Using your cell phone internationally can lead to exorbitant bills if you’re not careful. Here are a few steps you can take to make sure you stay connected to friends and family while traveling—without paying more than you have to.
Unlock Your GSM Phone
Not all cell phones will work in every country, so your best bet is to carry a phone that will operate on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network. Ideallyyou want a quad-band phone, which can operate on any of the four GSM bands and will work almost anywhere. Tri-band phones will also work in certain countries.
If you’ve got a GSM phone already, call your wireless company and ask to have it unlocked. Once your phone is unlocked you’ll be able to access other mobile carrier networks around the world. Not all phone companies will unlock all types of phones and often your account needs to be in good standing and open for more than 90 days, or your phone must be completely paid for and off-contract.
If you’ve tried to unlock your phone in the past but were told by your carrier that you couldn’t, you should try again. The Consumer Code for Wireless Service was implemented in February 2015, providing more freedom and flexibility to consumers when it comes to their cell phones. You can learn more about unlocking a phone or tablet from the Federal Communications Commission.
Finally, you’ll need to buy and install a local SIM (subscriber identification module) memory chip that will work in the country you’re visiting. This little circuit stores information like your identity, local cell phone number, address book information, and other bits of data. When you put a local SIM chip in your phone, it’s like getting a brand new phone that will work on the local mobile carrier’s network. The chip does need to be activated so you can either go to a mobile store in the country you’re visiting and have everything taken care of on the spot, or try to order one in advance and activate it online.
Buy or Rent a Cell Phone for Your International Trips
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of unlocking your phone and installing a local SIM, you can simply buy or rent a cell phone that will work abroad. Cellular Abroad sells and rents unlocked GSM phones and SIM cards that will work in dozens of countries around the world. The company also rents the National Geographic Talk Abroad Travel Phone, whichworks in more than 200 different countries. It’s the ideal solution for travelers visiting more than one country during the same trip. Most U.S.–based mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon also have rental programs. Give them a call to find out what options are available to you.
You can also buy an international cell phone from a company like Mobal, whose phone works in more than 190 countries. Mobal doesn’t charge a monthly fee and there’s no contract to sign. You’ll just pay for incoming and outgoing calls. Incoming texts are free.
Opt for an International Phone Plan
Your phone company may also offer international phone plans that offer discounts on calls, international roaming fees, and data charges. For example, AT&T Passport can be purchased for 30 days for $30 and provides coverage in more than 190 countries. You get unlimited texting, calls for $1 per minute, and 120MB of cellular data for email, web browsing, and social media posts.
Verizon offers something called Travel Pass that lets you take your domestic talk, text, and data allowance overseas. It costs $2 per day in Mexico and Canada and $10 per day in more than 100 other countries, like Australia, Barbados, or Scotland. Call your carrier for information on the options available to you.
Ways to Reduce Cell Phone Charges Overseas
If you can live with limited service during your trip, bring along your phone but be sure to turn off data usage and the "fetch new data" option. Those are two important ways to reduce your cell phone bill during an international trip. Also look for complimentary Wi-Fi “hot spots” in places like coffee shops and malls, and use voice and text messaging apps like Viber and LINE, which are free if both parties have accounts with the service. Skype is also an option (be sure your phone is subscribed to a free Wi-Fi hotspot first) as are Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, and WeChat. You can also buy a pre-paid phone card, which usually costs less per minute than your mobile carrier’s international roaming rates.
Finally, be sure to bring along a universal phone charger and plug adapters that are compatible with the electrical systems in the countries you’ll be visiting.