Two common questions that I get is “how do I use my phone when traveling?” and “what’s the best phone service for travelers?” In this video/post, I review the options available for American travelers and share some general tips to keep in mind when using your phone abroad.

But first … a story

A few years ago, I flew to Paris to visit a friend of mine from graduate school. She had sent me directions on how to get to her apartment from the airport. At the time, I had an iPhone 4 with Verizon service. I figured that if I needed to access data or make an emergency call, I would roam for a minute or two and not worry about the charges.

I ended up arriving in front of her apartment in Paris, but when I tried to load the email with instructions on getting in, it wouldn’t load. The phone wanted me to have a data connection. I first searched for a free and open wifi signal, and I couldn’t find any available networks. I then tried to find cell service. However, I didn’t realize that my Verizon iPhone had a CDMA radio, which meant that it couldn’t connect to the towers in Europe since they use GSM.

To make a long story short, I eventually found a fellow American who let me use his phone to call my friend. But I wasted an hour and a half trying to find a wifi signal and messing with my phone settings.

Why having phone service is useful

Having a phone and data connection while traveling is a huge benefit. Being able to pull directions, perform currency conversions, or check your flight status saves a lot of time. Even having a phone to contact hotels, restaurants, or drivers is extremely helpful.

All of the mobile phone companies in the US provide some kind of international plan or feature. However, most are pretty pricey. For those of you who travel a lot, I think that two services really stand out – T-Mobile and Google Project Fi.

T-Mobile international service

While T-Mobile doesn’t have as large of a footprint in the US as AT&T and Verizon, they definitely make it up in their international roaming. Customers enrolled in their T-Mobile ONE or Simple Choice North America plans have free texting and unlimited data in over 140 countries. Using T-Mobile’s website, you can search to see which countries are on the list. If the country that you’re visiting is on the list, then you’ll get free text messaging and data. Phone calls will be 20 cents a minute for both incoming and outgoing calls. Keep in mind that while the data is unlimited, it is capped at 2G speeds. You can pay for faster speeds, but I honestly feel like 2G is sufficient for light usage, especially when you’re traveling.

Countries that not included in the list are much more expensive. I don’t recommend that you roam when traveling in these counties. I noticed this when I traveled to Vietnam. The country is not on the list, so the rates were extremely high. I ended up placing my phone into airplane mode while I was there to avoid any extra charges.

Lastly, if you’re traveling to Canada or Mexico with T-Mobile, then your plan basically carries over to those countries. You should have fast data speeds and be able to talk on the phone without any additional charges.

The only major drawback to T-Mobile is the coverage within the US. Since I live in a major city, I feel like the coverage is sufficient, but I definitely had better domestic coverage with Verizon and AT&T, especially when outside the city.

Google Project Fi international service

Google’s Project Fi is another great service for travelers. Project Fi allows you to connect to three different wireless phone carriers for service. The plan is a flat $20 per month for voice service, and $10 per GB, which means you only pay every time you use up your GB of data. Your service travels with you to over 135 counties, and in those countries, you’ll get high-speed data.

The only major drawback is that you are restricted to specific Android phones. While the phones include the new Google Pixel, which is an awesome phone, you will not be able to use other phones, like Apple iPhones.

Both T-Mobile and Project Fi offer plans without a contract. The only catch is that if you cancel your service, you’ll have to pay the remaining value of your phone.

Tips to consider

In addition to our two favorite services, here are some tips to keep in mind if you’re looking to use your phone internationally:

1. Buy pre-paid SIM cards:

If you don’t travel very often or aren’t looking to switch carriers, then you might want to consider getting a prepaid SIM card when traveling. This can be easy or complicated, depending on the country that you’re visiting. For example, getting one in Costa Rica was very easy, but when I tried to get one in Germany, it was impossible as a non-resident. Some countries have regulations to keep track of phone numbers to make sure they’re being used for legal purposes. You may want to do a search online before your trip if you’re planning to buy a SIM card.

2. Use wifi calling:

A lot of phones and carriers now offer wifi calling. This allows you to make and receive phone calls over a wifi network. In most cases, calls received over wifi are free, even if you’re traveling overseas. Calls made to US numbers while on wifi are also free. If all you need is to call back home to the US, then wifi calling might be the most affordable option.

3. Verify that your phone is unlocked and supports GSM:

If you’re planning to use a SIM card abroad, then you’ll need an unlocked GSM phone. In the US, your phone is generally locked until you pay off the full value of the phone. Most carriers will unlock your phone once you have made all payments. Another option would be to pay for your phone upfront, which should also lower your monthly bill.

Additionally, you’ll need to make sure that your phone supports GSM networks. In the US, T-Mobile and AT&T are the largest GSM carriers. There are others smaller carriers as well, but these are the primary ones. Verizon and Sprint support CDMA, which is strong in the US, but not common outside of North America. While all the carriers are moving toward the Long Term Evolution or LTE standard for both voice and data, you’re better off traveling with a GSM-based phone for compatibility.

Lastly, some phones are marketed as world phones and have both CDMA and GSM radios installed. These should work with prepaid SIM cards as long as they are unlocked.

4. Rent a wifi hotspot:

While this isn’t the cheapest or most convenient option, it is possible to rent a mobile hotspot while traveling. These can fit in your pocket or daypack while you explore your destination. I used one when I went to London in 2012 and it worked well. Though there are a few drawbacks. It’s one more thing that you need to carry and charge. Also, since my phone treated it like a normal wifi signal, it seemed to consume data much more quickly than when on the cellular signal. If you do end up renting a mobile hotspot, I suggest modifying your phone settings so it’s isn’t backing up photos and videos while connected.

What services do you use when traveling internationally with your mobile phone? Share your experience below in the comment section.


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