WhatsApp to send and receive messages, calls, photos, videos, and Voice Messages.
LINE reshapes communication around the globe, bringing you closer to your family, friends, and loved ones—for free. With voice and video calls, messages, and a limitless variety of exciting stickers, you’ll be able to express yourself in ways that you’ve never thought possible. With over 600 million users worldwide, LINE’s constantly expanding platform will continue to provide exciting new experiences and convenience.
Without question we use our smartphones and tablets more than ever. We are more reliant on our data connections with needs to make phone calls, use maps and GPS, send multimedia messages, email colleagues and more. You don’t have to give up the conveniences of staying connected just because you leave the country. And you certainly don’t need to pay an arm and a leg for service. Just do your research before you travel. Consider buying an unlocked device if your current device is not unlocked or is stuck to the CDMA network used by Verizon and Sprint.
Also consider downloading apps like WeChat and WhatsApp to stay connected without incurring additional voice fees. The apps are free to download at the Google Play Store. Do your homework and give your local providers a call before you go. You certainly don’t want unexpected charges to ruin your memories when you get home.