NOTE FROM JOHNNY: One huge challenge for everyone traveling to Europe and abroad is trying to stay connected without going broke. Since I’m not an expert, I asked my buddy Sebastian Harrison, CEO of Cellular Abroad (they supply all of National Geographic Traveler’s cell phones) to write a post on this subject. Full disclosure: I make a small commission if people buy or rent phones from Cellular Abroad but it’s not enough to buy a nice dinner so if he weren’t paying, I would still feature it since it’s valuable information. And believe me, I have firsthand knowledge of getting ripped off by service providers when it comes to roaming charges so this should help you not make the same mistake.

By Sebastian Harrison
President, Cellular Abroad, Inc.

As an expert in international cellular communication and as the founder of Cellular Abroad, every day I hear stories of travelers incurring huge bills using your cell phones when traveling abroad. In fact, just last month a traveler with T-Mobile was billed $140,000 for data usage while in France. Typically, the carriers’ advice and even other travel writers’ advice is, in a nutshell, not to use your phone or to use it with great caution. In fact, their recommendation is not to upload photos, don’t Skype, turn off your phone and don’t forget to use free WiFi when available. Next, they will be advising us just to stay home.

This article will focus on how you can Skype, upload photos, stream videos, use Apps and essentially, use your phone or tablet when you need and how you need. After all, you are on vacation and on vacation you want more “dos” and less “don’ts.” First, let’s go over what AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, the major US carriers charge when you use their service overseas – just in case you need to know why this article is entitled the way it is.

The four major carriers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon charge from $0.99 per minute to $4.99 per minute plus tax for all incoming and outgoing calls. Western Europe is typically less expensive than more remote or less traveled areas of the planet. Still, at $0.99 per minute, charges can add up. While these rates are steep, they are fractional compared to the costs of using the data features on your iPhone, iPad or Smartphone. Unless you get a data bundle, and not all carriers even offer them, using your phone or tablet for data can cost up to $20 per MB. To put that into perspective, if you downloaded an email with a medium resolution photo attached, it would cost you about $15-$30. That’s just for one email. And If you stream a 10 minute video, it could cost you thousands. While data bundles are certainly better than no data bundles, like the glass sculpture you may buy in Murano, Italy, they must be handled with care.

A Word of Caution about Bundles

Most carriers do offer data bundles. Currently, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon offer bundles while T-Mobile doesn’t.  For example, AT&T offers several bundles, the largest being 800MB for $120. While that is often enough for many travelers, particularly those applying the “don’ts” that AT&T recommends, if you exceed 800MB, you will pay $20 per MB of overages. In fact, this is where many users get in trouble. They assume that they are within their data limit but they’re not. Another major mistake is travelers think, “how expensive can it be?”  Few people could imagine that sending a few emails and uploading a couple of pictures could cost hundreds of dollars.

If you have an iPad

Currently, the only US carrier that offers a stand alone product that can be used on a temporary basis is AT&T. They offer a plan called DataConnect. If you are a light to medium user, meaning very little or no Skype or video streaming and your trip is short, this solution is acceptable – not the best solution out there but currently the best between AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile. For a better solution, please continue reading.

So how do I Skype, Stream or upload photos on my iPhone or iPad when traveling?

When I speak to travelers, they tell me that they would like to use their iPhones, iPads and other Smartphone and tablet more on vacation as opposed to using them less. The more informed ones follow the carriers’ “don’ts” and the less informed ones…wish they did. Most travelers, more than ever, want to Skype, upload photos to Facebook, research itineraries or restaurants or find where they are or when they need to go on Googlemaps, things they usually do less of or never back home. Yet, at the current carrier’s prices, travelers are reluctant to use their phones and tablets like they would like to. The answer, which really is the answer to many money saving tips, is to “get local.”

Getting Local

If you travel to Germany, the UK, Italy or most other places in the world, you will find that they too use iPads, iPhones and other smartphones and tablets. They are uploading photographs, browsing the webs and using Apps much as one would back home. They are certainly not paying $20 per MB to do so. What they are doing is to use the local equivalent of carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, etc. The locals are using what you and I use in the United States, a local SIM card with data capabilities according to a plan. Most people in the United States have a contract but there are many people who have cellular and data solutions without a contract. This is called “prepaid” or pay as you go cellular service. The trick is to do what the locals are doing – get a SIM card, in this case, a pay as you go SIM card, with data capabilities.

DISCOUNT: Save $10 off any purchase/rental from Cellular Abroad with the code: JohnnyJet. Simply enter the code during checkout, if ordering online, or mention the code if ordering through their 800 number (800-287-5072).

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s usually cheaper to buy unlocked phones from e-Bay and Amazon and the same goes for SIM cards if you buy them in a local tobacco store when you arrive. The downside: You don’t have phone access when you land and you don’t have it all set up in advance.

27 Comments On "How to stay connected overseas without going broke"
  1. Bella Sera|

    Awesome article thanks – just be sure that people are aware that the costs maybe curbed using a sim card – but that those calling from the US to that country are charged the rate of calling that country.

