By Karen I. Chen
November 08, 2019
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You know the moment: As soon as the plane touches down, everyone immediately pulls out their cell phones, turns off airplane mode, and phones start to ding with the sound of notifications coming in. Now imagine if you could do that even when you’ve just landed in a different country. Ah, the sweet sound of international phone connectivity.

The convenience of having a working cell phone while traveling can make a world of difference. Think of how often you'll rely on your phone to use maps (How do I get from point A to point B?), Internet browsers (What time does the museum close?), messaging apps (Hey, are we still meeting at the restaurant later?), and mobile apps (I’ll grab an Uber to meet you!) – just in a single afternoon. You’ll need data, and perhaps a lot of it.

But before you start using your phone in a foreign destination, know that international roaming rates can be extremely expensive. Even if you don’t use your phone for calls and texts abroad, background updates to apps can run up unexpected roaming fees. If you don’t want to return home to find that you've somehow racked up $600 in international roaming charges, it’s important to look into your different options before you travel. What is your cell phone carrier’s international plan, and how much will it cost you? Does it include talk and text? How much data does it include, and at what speeds?

Below, we outline everything you need to know for each of the four major U.S. carriers:

  • AT&T International Plan
  • Verizon International Plan
  • T-Mobile International Plan
  • Sprint International Plan

In addition, we’ll also present some alternatives to potentially save you some money. Instead of simply paying your carrier to use your phone abroad, should you consider getting a foreign SIM card instead? How do mobile Wi-Fi devices work, and when are they worth using?

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how you’ll manage to use your phone abroad without paying exorbitantly for it, look no further. Below, find our definitive guide to staying connected while traveling around the globe.

International Phone Plans

The easiest option for continuing to use your phone while abroad is to pay your current carrier for its international plan. Not only is it the simplest, most hassle-free option, but depending on your carrier and plan, it can work out to be the most cost-effective choice as well. International roaming plans are typically best if you don’t plan to use your phone internationally for very long, as it can become expensive the longer you travel.

Before we delve into the specifics of each plan, some important things to know:

  • With all of the below plans, you will only be charged once you begin to use your phone in a foreign country. However, if you have cellular data turned on (i.e. if you’re not on airplane mode), these international plans may be activated by background data from apps refreshing, email syncing, and device or software updates.
  • Be sure to add these international plans to each device that you will use before your trip.
  • Once you start using your phone in your destination country, you will automatically be billed for as many days as you use it. As soon as you start to use your phone, you should receive a text that the international plan is active.
  • You’ll only be charged once per 24 hours (even if you travel between multiple countries).

AT&T International Plan

Pay per day:

Add an International Day Pass for $10 per day, per device, to use your plan (talk, text, and data) as you would at home in more than 100 countries. Your data allowance will be the same as your current plan, but you’ll get unlimited texts to any numbers in the world, plus unlimited calls to the U.S. and to the list of countries covered here.

For longer trips:

If you’re going to need cell phone coverage for a week or more, then it may be more cost-effective to get the AT&T Passport Plan. The plan includes: unlimited texts, phone calls for $0.35 per minute, and either 2GB of data for $70/month or 6GB for $140/month. With either the Day Pass or Passport Plan, be careful with your data usage; you’ll be charged $30 per GB of usage over your plan’s allowance. 

If you’re traveling to Canada or Mexico:

If you have an AT&T Unlimited &More or Unlimited &More Premium plan, you get unlimited talk and text plus access to your data plan at no extra charge within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Customers on other plans can add the Roam North America feature to their plans to receive these benefits.

Related12 Tips to Make International Travel Easier

Verizon International Plan

Pay per day:

For $10 per day per line, Verizon’s TravelPass Plan lets you use your domestic talk, text, and data plan in more than 185 countries outside of the U.S. Calls within the country you’re visiting and calls back to the U.S. are included, but calls to another country will incur additional international long-distance rates, which vary depending on the country.

For longer trips:

Verizon offers two monthly international plans: one for $70, which gives you 0.5GB of data, 100 minutes of talk, and 100 sent text messages; and the other for $130 that includes 2GB of data, 250 minutes of talk, and 1000 sent texts (with both options you can receive unlimited texts). Be mindful of data usage — each 0.5GB of data overage will cost an additional $25.

