A reader sent me an email last week asking, “Could you do an article on the best cell phone plans for international travel, including best deals on buying a chip, say… for use in Europe? Thanks so much!” ~ Martha Y.
I thought it was a great idea for a post so I turned to my buddy Sebastian Harrison. He’s the owner of Cellular Abroad and is a straight shooter. Here’s his expert opinion on the best cell phone plans for international travel:
The Best Cell Phone Plans For International Travel
As some international destinations are opening up to US tourism, many Americans are starting to plan their trips abroad. Besides booking flights and accommodations, one aspect that has become increasingly vital for travelers is cellular and data service. Cellular access is the best way to be able to make travel plans, make changes to your trip, use GPS or connect with people back home without having to find a Wi-Fi hotspot. Smartphones have become almost essential, even here in the United States. In fact, AT&T has stopped providing cellular service for standard phones (i.e. non-smartphones) for over a year now. Yet, as important as it is to have access to cellular service while traveling abroad, there is still a lot of confusion about how to use the service, what plans to get and what the costs are.
Unfortunately, the large cellular providers typically do not make it transparent as to what you are getting or what the costs are. For example, T-Mobile touts unlimited free data while traveling internationally but while they may emphasize the “free”, they do not readily advertise that the free data is so slow that it is virtually unusable – and then when travelers complain about the service, they upsell you a faster data package. Still, T-Mobile has one of the better deals. But let’s break down what the major carriers offer, starting with T-Mobile.
T-Mobile offers unlimited data at 2G speeds. While I personally love T-Mobile stateside, I believe that this offer is deceptive. Most people either don’t understand the limitations of 2G speeds or don’t see the fine print restricting the data to 2G, hence, only find out about this when they are overseas attempting to use their phone and it keeps timing out. Although I always use a high speed pre-paid SIM card through my company Cellular Abroad, I have used and tested T-Mobile abroad on several occasions.
A couple of years ago, I was using my T-Mobile phone in Italy to hail a taxi through an app called Free Now. This app works similarly to Uber in the sense that you can see where the taxi is and the driver can see where you are. Great app, by the way, as you don’t even need to speak the local language to get a taxi. For some reason, I did not have access to my high speed SIM card and I was using T-Mobile’s service. What happened is that I kept getting disconnected and the drivers assumed I had turned the phone off. I was on the street with my suitcases for about an hour. I ended up hailing a cab the old-fashioned way – waving my arms when one happened to drive by. Being in a residential area with light traffic didn’t help. Anyway, trust me, you don’t want to be in a situation where your service sort of works but not enough to get the job done or when you need it most.
I recommend that if you do use T-Mobile, that you get a Travel Pass. They have a few. One of them gives you 15GB of high speed data for 30 days. This is an excellent deal. While you will still have to pay for phone calls, you can make phone calls with Skype – even to landlines, for a small fee – or use WhatsApp or Facetime.
Verizon has had a plan for several years now that gives you calling, texting and high speed data for $10 per day. This is not a bad deal for travelers going abroad for a week or ten days but if your trip is a couple of weeks or more, then the cost can really add up. Many people think that they will just not use the phone every day and therefore, they can get by with this plan. However, it takes just one person to text or to call you and that activates the $10 charge. By the way, the $10 charge is really closer to $12 or $13 when you add local and federal taxes. Therefore, a month-long trip will cost you close to $400. The good news with Verizon phones, unlike T-Mobile and AT&T, is that their phones are unlocked, meaning you can slip in another SIM card, potentially saving you hundreds of dollars. More on this later.
AT&T has a similar plan as Verizon. The main difference is that with Verizon you can call locally within the country you are visiting for free, whereas with AT&T, you can only call back to the US. Also, Verizon caps the daily data usage at 500mb, whereas AT&T does not. Still, if your trip is longer than a week, you may want to consider using a different SIM card, assuming your phone is unlocked. The rule of thumb is that if you have paid off your phone, AT&T will unlock it. If you purchased your phone through iPhone, it is already unlocked.
Most other carriers, including Cellular One, Choice and others, can be very expensive or non-existent. My recommendation is to call the company and find out if they offer international roaming and if so, what the rates are and if the phone is locked or unlocked.
Other Solutions Besides Using your Carrier
As a disclaimer, I am the Founder of Cellular Abroad, Inc. a company that, since 2002, has offered alternative cellular solutions for travelers going abroad. With this in mind, I will do my best to keep this as unbiased as I can.
As mentioned above, there are instances where Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile offer viable and affordable solutions. For example, if your trip is short, then neither our solutions nor other solutions make sense. If your trip is longer than a week and particularly if you have an unlocked phone, it makes sense to look at your other options. One option is to put a different SIM card into your phone, thus temporarily using a different carrier (service provider) for your trip. You can either get one prior to your departure or upon arrival at your overseas destination.
In many instances, you can get a local SIM card for around $20. A word of caution about this is: Unless you speak the language fluently and you have the time and energy to actually do this, this may not be the best option. Very often, travelers will get a local SIM card and not understand how to use it or what they even got – or if one is even easily available, which is not always the case. This is why many travelers prefer to get a SIM card before they leave.
Getting a SIM card through Cellular Abroad or another company prior to your trip means that you will have access to service as soon as you land and you will know what you are getting. In addition, there are some solutions, such as our Italian SIM card that offers 200GB of data at 5G speeds. By far, our number one solution is our International Data SIM Card, which offers 12GB plus unlimited calls and texts within Europe and other countries. Swapping out a SIM card will not affect the phone in any way and all of your apps and contacts will still be usable. The only change is that you will have a different number for direct calls. Your regular number while using Facetime, WhatsApp, iMessage and other apps will remain the same.
Also, another popular solution that we have, as do other competitors, is to rent a portable hotspot. Carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile do not offer similar solutions. The great thing about a hotspot is that you can use it with any device and with multiple devices. For example, if you are traveling with family, you and your wife can be working on your laptops while the kids are watching Netflix on their iPad — all feeding off of one device, which certainly beats paying Verizon $400 per family member. If you are not familiar with what a portable hotspot is, it’s essentially a portable, pocket-sized device that emits a Wi-Fi signal.
With all the various options and all the unique needs that many travelers have, international cellular service can be tricky. I hope I’ve addressed 90% of your needs but if you have a question that has not been outlined in this brief article, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will do our best to give you an objective answer to your question.
As there have been many comments about Google Fi, Johnny Jet has asked me to address this option. I would like to start off by saying that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile/Sprint account for approximately 98% of the market share in the United States and the article was meant to address roaming solutions available to most subscribers needs, i.e., that you travel once or twice a year internationally and that your provider is one of the major players. Google Fi is an MVNO, (mobile virtual network operator), similar to Consumer Cellular, Cricket and many others that I did not write about. In order to subscribe to Google Fi, you must go through a credit check procedure. For use in the US as a primary carrier, I cannot recommend them for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I have never used them. Plus, I pay less with T-Mobile than what they advertise online. Having said that, if you are a business traveler or if you travel overseas often, I think that Google Fi offers and incredible value and is well worth using as your primary service provider domestically and internationally. I apologize for not mentioning them as a viable solution as Google Fi definitely has its upside for the Johnny Jets of the world who are constantly on the move.