There are four great options for using your cell phone during international travel, and every traveler has their own preference. Some travelers function with no service at all, while others prefer to pay for unlimited data from their usual provider to keep things simple.
Many of your phone’s most important travel functions — camera, reading material for long flights, travel alarm, navigation service, storing your travel plans, messaging friends back home, updating social media — can be managed without a service plan, as long as you have the right apps and access to Wi-Fi in your lodging. But peoples’ need for data and calling service varies, so no one choice is right for everyone.
About Your Phone
In many parts of the world, your smartphone costs more than the average person makes in a year. It is a temptation to hungry thieves.
- Keep your phone securely put away, preferably in a zippered pocket. Don’t wave it around on the street or drop it in an open bag
- Bring an old phone if you have one, and leave your expensive one at home
- Carry travel insurance, which will at least cover a portion of your phone’s value (usually $500)
- If your phone is stolen, fill out a police report so you can make an insurance claim
- Load your phone with these five essential travel apps before you leave home.
Wi-Fi Only: Great for Short-Term Travel
It’s surprisingly easy to survive overseas for a couple of weeks with no service at all, as long as you have regular access to Wi-Fi and a few basic skills. Here’s how to do it:
- Calls & Texting: Sign up for Google Voice (free). This gives you a phone number you can use for calling and texting over any Wi-Fi connection. Give your friends & family this number to use while you’re traveling. You won’t always be instantly accessible, but you can return messages or calls whenever have Wi-Fi.
- Navigation: When you arrive at your destination, bring up Google Maps and download the map of the city you’re in for offline viewing. (I also recommend saving the location of your lodging as a “starred location” so you can always find your way home.
- Travel Planning: You’ll need to look things up while you’re online — make sure you know how to take screenshots before you leave home so you can save important info to view offline. If you use TripIt to store all the details of your travel plans, open the app any time you make new plans so it can download the info to your phone. You can also coordinate TripIt with iCal or Google Calendar so your info will be available for offline viewing.
- Translation: If you want to use Google Translate offline, make sure you download the language you need for offline use.
- Make sure your data and roaming are turned off (or pop out your SIM card) and you have all the functionality you need with no extra phone bill at all. When you arrive back home, you can collect all your texts and voice mails.
The upside: You pay nothing extra at all and don’t need to open your phone.
The downside: You’ll have to wait until you get back to your hotel or to a Wi-Fi cafe to check Facebook, upload photos, look something up, or return messages.
Who it’s best for: Short term travelers, people on group tours who don’t need to make their own arrangements or find their own way, old-school travelers who are used to managing without constant data access.
Your Carrier: The Easiest Choice
Nothing beats the convenience of having uninterrupted service from your current carrier. You get to keep your same phone number for texting or calling home and you don’t have to learn how to inert a new SIM card or keep track of your old one. This used to be a pricey option, but in recent years some carriers have gotten very competitive as their customers are demanding service overseas.
Ask your carrier these questions before you make up your mind:
- Can you set up the service for a short time, or will you need to pay for a whole month?
- Will there be any extra cost to call or text your home country?
- How much data is included? At what speed?
- What is the charge if you go over the data limit?
- Do they have good coverage in the place you’ll be visiting?
- How should you contact customer service if you have trouble with your service?
Offerings are constantly changing, but here’s a recent rundown on what the major carriers charge for international service.
The upside: Keep your phone number, super simple process, nothing to fuss with during your valuable vacation time
The downside: Can be expensive, some carriers offer much slower data internationally
Who it’s best for: Short-term travelers who want to enjoy their vacation without a lot of fuss.
Prepaid Sim Card: Local Service At A Great Price
In most countries, you can buy a Sim card from a local carrier and drop it into your phone to have the same calling, text, and data that the locals use. This sounds complicated, and it can feel a little scary to wait until you arrive to be certain how your phone will work, but it’s actually surprisingly simple.
- Your phone must be unlocked. This is something to ask your carrier about. They can usually unlock your phone for you remotely, but if you’re not sure how to change your SIM card, you might want to stop by a service location and ask them to show you how.
- Buy a SIM card after you arrive. Depending on what country you’re visiting, you may be able to buy a card at any convenience store or newsstand, or you may need to look for a phone service kiosk. Sometimes you can buy a SIM card right in the airport. Fees usually range from $10-20 USD per month for unlimited calling and texting and a gigabyte or so of data. Many countries offer shorter term prepaid SIM cards for tourists.
- You’ll have a different phone number. Changing the SIM card changes your phone number, but doesn’t impact your contacts, apps, photos, or anything else stored in your phone. You’ll be able to make local calls, but if you want to call or text home you’ll need to use an app (read about Google Voice above).
Here’s a site that lists what’s available in different countries and what you can expect to pay. There are also international SIM cards for people who are visiting multiple countries — here’s a good discussion of the pros and cons of those.
The upside: Inexpensive access to data, free local calls for making arrangements and reservations.
The downside: A different phone number, calling home can be expensive if you don’t stick to wi-fi calling
Who it’s best for: Long-term travelers, people who are making their own arrangements, people who work on the road and use a lot of data
Google Project Fi: A True International Plan
Google’s new phone service, known as Project Fi, contracts with local providers to offer seamless service in 135+ countries. Your phone automatically switches between providers as needed. I’ve used my Google Fi in seven countries on four continents in the last six months, and it’s worked seamlessly within minutes of landing each time. My bills are lower than most of my American friends, whether I’m traveling or spending time in the States.
Calls to the U.S. have a cost from some countries (usually 20¢ per minute) although you can often get around that by using the built-in wi-fi calling option. Your base bill is $20 per month for unlimited local calling and texts, then you pay an additional $10 per gigabyte of data (capped at $60, but if you don’t stream music or video, it’s easy to use just 1 or 2 gigs per month). A second SIM card for your tablet to share your data is free.
The upside: This is a really affordable plan at home or abroad.
The downside: This is a long-term plan that would replace your current carrier, so if you’re currently under contract you might not want to switch. But you can request the SIM card for free and try it out at any time for no cost, and theoretically you could use your Google Fi sim for a trip and cancel it afterward.
Who it’s best for: Anyone who wants an affordable phone plan, but especially nomads, long-term travelers, and frequent travelers.
Note: If you use my invitation link to sign up for Google Fi, you and I will both get a bonus.