If you’re traveling to Canada or Mexico:

Verizon’s Above Unlimited, Beyond Unlimited, and Go Unlimited plans all let you use your home talk, text, and data allowances in Canada and Mexico, without further charge. Those who have other Verizon plans can buy the TravelPass for $5 per day for Canada or Mexico.

T-Mobile International Plan

You may have already seen the ads, and it’s true: T-Mobile’s Magenta and Magenta Plus plans give you unlimited texting and data at up to 2G speeds (although in actuality you may experience something more like 128kbps) in more than 210 countries at no additional cost. International calls cost $0.25 per minute. Note that the Essentials plan, T-Mobile’s most basic plan, includes unlimited international texting but no data, and prepaid plans do not include global coverage.

Data speeds are slow with T-Mobile’s included coverage, however, and if you want to use your phone for media streaming or just have faster data, you may want to purchase an International Pass with up to LTE speeds. There are three options: 512 MB of high-speed data for $5 a day; 5GB for $35, which can be used for up to 10 days, or 15GB for $50, which can be used for up to 30 days.

The great benefit of T-Mobile international plans is that even after you’ve used up all your allotted data, you can still use unlimited data and texting at Simple Global speeds, unlike other carriers, which charge you for data overages.

Another added perk for travelers: T-Mobile offers in-flight Wi-Fi through a partnership with Gogo. Get one hour free with Magenta or unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi with Magenta Plus.

If you’re traveling to Canada or Mexico:

Unlimited texts and data are included at no extra cost. You get 5GB of data at 4G LTE speeds, and after that it will throttle to slower speeds.

Sprint International Plan

Sprint’s Global Roaming is included with all Sprint plans, providing free international texting and basic data of up to 2G speeds at no extra cost. International calls cost $0.25 per minute in 200 countries worldwide.

If you have a need for faster data, you can purchase high-speed data passes from $5/day or $25 per week for most international locations.

T-Mobile and Sprint are doubly convenient as they require no activation prior to travel. Simply start using your phone while abroad and your included global coverage will kick in.

If you’re traveling to Canada or Mexico:

Texting and data at basic speeds are free on all plans. Additionally, Unlimited Premium subscribers get unlimited high-speed data, Unlimited Plus subscribers get 10GB, and Unlimited Basic subscribers get 5GB of high-speed data. On other plans, you can buy high-speed data at $2 per day or $10 per week.

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International Roaming Plan Alternatives

Instead of just paying your phone carrier for the ability to use your phone abroad, you may find that there are cheaper alternatives, such as using an international SIM card, purchasing data from third-party providers, getting Google’s wireless service Google Fi, or using a pocket WiFi device.

International and Local SIM Cards

If you plan to be abroad for a longer period of time — say for a year of teaching English, a two-month sabbatical, or even a month-long backpacking trip — it may make sense (and be more cost effective) to purchase a SIM card to use abroad. In order to use a local or international SIM card, however, you must have an unlocked, GSM-compatible phone with a SIM card slot.

How do I know if my phone is unlocked?

This means that your phone is paid off (you've paid all of of your phone plan installments) or you own it outright (you may have bought the phone at full price to begin with). You also have to go through the process of unlocking your phone with your carrier, which is often simply following a set of instructions online. If you bought your phone with Verizon, you're in luck: they only keep their phones locked for 60 days and then automatically unlock their phones.

What if my phone can't be unlocked?

If your current phone is still under contract, you can buy or rent a local phone in your destination (often for cheap) and buy a local SIM or buy or rent an international phone from companies like Mobal or Cellular Abroad. Or, if you’ve still got your old phone tucked away somewhere, unlock that phone and bring that with you to use while you travel.

Is my phone GSM compatible?

Of the four major U.S. carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile run on GSM networks, while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. If you’re with Verizon or Sprint, it’s probably a good idea to check with your carrier to see if your phone is compatible to use with international SIMs.

What is the difference between a local and an international SIM card?

Local SIM cards will only work in the specific country that you buy it in, although they typically provide the best rates because you’re effectively paying as a local, and they also provide fast data as you're using local networks. You can purchase a local SIM card from a vendor when you arrive in your destination country.

