This is my ultimate and definitive paper on using cell phones abroad. I have dealt with the question of how to communicate cheaply while overseas on my own trips and for years of these classes. Each year, the options change, so I will dump what I know and encourage you to do the rest of the research on your own.
First, check with your own carrier. Some carriers, like TMobile, have the option of international communications for $5 additional a month on your plan. But, double check the rest of the small print. Many times, you’ll be charged additionally per minute on the plan or additional amounts once you hit the limit for voice, text, and data. One carrier I spoke with recently, Sprint, said you should unlock your phone when going overseas and then would have to re-lock it once you are back in the states to begin normal service again.
AT&T has plans for $30, $60, and $120 (per month) that you can choose for overseas communication. The caveat is that there are limits to your plan and you will pay overages after that. $120 is highway robbery in my book!
Read. The. Small. Print.
I had a friend, recently, who got an unlimited phone, text, and data plan for Mexico. As it turned out, it was only good for *calling* Mexico from the U.S. Not calling the U.S. from Mexico!
Read. The. Small. Print.
Once you’ve exhausted your ISP options, you can try others.
Purchase a Go Phone. Prior to your trip (or even at your destination), you can purchase a go phone with a suitable SIM card for the country(ies) you are going to. I’ve used RoamSimple (now called IRoam) in the past.
The phone was not easy to use and the user’s guide was laughable. I got to the UK and it didn’t work. The small print said that I should have called RoamSimple prior to the trip to activate the card. Luckily, a friend gave me a local SIM card that fit my phone, and Voila! Instant service. I believe RoamSimple no longer requires the activation call. Smart move!
Read. The. Small. Print.
Your Smart Phone
Your smart phone can be converted for overseas use. There are some caveats. In America, there are two types of phones: Code division multiple access (CDMA) or GSM (Global System for Mobile communication). In addition, some service providers lock you into their networks by locking your phone. Only GSM phones can be locked or unlocked, and only GSM can be used worldwide. So, before you go to the UK, ensure you have an unlocked GSM phone. Now, all you need is a UK SIM card!
I tried purchasing a UK SIM card prior to my 2014 UK trip, and noticed that my phone only had sporadic service. It was difficult since I really needed it to communicate with my friends. This trip, I am going to go to a cell phone store in the country and will ensure the phone works before I leave.
Purchasing a SIM card overseas is normally your best option. In the UK, there are several service providers with good coverage. O2, for instance, offers a free Pay as You Go SIM card. For as little as a couple of pennies a minute, you can call friends and family back home. You top up as necessary (I left my SIM card attached to my credit card to it would top up automatically). In the UK, if you are a citizen, you can top up at most ATMs if your card isn’t connected. Foreign travelers are not nearly so lucky.If you are a U.S. citizen, you can top-up at every supermarket, newspaper shop (eg WH Smith) most gas stations and many other outlets (e.g., Boots pharmacies).
To locate which SIM you want prior to your trip, search online for “mobile phone companies” as well as the country you are visiting.. Look at the top two results, they are usually the most prominent providers. Check out their SIM card plans (you can key on “pay as you go” and “international”).
Evidently, there are some countries that won’t sell a local SIM card to foreign travelers (Germany, Italy, and India were mentioned). Check the destination country before you go to ensure you can get a SIM card.
Turn off cell data overseas because your phone is constantly pinging your apps for data and the cost of this constant pinging may cost you a lot of Bucks/Pounds/Euros/Pesos/etc. !
There is a fairly new option to the market called KnowRoaming. This is a SIM sticker that connects you to local markets in over 55 countries. KnowRoaming claims to save you 85% on voice, text, and data charges. While it looks like a good deal, I still believe you come out more cheaply by purchasing a SIM card in the destination country. Just make sure to do your research.
If you want to travel on the cheap, there are applications that can help you. You will need WiFi service to connect, but once connected, your communications can be free. Whatever app you choose, ensure you have your most common contacts signed up with the application before leaving the country.
- Skype – allows free voice and data for Skype to Skype users
- Whatsapp - WhatsApp uses the same data you use for email and browsing, so there are no additional messaging costs.
- Facebook – Messenger allows you to text to your heart’s content to your Facebook contacts.
- Viber – Automatically integrates with your contact list. You can communicate with other Viber users for free.
I am not, by any means, a tech guru. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned over the past few years and offering suggestions based on my experiences. I thought about doing a spreadsheet of all the plans and options, but it really seems to me the phone companies make their options vague on purpose, and they definitely don’t want you to read the small print! Even after reading their plans, I was usually still confused as to exactly what I was buying. I’m going to try getting my SIM from a company in my destination country this year to ensure I have connectivity and the cheapest communication I can purchase. I’ll let you know how it goes!