Thrifty Traveler’s Master Guide to International Cell Phone Plans
This guest post is written by Minneapolis based writers Ashlee Kronforst and Ryan Monk. You can find more of their writing on their blog Twice the Baggage.
Long gone are the days of traveling abroad and incurring an exorbitant cell phone bill because you used data and spoke with someone on the phone for a few minutes. In the USA, there are now many options for consumers to choose from when it comes to phone plans while traveling internationally.
Below, we will break down the major international cell phone plans, as well as alternative options that will save you money during your next international trip.
Google Fi is a lesser-known option while traveling abroad, yet it comes with the best prices and is one of our favorite options. The Google Fi network partners with T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular to offer you coverage in 170+ countries for $10 per GB used, as well $0.20 per minute call. It is the only plan available from US carriers with completely unthrottled 4G LTE service in over 170 countries. If you need to be connected at 4G speeds, there is no better option.
The only downfall of Google Fi is that it does not work with all phones. Compatible phones include Google Pixel, Moto G6, and LG G7. So, if you are an iPhone fan, Google Fi will generally not be an option for you unless you are willing to carry a separate device like Mr. TT does.
AT&T recently adopted an International Day Pass. For $10 a day, you may access your domestic plan in 100+ countries. The only catch is that you will incur a $10 fee if you use the data at any time in the 24 hour period, which is hard to track considering you have apps updating in the background.
In other words, be prepared to pay for the full $10 per day. Personally, I am able to have unlimited data and texting for $10 while we travel. This is one of the more expensive options, especially when you consider that AT&T sells the day pass by device, so it would get quite expensive for a family.
The day pass was a welcomed addition to the AT&T International plans for customers. Before it’s launch, the only thing offered was the AT&T passports (still offered), which alone start at $60 for 1 GB of data, and talk at $0.35 per minute.
Verizon was the first major US carrier to offer international cell phone plans, with their Travel Pass service. For $5 a day in Canada/Mexico, and $10 a day in 130+ countries you will get access to your domestic plan. If you are a frequent traveler who will be gone a month or more, Verizon also offers a monthly plan starting at $70 for 100 minutes of talk, and 1/2 GB of data (not much at all).
While Google Fi has the market cornered for high-speed service worldwide, T-Mobile has a broad array of options to stay connected while traveling.
As a T-Mobile Magenta customer, you receive unlimited texts and data at 2G speeds (very slow) in over 210+ countries. So if you just need the basics while on the road, it’s a solid, free option.
Last year, T-Mobile introduced T-Mobile One Plus. For $5 a day, you can upgrade to the travel plan that bumps your speeds up to 512 Mbps of 4G LTE speeds.
And more recently, the carrier introduced International Passes. For $35, you can get up to 5GB of high-speed data for 10 days. Or spring for the $50 package, which gets you 15GB over a month.
Along with having AT&T we also have first-hand experience with Sprint’s international cell phone plans. Already included in your Sprint carrier plan is the same amount of data you currently have at 2G LTE speeds. Sprint also offers an upgrade option to purchase. For $5 a day you increase speeds up to 4G LTE.
Purchasing an International SIM Card
If you want to save a few bucks while traveling internationally, but don’t necessarily want to purchase one of the international cell phone plans, you may purchase an international SIM card. This option allows you to purchase a to-go or top up plan through your phone carrier of choice in whichever country you are traveling to.
The SIM card option is conducted quite easily, as the only thing you need to make sure of is that your phone is unlocked (meaning no longer with a specific carrier). In the US, this is an easy task as long as your phone is fully paid off. You then call any major carrier and they should be able to help you out.
After unlocking your phone, you then need to purchase an international SIM card. SIM cards can be purchased on Amazon, eBay or the phone carrier of choice for just a few dollars. Some airports will even have kiosks to purchase a SIM card like the one pictured below at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR).
From there, you are able to use your phone as you would domestically. You simply use the plan you have purchased through the carrier of choice.
Using Only WiFi
With it being 2018, so much of the world now has reliable, fast WiFi. If you wish to truly save money on your trip and not worry about incurring possible overages, you may just turn off your cellular network and data on your phone, and just use WiFi.
With so many restaurants, museums, coffee shops and other places having WiFi nowadays it is possible to go this route and still be somewhat connected. In fact, many of our favorite travel apps have the ability to download certain aspects for offline use. This is a great option when taking the WiFi-only route.
No matter if you are a loyal customer of one of the US carriers listed above or just someone who is wanting to save money on your upcoming trip, you should be able to find an option that works for you. The world is becoming smaller, and there is no place this is more evident than the changes in international cell phone plans over the last 10 years.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.