When my friend Johnny Jet asked me to update the article I wrote for Johnnyjet.com in 2013—entitled “How to stay connected overseas without going broke”—I told him that I would happily oblige. However, as an expert in the field (I’m the founder of Cellular Abroad and have written and spoken numerous times about the topic), I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task. This is because, generally speaking, while rates have gone down, the options and the confusion has gone up. In fact, it’s almost required that you become an expert in your own right just to figure out what your best options are for using your phone or tablet when traveling abroad.
Using your current phone and carrier abroad
Let’s start with the most obvious solution, which is to use your current phone and carrier when you go abroad. All the major US carriers (I call them the Big Four—Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon) allow international roaming.
Let’s start with Sprint, which probably best exemplifies why it’s challenging to understand the international service option. Sprint recently launched the International Value Roaming plan. This plan offers unlimited data and texts. This sounds like an amazing deal, and in fact it’s not bad if you’re very careful with the exact details of this plan. First, the unlimited data that they mention is only up to 2G speeds. What that means is that when you check your email and browse the web, the connection is very, very slow and you’ll more than likely not be able to use Skype or Google Maps. In addition, it’s not clear which countries the free, albeit slow, data service is available in.
There is a list, however, of places where making and receiving calls is just $0.20 per minute. This list includes several important destinations such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and the UK—but if you don’t remember that France, Switzerland, Austria, and other top destinations are not on that list, and you happen to be going there, you’ll pay $1.99 or $2.99 per minute in Europe, plus tax, while thinking you’re paying the $0.20 per minute as you did right across the border. Hence, you need to be very careful of the details of the plan.
There are more options, such as one that lets you add a faster internet connection, but since they’re only applicable in some destinations, my best advice is this:
—Call Sprint and find out exactly what they offer for your needs and destination OR
—Find another solution (more on this below)
The international plans of T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are also complex and are continuously changing, so rather than address every detail of the remaining Big Four US telecoms and their international options, I’ll just touch upon some of the current highlights:
First, let’s talk about T-Mobile. I personally use T-Mobile (so does Johnny) in the US and when I travel internationally. That said, I limit my usage to sending and receiving emails. T-Mobile offers free 2G data, which is too slow for me to surf the web or Skype with but fine for emailing, which I do a lot of.
For calling and faster data, I use a local SIM card, which I’ll explain below. T-Mobile’s international rates are good. They’re just $0.20 a minute plus tax in most places. If you rarely make and receive phone calls, their international plan might work well for you if you’re already a T-Mobile customer. I certainly wouldn’t switch to them if I were the occasional traveler just for those rates as there are other (better) solutions out there. I personally am a big fan of T-Mobile for stateside use because I have a strong signal where I happen to work, live and go.
AT&T offers several packages that give you X amount of data and discounted call rates internationally. For example, the Passport Pro is $120 and you get 800 MB of data and call rates of $0.35 per minute in most countries. If you aren’t planning on using data excessively (although 800 MB is a decent amount) and don’t plan on making or receiving a lot of calls (the advertised $0.35 per minute is closer to $0.45 after taxes and fees) this may work for you.
Verizon also has a couple of money-saving packages but, again, you’ll have to dig for them. The standard rates with the Preferred Pricing, which costs $25 a month, include 100 MB of data (not much) and allow you the discounted rates of $1.79 per minute in 140 countries. For extra fees, you can add a bundle of call minutes and additional data. In fact, for a reasonable $85 (say $100 with taxes) you get 250 MB of data and 250 minutes of calling. This is not a bad deal but as previously mentioned, it’s not clearly promoted on Verizon’s own website nor may all customer service reps know about this deal. Plus, very few people know exactly what 250 MB of data equates to.
Pros and cons of using your provider
While some of these plans can be a good deal, I think the main problems with the international service options that the Big Four offer (particularly the “bundles”) are that the good deals don’t always exist in the country where you’re traveling. And, if you go over your allotted bundle amounts, the data speeds can either slow to a grind or there can be huge overages.
I’m going to delve into this further because some of these overages can be problematic. I have seen roaming bills for up to $38,000 for short trips—and not from CEOs with expense accounts but from your average leisure travelers who were confused by their carriers’ roaming plan. And who wouldn’t be? I certainly am!
