The Best Phone Service for International Travelers

12 Feb

Can you imagine Columbus sailing across the Atlantic, going months without Instagram and SMS only to find that instead of landing in India where he had purchase international data roaming, he ended up in America, a new damn country with cell phones operating on an entirely different frequency? Yeah, I bet it sucked. Don’t make the same mistakes as Columbus. Here are your best bets for ensuring your mobile phone works abroad in descending price order.

Expensive: Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint Global Roaming

If you’re an on-contract customer of one of the big US providers, you can enable international coverage fairly simply. The steps are all a bit different (as is the pricing) but if you have a newer smartphone, you can pay a bit more and get global coverage. AT&T seems to charge an additional $30 a month for this feature. Verizon charges at least $5. Everybody charges per minute and per text as well, with voice calling starting at $1 a minute on Sprint. Clearly, this is an expensive option, but if you’re just going for a week and don’t think you’ll make many calls, this is certainly the easiest way to go. If you like this option, follow the links to your provider and consider making a call to customer service to clear up the details.

Reasonable: T-Mobile Simple Choice International Roaming

If you’re a T-Mobile customer, good news, your phone will probably work wherever you plan on traveling. The deal is straightforward: included in your contract you get data roaming in 100 countries, free SMS abroad, and $0.20 per minute phone calls. It’s a sweet deal, but you’ve probably already spotted the catch: you need a T-Mobile CONTRACT. Prepaid plans don’t qualify, so that doesn’t qualify it as ‘cheap’. More here.

Cheap: International SIM Card

Given that AT&T’s international plan is fairly expensive, you might want to just unlock your phone and get a SIM card that works everywhere in the world. There are a number of options, but I like GoSIM. When we traveled through Belgium and the Netherlands recently, I had service the entire time thanks to GoSIM. Their starter pack is just $19+shipping and includes $10 of airtime. How much you pay is based on where you travel and how much you talk and text, but minutes tend to be about $0.60 per and text messages about $0.20. The big deal is that incoming calls to your +44 international number are FREE (each SIM is linked to a permanent UK number and a temporary US number), so have your friends and family call you using that number. With this option, you’ll get a new phone number, so you’ll have to share it with your family and friends before you go, or you could setup call forwarding (check out your provider’s customer service site for details). This is a great option for long-term travelers.

Cheap: Republic Wireless on WiFi

Republic Wireless is a new mobile provider that piggy-backs on Sprint’s network in the US. Their big differentiator is that they route calls and text messages over WiFi when possible. If you can compromise on always having access, you can save a ton of money with Republic — their entry-level, WiFi-only plan is just $5 a month. You’ll be able to use your phone when you’re at your hotel and connected to their WiFi. Your friends and family in the US will never know. They may not be able to ALWAYS reach you IMMEDIATELY, but periodic access is probably enough for nearly every traveler. Do you really need to place a call from Machu Picchu or can you wait until you are back at the hotel? I bet you can wait until you get back to the hotel. If you’re planning on traveling for a long time, this is the phone to get. In addition to GoSIM, this is also a great option for long-term travelers.

Cheap(ish): Local SIM

If you’re going to be spending a fair amount of time (say, over two weeks) in one location abroad and plan to use your phone a fair amount, your best bet is still to get a local SIM. You’ll pay local rates instead of inflated, international traveler rates. This is really the only reasonably-priced option if you want smartphone data access abroad outside of signing a T-Mobile contract (GoSIM charges $0.50 per MB, so be sure to check the local rates). If you go this route, plan on picking up a SIM card at the airport or at a convenience store — they’re sold everywhere in most countries. You’ll want to do some research before leaving to ensure you get a plan that’ll work for you. Just remember to buy a prepaid SIM — you’re not signing a 2-year contract for cell phone service. And remember that your new SIM will come with a new, local phone number. You’ll have to share it with your friends and family so they can reach you.

Conclusion: What’s the Best?

Well, what’s best for you depends on where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, and how much you plan on using your phone. For me, I do a combination of Republic Wireless for the majority of my calling along with a GoSIM for emergencies. I can be reached anywhere in the world immediately via my GoSIM number, and I can communicate with anybody in the US using my normal number wherever there’s WiFi. I can’t live-tweet lunch, but I can share photos from the hotel. Do you need to live-tweet lunch?

You’re now armed and dangerous and ready to use your cell phone abroad. What about your laptop? Do you need a travel computer (or tablet)?

My unlocked Alcatel + GoSIM on the left; Moto X from Republic Wireless on the right.

My unlocked Alcatel + GoSIM on the left; Moto X from Republic Wireless on the right.

Update: A reader wrote in with a couple great tips.

1) If you stop of in the UK on your way across the pond, I recommend a Virgin Mobile SIM. It’s the only pre-paid SIM that I’ve ever seen that allows you to roam to different countries (including the USA and South Africa–NOT Australia, however). If you will be staying in EU countries, you get a pretty good rate on your calls.

2) Download Rick Steves’ podcasts for some of the specific places you will be visiting. You can take a “guided” tour of Pompeii and several other cities and sights. And they’re free.