These days everybody is attached to their cell phone at the hip. It’s hard to imagine not relying on your cell phone for keeping in contact with loved ones, getting from point A to B, and so much more. The problem is, most phones won’t work overseas unless you’re using an international plan. Seems like a simple answer, but there might be a much better (and cheaper!) way to use your phone abroad. Keep reading to learn how to use your cell phone when traveling!
For international readers, this is going to be based largely on US phone plans. However, a lot of these tips will apply to you as well, so skip to the section International SIM Cards.
Most US phone carriers either have an international phone plan built in (T-Mobile & Sprint) or now allow you to sign up for an international plan to be used only while abroad (AT&T & Verizon). For those people with T-Mobile & Sprint who include international data, I would advise to just use that. Keep in mind, your data will be slowed down to 2G speeds which means it might not be the most reliable, but it’s something. If you’re wanting a little more speed, reach out to your respective carrier to inquire as they usually allow you to temporarily pay for higher international speeds.
If you’re a Verizon or AT&T user, you likely don’t have international data included in your plan. However, you have the option to add it while you’re abroad. For $10/day, you can use your same phone number, same data, and same plan for international use. Verizon calls this TravelPass and AT&T calls this International Day Pass. AT&T also includes Canada & Mexico in their normal phone plans for data, talk, and text. Verizon reduces the cost for Canada & Mexico to $5/day.
In order to set your phone up for this, just contact your phone carrier and ask them to add it for you before you travel. Once you arrive in your destination, turn off airplane mode and you’re good to go! You get charged over a rolling 24 hour period of time and only pay for the days you use it. While this can be a great option, not every country is included. You can see the link to the countries included for Verizon here and AT&T here.
International SIM Cards
If you’re like me and did the math for your 2-week long trip and thought $140 dollars ($10/day for 14 days) seemed high just to use your phone, you can use my favorite option: buy an International SIM Card. The tipping point for me when I tend to use an international SIM card instead of the $10/day option is if my trip is longer than 4ish days or if I’m traveling to a country not included on the inclusions list. This is personally my favorite way how to use your cell phone while traveling.
International SIMs unfortunately will not work with an active AT&T line as the phones are not unlocked. You must have an unlocked phone to use an international SIM card. Verizon phones are unlocked. If you have an old AT&T phone, you can ask them to unlock it for you. Keep in mind, this can take a while so don’t decide to do this a couple days before your trip.
This link here is an excellent resource for how to choose a phone company in whatever country you are traveling in. Some of the data (especially pricing) may be a little outdated, but it’s still an incredible resource. Pricing is very country dependent. I usually spend somewhere between $25-40 for a SIM card with more than enough data. On most occasions the major phone companies have a store at major airports so you can get your SIM card before you leave the airport. However, I’ve also had to chase down locations before when they weren’t at the airport. Do a little research before you leave so you know what to expect.
Other Helpful Tips
There are some places where I don’t think paying for data or getting a SIM card is necessary. If you’re going to spend the majority of your trip on a resort with WiFi or going to be in very remote areas, it may not be worth your money. There are even some cities where you can easily get away with using WiFi because it’s so abundant. You can use apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to call or message people over data instead of using texting. FaceTime Audio is another great way to call people without using cellular.
One thing I do regardless of the method I use is download offline maps with Google Maps. Not only will this help you if you have no data, but it’ll save your data if you’re using a SIM card or your own international plan.
In order to download offline maps with Google Maps, follow the steps below!
- Choose the location you want to download maps for and zoom your map in to that point. PRO TIP: I tend to zoom to a larger location than I actually need just in case I end up going a little outside of that area.
- Click the search bar and type in “ok maps” and click search.
- Position the box again over the area you want to download and click “DOWNLOAD.”
- Let the map download. The maps download faster if you keep the app open, but they will continue to download regardless. Maps last 30 days before they automatically erase.
Now you officially know how to use your cell phone while traveling internationally! Whether you live in the USA or another country, you can take advantage of these tips. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips that help you use your phone abroad!
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Maddie is the traveler behind A One Way Ticket. She has been traveling internationally for over 10 years and has visited 75+ countries on 6 continents. In addition to traveling herself, she’s been helping others plan their own travel for 6+ years. Maddie eats, sleeps, and breathes travel and loves to help others discover that same wanderlust!