If you plan to travel through multiple countries, an international SIM card would be a better option as it allows you to use the same SIM in most countries worldwide. You can also purchase and set up an international SIM before you travel, saving you a trip to a wireless store once you’re there. However, international SIM rates can be even more expensive than your cell phone carrier’s international plans. Do your research to see if this turns out to be the best option for you. Companies such as WorldSIM, OneSimCard, Telestial, and Mobal all offer international SIM cards that provide different coverage at different price points.

If you’re traveling to Europe, you can also purchase a European SIM card that should work throughout Europe without having to change SIM cards in each new country. European SIMs can be cheaper than general international SIM cards.

How does using a SIM card work?

You can buy a local SIM card at most wireless stores, and even at some airports or convenience stores. Some places may require certain documentation such as your passport. Before leaving the store, have them help you put in the new SIM card (this also ensures that you’ve got the right size SIM card for your phone), and that you’re up and running on your new wireless network. Just make sure not to lose your original SIM so you can replace it when you go back home!

If you run out of minutes or data on the card, you can always pop back into the wireless carrier’s store (or in many countries, a convenience store), to top up. Do some quick research to figure out which carriers offer the most bang for your buck in your destination.

Data-only Providers

GigSky

While a local SIM is certainly a great, cost-efficient option, most travelers aren’t concerned with making calls and texting with a local phone number. If you just want to be able to have Internet access and use the apps on your phone, GigSky is a great option. (And in reality, you can easily call and message people with apps like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook.)

With GigSky’s international SIM card you’ll be able to receive mobile data in over 190 countries around the world. As with using any alternate SIM cards, you must have an unlocked phone. You can buy a physical GigSky SIM card ($9.99) or, if you have a dual SIM phone, you can use an eSIM without even having to switch out your current SIM. The GigSky SIM card is super easy to activate on your phone through their website before you travel, and GigSky’s pricing is competitive with mobile carriers: the most cost-effective plans give you 2GB of high-speed data for $30, which will last 15 days, or 5GB of data for $50 for 30 days. If you run out, you can always top up on the GigSky website.

Google Fi

For those traveling long-term across several countries, consider switching your wireless provider entirely to one that isn’t based in a single country. Google Fi provides data by switching seamlessly between T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. cellular networks, and it uses Wi-Fi to call and text whenever available. Unlike with other phone carriers, there are no contracts or activation fees, making it ideal for travel. However, Google Fi is still in the beta stage for many phones, so you’ll have to check before switching to make sure your phone is compatible. Using Google Fi requires a SIM card (or an eSIM if your phone is compatible), so you must have an unlocked phone to use it.

Google Fi’s pricing is monthly: $20 for unlimited talk and text, plus $10 per GB of data up to 6GB. Once you’ve hit 6GB of data, Bill Protection kicks in so you won’t ever pay more than $80, but you can continue to use free high-speed data up to 15GB, at which point data speeds slow to 256kbps. International calls cost only $0.20 per minute.

Portable Wi-Fi Hotspots

If you plan to do a lot of work while you're abroad, and you need constant access to Wi-Fi on your laptop instead of just on your phone, you might want to look into getting a portable Wi-Fi device. These provide Wi-Fi access wherever you bring it, plus, it can be accessed by multiple people and devices at once. Read all about mobile hotspots and find five good options here.

Wi-Fi Signal Hunting

Of course, if you don’t want to spend any money at all to use your phone abroad, you can simply be on the lookout for free Wi-Fi signal. In a perfect world, free, reliable Wi-Fi would be everywhere. But in reality, open Wi-Fi networks may be few and far between while you travel, and even when available, they often provide slow, spotty connection (or none at all). If you opt to wing it with open Wi-Fi networks, just make sure to leave your phone on airplane mode. You will still be able to connect to Wi-Fi, but this ensures that you won’t be charged international roaming fees because of background data running. To be extra cautious, turn off cellular data in the settings of your phone.

One Last Reminder

After investing time and money to be able to use your phone abroad, the last thing you'll want to discover is that your phone charger doesn't work with the local outlets. Make sure that you've got the proper adapters before you leave. You can look up your destination country's socket type here.

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