  2. Sebastian Harrison|

    Hi Johnny,
    just wanted to mention that Cellular Abroad offers many pay as you go SIMs online at I would like to reiterate that the local SIM card solution is truly the way to go. Here is an example for Italy. Italy SIM card 1GB costs 9 Euros ($12). 1GB from Verizon is $250, from Sprint it is $9,000, T-Mobile costs $15,000 and AT&T has a plan of 800mb for $120 (if and when you go over, you pay huge fees).

    With T-Mobile and Sprint, if you are aware of the rates, you just don’t do it (hopefully) and with Verizon and AT&T, expensive and you need to make sure you get the right package and you don’t go over. In addition, only AT&T offers an extra SIM card that you can put in a tablet.

    In sum, it is very important that travelers are aware of these rates as well as the alternative solutions, otherwise, you end up, well, with a $140,000 cell phone bill!

    1. joe lucari|

      can these sim cards be installed in us phones?

  3. Alan|

    Good advice to go local. Just back from South Africa where I bought a sim card prepaid and it cost about $6. I was in SA for 5 weeks and did not need to add any money but then I only used the phone internally to arrange hotels etc. But $6! Way cheaper than in Canada!

  4. Kenneth Lee|

    Three comments: If you have a phone under contract, it is usually “locked” and another carrier’s SIM card won’t work. T-Mobile, though, has a very liberal unlocking policy and if you tell them you’re traveling abroad and want to put prepaid SIM cards in the phone, they’ll usually give you an unlock code if you’re a customer in good standing. You might want to try asking your cell phone carrier, but do so before leaving for overseas.

    If you put a foreign carrier’s SIM in the phone and the phone is unlocked, it will work. You’ll get fantastically cheap voice/data rates — maybe cheaper than at home. BUT, you will at that point have a foreign cell phone number. Calls made to your US based phone number will go to voicemail until you put the original SIM card back in the phone. If you’re expecting urgent calls, make sure the people you’re waiting to hear from are aware of your “new” number.

    Finally, the absolute cheapest way to make phone calls, surf the web, and handle email is WiFi. More and more hotels and coffee shops offer wifi for free. If your carrier offers wifi calling (as T-Mobile does), you can place and receive phone calls our of your normal minutes instead of paying sky high roaming rates. Or you can use Skype, Vonage, or other IP Phone services. Even if you run into “pay” wifi sites, you can get a BOINGO account that will allow unlimited wifi access from mobile devices (phones, Tablets NOT COMPUTERS) for around $8/month. If you want to use a computer, its something like $12.

    1. Sebastian Harrison|

      Hi Kenneth, good points. You are right about WiFi being the absolute cheapest but….since there are affordable solution that do not require that you go to a cafe’ or find a free WiFi, one might as well make use of it. Same as back home – I certainly wouldn’t want to have to rely on having to go to a Starbucks for WiFi. When I go to my home in Sicily, I can guarantee you that there is no WiFi (let alone free WiFi) for miles. So, I guess the conclusion is, if you are going to a place that you know has lots of free WiFi, or even not free if you have BOINGO, and you do not mind not having continuous access to the internet, then that is fine.
      Many travelers would LIKE to use the internet even MORE often while traveling than at home (Skype, GoogleMaps, reviews, etc.), they just don’t because of the hassle and/or the cost. Having said that, there ARE solutions that circumvent the hassle and expenses. All in all…good points though.

      1. Kenneth Lee|

        I guess the net the situation is, there are different options out there. You should choose the one that’s right for you based on what your needs are. On business travel, I usually opt for a foreign SIM card, although Sebastian’s cards are just as viable. Its a cost decision, right? When you’re on business travel, cost is usually not as important anyway, as you’re probably being reimbursed and reliability is key.

        On the other hand, when traveling on vacation, reliability isn’t quite as important. You can just leave your phone on for emergencies, and unless you actually use it, you won’t be billed. If all you need is occasional access to email, or to upload some photos from your vacation, you might be willing to live with WiFi or something less dependable. After all, you’re email will wait for you, and uploading those photos can wait.

        One thing’s for sure…. ANY OPTION is better than turning on data from your US based phone and roaming. Those horror stories you read about (coming home to bills for hundreds or even thousands of dollars) can be incurred this way.

        Happy traveling!

  5. joe lucari|

    Can these SIM cards be installed in a US phone ie. IPhone?

    1. Kenneth Lee|

      Yes. There are two keys. One. As mentioned, is the phone UNLOCKED. It must be unlocked before traveling abroad. Te second key is SIM card size. There used to be one size of SIM card. Now, there are “mini” sim cards in some phones (My Samsung Galaxy S3 is one of ’em). You have to make sure you get the right size from the foreign carrier. They usually carry both, but that’s why its good to go into their store rather than buy from a kiosk at the airport.

    2. Kenneth Lee|

      For what its worth, I do most of my traveling to the UK. There, you can get a SIM card from one of the local carriers (O3, Orange, Vodafone) for 10 pounds stering. THis card will give you about 300 minutes of calling (outbound — incoming is FREE)…and around 250 MB of Data….enough for a week of moderate use. Assuming, of course, you’re not streaming netflix or downloading movies. In which case, refer to WIFI above…..

