Man on phone

Using Cell Phones Overseas: What’s The Best Option?

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One of the most common questions we get regarding travel technology is some variation on “What’s the best way to use my phone overseas?”, and that’s not much of a surprise.

Once travelers leave home with their phones, they’re quickly confronted with a mess of confusing options and high prices, usually with extra jargon and uncertainty thrown in for good measure.

So, we’re going to try and clear things up a bit. Here’s our detailed explanation of the different choices, comparing who they’re best for, pricing and difficulty levels, what needs to be done before leaving home, and our take on whether they’re any good or not.

International Roaming

  • In brief: You continue to use your current handset and mobile number while overseas.
  • Best for: Short stays, or longer trips with only a few days in each country.
  • Cost: Usually (but not always) high, often unbelievably so.
  • Difficulty: Low.
  • