Having a phone that works exactly like home when you travel abroad is probably the best thing you can do to reduce stress and maximize your ability to enjoy wherever you are. Being able to use Google Maps and Translate, keeping in touch with friends and family at home, having easy access to booking sites like Orbitz and Expedia in case of delays, these are just some of the ways in which access to The Internet is invaluable while you are abroad.
But depending on your operator, the use of data outside the United States can be expensive. Dreading roaming rates alone can cause stress, at any time when you spend online potentially accumulating invoices that destroy the budget.
It does not have to be this way. As someone who traveled in 12 different countries only last year, I learned many ways to travel with your current low-cost phone, or at least for less than you might think.
If you are traveling regularly outside of the United States, consult our Best Cellular Plan for guidance on frequent international travel. Changing carriers (and perhaps phones) can save you money in the long run.
Option 1: do nothing (or almost nothing)
Every cell phone company has a sort of international roaming option. These range from excellent to extortion and are your easiest option (though not often the best).
If your operator is T-Mobile, Sprint or Google Project Fi, you're covered by unlimited data in most countries around the world. It is difficult to beat it for ease. With T-Mobile and Sprint, you get unlimited but relatively slow 2G data. It's fast enough for most messaging applications, translation tools, and maps (just be sure to download offline maps over Wi-Fi). But it's too slow to easily use heavy social media like Instagram or Snapchat: take a look at Options 2 and 3 below for ways to get a faster service, if this is a priority. With Google Project Fi, you get pretty much the same high-speed 4G you have at home.
For the most part, for any of the three aforementioned vectors, it is sufficient to enable "roaming data" in the phone settings to start using the data. But it is better to check with your supplier to be sure.
If you have AT & T or Verizon (PDF), make sure your mobile and roaming data is disabled. Paid international roaming charges for both companies are exorbitant. These companies offer temporary data packages, but they are also expensive. We will cover those in the next section.
Fortunately, if you're on AT & T or Verizon and do not want to pay their fees, it does not mean you're completely disconnected from the Internet while you're traveling. Public Wi-Fi is everywhere and all the data you use while connected is not considered roaming. Depending on where you are going, you will probably find free Wi-Fi in restaurants, tourist spots and even in some public parks and subway stations. And of course, almost all hotels and hostels will have Wi-Fi. However, the more expensive the accommodation is, the more likely you will have to pay extra for Internet access.
If you use public Wi-Fi, it's better not to access banking services or other sensitive information without a VPN, just for security.
Option 2: temporary data passes
These have different names: the Verizon $ 10 TravelPass, the AT & T International $ 10 Day Pass, the T-Mobile International $ 5 Pass and the International High Speed Roaming Pass from $ 5 to $ 10 from Sprint, but all are the same idea. They provide a fixed amount of roaming data, usable for a certain period of time, at a price. Do you need 4G data while you're in Paris? This will be $ 5 to $ 10 a day. Most companies offer a monthly data value with a slight discount on the daily rate. AT & T, for example, will sell you 1 gigabyte of international roaming data to be used in the course of a month for $ 60; in Verizon, it's half a gigabyte for $ 70.
Without a doubt, these are all expensive, albeit less than traditional roaming charges. If you can not unlock the phone (it's new, for example), data passes may be the only way to use the phone while traveling without having to bankrupt you. For T-Mobile and Sprint, the purchase of a data pass, which you can do when you want before leaving or while traveling, is a way to temporarily relieve the hassle of slow 2G data. And some monthly plans, like Verizon's Above Unlimited, include some free data that exceeds each billing period.
As far as Project Fi is concerned, it does not sell subscriptions, as you are already receiving 4G data, wherever it is available, at the same speed with which you are paying data at home.
For most non-Fi people, a far better option for data passes is to get a local SIM card.
Option 3: Get a local SIM card
This is a common option everywhere except in the United States. A SIM, or subscriber identity form, is a removable chip roughly the size of a microSD card. It allows your current phone to work in another country as if you had purchased the phone there: local number, cheap and fast data and so on.
When you arrive in a new country, go to a local telecommunications store (equivalent to Verizon or AT & T, in other words) and buy a temporary SIM. It's so easy These are often referred to as "pay-as-you-go", but some areas offer special SIM offers for travelers. In any case, they are generally good for a month and include more data than you will probably use. Probably the store will help you install it, which takes a few seconds. After a phone reboot and a few more minutes, the phone works as if I had bought it in that country. When your journey is over and you are heading home, replace the old SIM and your phone will return to normal (make sure you have disabled data roaming until you return to the US, though).
I have done dozens of times in countries all over the world. It takes maybe half an hour to get out of my first day in the country, and it makes traveling much easier; my phone works exactly like home. The only two drawbacks: you will not be using your "home" number while you are traveling, and you will be without assistance from the moment you arrive in the country until you arrive at a telecommunications store. (This is the case when a $ 5 to $ 10 pass can be useful if you're worried about going to town or finding your accommodation without phone service.)
You can also buy SIM at the airport and many souvenir / tourist shops, but these are often more expensive. I stay with the SIMs of the main telecommunications of a country, assuming they will offer the best coverage and service. For example, if there's a problem with my Vodafone SIM in the UK, I can go to countless Vodafone stores everywhere. Not so much with "Joe's Travel SIM XXXtrafast" from a random travel desk. Wikipedia lists the major suppliers in Europe, Asia / Pacific, Africa and the Middle East and the Americas, so you can have an idea of what to look for when you arrive.
There are also "travel SIMs" that you can buy in advance that claim to work all over the world, but I have done extensive research and are all more expensive than buying a SIM at the destination. Although prices vary, most local SIM cards cost $ 10 to $ 20 and are good for a month with several data concerts. I paid up to $ 35 and only $ 6.
The trick with this option is that your phone needs to be unlocked. Every company has different requirements to do it. Generally, the phone must have been on the company's network for a certain period of time, and you must have paid the phone (or satisfied your contract if you still have one). For more information on how to do this, see the Unlocking the phone section of our "Best mobile plan for frequent international travel" guide.
One disadvantage for some people is that if someone calls your "real" number, it will switch to voicemail and you will not see any text from them until you put your old SIM home-carrier in your phone and you will access a cell or cell phone. depending on your operator, Wi-Fi. Your phone is essentially a different phone. You can give friends / family your "new" temporary number for emergencies, or ask them to use a messaging service based on data like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. You can also enter your temporary number in your "real" outgoing voice mail message.
Option 4: hiring a hotspot
We rent a small device, perhaps slightly larger than a telephone, which creates a small Wi-Fi zone for you and your family. Connect all your devices to it, then turn it off when you do not need it.
The main advantage of this option is that if you travel with others, you and all your gear can tie to the individual hotspot instead of having to buy all the travel data. Of course, any member of the group who leaves your little Wi-Fi bubble to explore on their own will have to give up access to the Internet while doing so.
This is something to look for in an airport, or search before you go, because you have to return the physical device. That means either letting it fall where you got it, or sending it home when you get home.
This is not something I've tried, nor does it seem very popular, but it might work for you if the other options here are not exactly what you're looking for. I have seen prices in the lower range of $ 10 a day, which is expensive compared to other options, but for a family traveling for two weeks somewhere, the cost of obtaining local SIM for everyone can compete with the cost of renting a hotspot.
Also, keep in mind that most phones can create their own Wi-Fi hotspots, so if you get a local SIM card, you can tie a tablet, a computer or another phone to yours and share the Internet without having to pay extra for a physical hotspot device. Some SIMs do not allow it, so it's best to check before buying.
Option 5: use an old phone (or get a cheap one)
If you're the kind of person who holds old phones, dust the newest and could be your key to an easy international trip. As long as it's not too old (less than four years is a safe bet), and the battery can still hold a charge, and you're able to update its software via Wi-Fi, you should be able to use it when you travel by purchasing cards Local SIMs. Check which telephone company you used the phone to make sure your phone is unlocked.
Oh, and if you follow this path, please note that some providers will only unlock one phone per account over a 12 month period. I learned at my expense.
Once unlocked (if it was not already), follow option 3 above. You'll still need to get a new phone number with each SIM card, but otherwise you'll use your old handset with all your contacts and apps just as you left them.
If you do not have an old usable phone, you can buy a new phone, but inexpensive and unlocked. For example, our choice for a cheap Android phone is great for money, good photos, can create a Wi-Fi hotspot and costs $ 160. After three or four trips using local $ 20 SIM cards instead of data passes a month, you will have restored your investment.