The last thing you want to come home to after an international trip is an unexpected cell phone bill. But making sure your cel phone will work is often low down on your pre-trip checklist, and it can be pretty confusing too.
Of course, it’s important to have a working phone for safety reasons as well as social and practical considerations. So, before you get stuck trying to unlock your phone on the go or get left with hefty data roaming fees, brush up on these four common ways to go about prepping your phone for international travel.
The cheapest way to approach data roaming abroad is to use a foreign SIM card for the country you’re traveling in. These can often be purchased at the airport and usually cost between $1-2 (or are free with purchase of a pre-paid plan). You can then purchase a prepaid data and texting plan with your new international carrier. Keep in mind this will give you a different phone number for the time you use the SIM card. Basic data and text plans are usually way less than any U.S. carriers’ international plan or their hefty data charges.
When I traveled to Australia for nine months, I went this route and paid around $25 per month for a simple data and texting plan. And, I was able to add extra gigabytes of data as I needed per month.
The one caveat is that your phone must be on the GSM network (most smartphones are) and unlocked for it to accept a different carrier’s SIM card. The steps for unlocking your phone vary by carrier and often change, so I recommend calling your provider or going into a store to follow the correct steps. Be wary of third parties that offer to unlock your phone; this may violate your contract with your carrier, so make sure to read your contract before considering this option.
Go This Route If … you’re traveling to one country for an extended period of time and want to use your phone as you normally would in the U.S.
Use your current carrier's international plan
While these vary by carrier, many U.S. carriers will offer an international plan for travel abroad. They are often data-limiting and can get very expensive, but they’re still better than the going rates you’d pay without putting this package on your plan.
For example, on a recent trip to Colombia, I put on AT&T’s basic international package for $30 because I was only traveling for a week. I also knew I wouldn’t need access to a lot of data since I was going on a group tour with G Adventures and wouldn’t need to rely on Google Maps. I was very happy I had calling and data for one of the times I got lost from the group and needed a map. If I hadn’t placed this package on my phone I would have been charged over $100 even for the little amount of data I used.
Go This Route If … you just want access to data and calling in case of emergencies, but won’t be reliant on coverage. This is perfect if you plan to keep your phone in airplane mode and mainly use Wi-Fi.
Use a global coverage carrier
If you travel internationally more than five times a year, a switch to a global coverage carrier may be a good idea. Carriers like T-Mobile offer global coverage plans with unlimited data, but its service is more reliable in some countries than others. If you go this route, make sure the countries you travel to most often are covered on the carrier’s global coverage plan.
Go This Route If … you travel to the same international destinations frequently and know you can rely on a certain carrier for coverage.
Get a pre-paid phone for overseas calls
If you don’t mind going back to the (digital) Stone Age, using a simple pre-paid phone is a cheap and easy way to make calls and send/receive texts during your travels. Many international airports have a local carrier’s booth with phones and plans to choose from. So, if you don’t mind using buttons to text, this route can save you lots of money.
For a little more money, you can get a screen phone, which is obviously better if you’re planning to use the phone for everyday use. Most international phones will come already unlocked, so you can use it and purchase SIM cards for future trips. (Consider it an investment.)
Go This Route If … you just want a simple phone for texting and calling abroad or if you can’t get your phone unlocked and need a phone for everyday use.
Personal hot spots have recently become a new option in the never-ending search for inexpensive Wi-Fi. They often are pricey, require additional day-passes for usage, and die quickly.
Go This Route If … you need a lot of data and are willing to pay daily charges (often times over $10 per day), and don’t mind carrying around the device.