  6. Melanie Galuten|

    Sebastian is a wise man. I was an early adopter of Cellular Abroad and getting local SIMS and the National Geographic SIM from them has saved me LOTS of money. They are reliable and reasonably priced and he was the first in this space (when NO ONE was doing this) and knows what he is talking about. And no, I don’t get any commission.

  7. Paul|

    Unlocked sometimes is easier said than done. I buy my phones direct from Apple – unlocked, non-subsidized iPhones. I use it in Canada on prepaid (cheap compared to the $60/month for 36 months contracts), and when I travel I use local SIM cards which are almost free. The $800 for the phone pales in comparison to the “deal” for the carriers of $150 but I pay almost $2000 over a 3 year contract – and get totally screwed on roaming charges when travelling.

    No one seems to talk about this – but if you want an iPhone and you travel – buy I the darn thing from Apple with no contract. Do the math – and avoid the “subsidized” phones !

  8. Ks|

    A more recent challenge is finding the newer Nano-sim cards for ipad mini. I only want data. I do not want to cut down cards to fit. Any suggestions.

    1. Kenneth Lee|

      Fortunately, most of the major carriers here and abroad now carry both sizes of Sim cards. My old Galaxy S2 used the old traditional size and I had to move to the smaller one when I upgraded my phone to the S3

    2. Sebastian Harrison|

      Now there are three sizes, standard, micro and nano. It is fairly easy to cut them down but still, yet another step and time consuming thing to do in life. One thing is certain – the carriers will do almost anything to keep you from swapping out your SIM card!

  9. MarieGrace|

    Are there SIM cards for iPads? Thank you for awesome article.

  10. Sylvia|

    Hello, i am a recent victim of absurd overseas roaming charges. I am on a samsung sIII and although had my mobile data switched off and was on wifi, I found myself with a bill of almost usd1000 once back home and the peak usage spanned across a 3 days period only! Based on the detailed log provided to me, I even noticed being billed at a time when I was already on the plane flying back home!!!

    Can anyone enlighten me on how this could have happened and how I can dispute the charges please? Thanks a bundle.

  11. Anonymous|

    Thank you for all of this info! If I use a local sim at my destination and out it into my unlocked iPhone 5, will I still have all the same apps and contact list?

  12. Anonymous|

    What if your Ipad doesn’t have a SIM card? I have an Ipad 2 with Verizon 3G monthly service. Any suggestions?

  13. Liz|

    HI, thanks for all the wonderful advice! I just purchased an unlocked dual sim smartphone for extensive travel in Italy this summer. Do I purchase a simple “pay as you go” US sim for one slot (to give me a US phone number) and then a Vodafone sim card when I get to Italy? I’m not sure what to do. Thanks!

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Good question! I would just use the local SIM card but you might want to ask — they are the experts

  14. Kathleen Keller Williams|

    If I purchase the correct SIM card in Italy for my Galaxy S3 (and have it unlocked by Verizon carrier) – Do I have access to all my apps, downloaded audio files (Rick Steve’s) and music?

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Good question. I’m not entirely sure but you could always re-download them

  15. U Wang|

    guys in this page should know that the world’s highest costs for data / 4 g services are in the United States !,, i am from Asia and i can say this as a no matter where you guys travel its gonna be a lot less expensive than what you are used to , at home !

  16. lee covey|

    Ive just returned from kiev two weeks. I had unlocked Att s3. I bought A local sim card and did exactly that pay as I went. I watched tec set me up punching in various codes everything worked fine.
    PROBEM..I come home expecting to just replace sim card and go back t original service.
    My g4 service wont work now. Internet only from wifi. Strange part is, I can make and receive calls. But my service is not seen by my phone. went to att no help as Im using att through strait talk.. And Im not likely to get any answers at walmart..) So im on internet trying to find the solution. Im assuming the tech changed some sort of setting preventing my old service from loading. But why stil the phone service?????

  17. Robert Thomas|

    Don’t use Skype Wifi, unfortunately it’s a rip-off… last night I was on the train, logged in while in the station, tried to send an SMS, lost contact with Skype Wifi… shut down my computer, turned it back on at the next station (after 20 min)… turns out Skype Wifi charged me for the entire 20 minutes I was offline (there was no internet on the train, only when I got to a station)… last night they charged me twice this way: I logged in, tried to send my SMS (it never went through), I lost Wifi, got to the next station, and Wifi had billed me for the entire time I was offline…

    Contacted customer service, had a “chat”
    — their response? there was nothing they could do!
    — the “system” had registered me as logged in and charged me for the entire time I was offline between stations, end of story

  18. Jared|

    Hi Johnny Jet,

    I always relied on WIFI during my travels. I remember almost everywhere I went, the restaurants and coffee shops would have free WIFI. When I would stay in the country for a longer stay I would definitely go local and buy a SIM card.

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