What are my international phone plan options when traveling abroad?
In today’s digital age it is hard to disconnect, especially from our phones. I get it! I can’t handle the mere thought of not having access to my phone on a plane, let alone an entire trip. Like you, I need to be able to check in on my kids, post to social media, distract my kids with a new game when we are at a restaurant, check Google Maps when I am utterly, helplessly lost, and find a restaurant on Yelp, because I sure as heck am not going to eat a bad meal when I’m in Italy. OK, but what are your international phone plan options when traveling?
International phone plan options
When I really sat down to think about it I came up with five: roaming fees, SIM cards, Wi-Fi, mobile hotspots and travel plans on your home cell service. Here is how these phone plans and Wi-Fi options break down. I’ve had experience with them all, but you will have to decide the best one for you.
Roaming on your home mobile plan
Don’t do it. You will spend hundreds of dollars in roaming fees. A few extra minutes of your time is worth it in the end.
Buy a SIM card at home
There are multiple companies that allow you to buy a SIM card for the country you are visiting. These companies will ship a SIM card to your home before you leave. This way when you land you can pop that local SIM card in your phone and be ready to go. There is generally an upcharge for these SIM cards.
Make sure you used a reputable company, not just the cheapest company. I’ve had cards that don’t work when I arrive. Personally, I find it easier and cheaper to buy a SIM card after I land at my destination if I need one. However, my friend Amber at GlobalMunchkins.com recommends Fast Internet Abroad with MTX Connect. She uses this company whenever she travels with her five kids without any problems.
Buy a SIM card at your destination
Buying a SIM card at your destination is the simplest option and can be cheaper than buying a SIM card before you leave home. Many convenience stores (at least in Europe) offer SIM cards. Check at the airport newsstands. You can also go to most major cellular carriers in major cities and ask for a prepaid SIM card. If it is a tourist area, the cell provider will know what to give you. Be prepared to give them your passport. The sales clerk will need to record your passport number. You can only get one SIM card per passport and all passport holders must be present.
Wi-Fi while abroad
Many destinations, especially in Europe, understand the power of Wi-Fi. Restaurants will offer it for free to customers. They want you to post about them on social media. You can get pretty far on Wi-Fi alone. If you don’t need to make actual phone calls and you can stick to Skype and Facetime, you can get by just using Wi-Fi for most trips.
Personal Mobile HotSpot
Companies like TEP Wireless allow you to create a mobile WiFi hotspot so you can use your phone, laptop and tablets no matter where you are. You can make Skype calls, Facetime with loved ones back home AND get work done if you need to stay connected with the office so you can be on the road longer.
This hotspot still requires a cell signal, so if you are travel to the middle of nowhere with no cell service, you may not be able to get a signal. If you stick to major areas with cell service though, you will be good to go. Hiking through Glencoe and the Scottish Highlands may give you a few patchy spots though.
Verizon Travel Pass
I’ve been a Verizon customer for a long time, sometimes to the chagrin of my wallet. It’s the only cell plan that gives me reliable service at home though, so I’m a bit stuck. Verizon offers a Travel Pass that allows you to pay per day when you travel or book a month long pass for a set fee.
Depending on how long you will be traveling and how many minutes/data you will need to use, the month long plan can work in your favor. If you are going to Canada or Mexico, the daily pass may be the cheaper option for you.
If you are traveling outside of Canada and Mexico, call Verizon to make sure the Travel Pass covers the countries you will be going to. Also, explain to the agent what you will need your phone for and they can help you figure out what Travel Pass is best for your trip. If the cost is more than $40 for a month, you may be better off buying a local SIM card with data, sticking to Wi-Fi only on your phone or renting a mobile hotspot.
I have several friends who swear by T-Mobile for international travel. The problem is, T-Mobile doesn’t always have the best domestic service in the U.S. Weird, I know!
The T-Mobile One plan gives you access to your text and data while abroad, but not necessarily calls. Also, if someone calls you from another country or you call them, you will be charged those international calling charges. So, while this may seem like a great deal, be careful. Those added charges could add up. It may still be fine for what you need, just make sure you use your phone accordingly. Don’t get sucked in thinking you can use your phone for whatever you want like back home. I’ve had T-Mobile friends get burned by this one while working in South America with local clients.
A note about unlocked cell phones
Many carriers will tell you that you have to have an unlocked cell phone in order to put a different SIM card in it. Unless you have a phone that you bought before 2014 your phone is probably unlocked. Most phones since then are sold unlocked, including the iPhone 6 and up. If you aren’t sure, just call up your provider. If your phone is locked, ask them to unlock it.