As a quick recap, here are five pros and five cons about roaming with your own carrier:
1. Convenient (use your current phone)
2. You keep your same number
3. May be affordable, depending on your needs, your carrier and where you are going
4. Probably works worldwide
5. Don’t have to deal with SIM cards
1. May be outrageously expensive depending on your needs
2. You have to keep your own number (not always a good thing if you’re trying to get away)
3. You won’t have a local number
4. Service is limited (ex. Probably can’t use your tablet or PC)
5. The overages can be huge
While using your usual provider works for some people, it definitely does not work for others. Here are some examples of when using your Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, or T-Mobile service overseas won’t work well for you:
- If you want to use your tablet or if you use copious amounts of data for work or entertainment purposes, roaming with your provider just doesn’t cut it
- If the painfully, albeit free 2G data speeds that some providers offer is too slow (won’t be able to Skype or use Google Maps) and frustrating (won’t be able to watch videos) for you, then this won’t work either
- If you have friends and family in the country where you’ll be visiting or doing a business trip in China for example, your local contacts will have to go through the expense and confusion of calling your US phone number
- If you want to get away from it all and not having anyone and everyone reach you while you are on vacation, using your own service provider is not a good option
Local SIM cards—and locked phones
A fair amount of information has been written about local SIM cards. If roaming with your current carrier won’t work for you for some of the reasons mentioned above, you certainly should look at bypassing your carrier all together and using another provider. While carriers tend to “lock” their phones (meaning you cannot put a different SIM chip into the phone), there are usually ways around that. For those that don’t know, the SIM card is what gives you the service. If you have an AT&T SIM card, you have AT&T’s service, if you have an Italian SIM card for example, you’ll have the Italian company’s service. Some phones, like Verizon’s iPhone 5 and iPhone 6, already come unlocked. If you have a phone with another provider such as AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint, it is probably not unlocked but, they may be able to unlock one of the older phones you have…so don’t get rid of your iPhone 4 just yet. Alternatively, you can rent or buy an unlocked phone.
You can often buy a local SIM card when you travel overseas and put it into your unlocked phone. You may also be able to get a SIM card online prior to your departure, particularly if you’re traveling to popular destinations like Europe, China or Australia. There are two basic types of SIM cards: local or “country-specific” SIM cards and roaming SIM cards. A country-specific SIM card is good for travelers only going to one country. Call and data rates are, generally speaking, phenomenally low. However, if you’ll be traveling throughout Europe, for example, buying local SIM cards for each country would become a juggling act and at the end of the day, possibly more expensive. Roaming SIM cards are SIM cards that work all over the globe. The rates are higher than using a local SIM card but usually a lot lower than roaming with your US-based provider.
To give you an example of the rates of a local SIM card: You can often get unlimited calling within the country, a couple of GB of high-speed data and maybe an hour or two of calls to the United States of Canada for about $50. If you get it before your trip, you’ll pay a surcharge but you won’t have to go track down a SIM card when you land, which can definitely be a challenge—especially if you don’t speak the local language. Roaming SIM cards rates vary tremendously but usually with them you’ll save quite a bit over what you’d pay to your usual provider. Plus, the charges are, generally speaking, a lot more transparent and it’s virtually impossible to have an unexpectedly high bill.
Personally, what I do is a hybrid. While this works great for me, very few people have the knowledge to know that these options exist—and some may find them too complicated. As previously mentioned, T-Mobile works great overseas for checking emails with my Blackberry phone. This is key for me because, although officially “on vacation,” I would never be able to truly enjoy my vacation if I didn’t have a pulse on what’s going on back in the office. Since I have friends and family in Italy, where I usually travel, it’s important for me to have a local cell phone number. T-Mobile’s international rates are certainly not bad compared to the other US carriers. Still, as they are at about $0.25 per minute including tax, I’d spend several hundred dollars in roaming fees with them.
So instead, I forward my calls through a service that connects me with my Italian phone number for literally pennies per minute. There are a few that I know of, including the one that Cellular Abroad provides. This covers me for emailing and making and receiving calls in Italy and back home. Back home, I use my iPad a lot to watch videos as well as to catch up on the news. Since I want to do that in Italy, as does my wife, and my little boy wants to watch Yo Gabba Gabba (kid’s videos), I bring a mobile hotspot with virtually unlimited data. A hotspot is a small device that, with the right data SIM card, creates a Wi-Fi signal wherever you are, allowing anyone with a Wi-Fi enabled device, like an iPad, and a password to log on.
As you can see, there are many solutions and options available for the traveler who wants to stay in touch. Having more solutions is a plus if you’re willing to figure out what it is that you personally need and spend the time and make the inquiries to find out how to accommodate that. There’s no one solution that one can say is the best solution because everyone has different needs. It would be like someone saying that the best place to go on vacation in the world is Paris when your idea of a vacation is spending a day at the beach.
In sum, my advice is to determine what you think you’ll need from your trip and go from there. Need to stay in touch with the office? You may need all the different options that I use. Need to truly get away from it all? You may need to leave a message on your voicemail saying, “Gone fishing. Talk to you when I get back” and just leave your phone at home. Whatever your needs are, in most cases, if you take the time and energy, you can find them—without the risk of a $38,000 phone bill.
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Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.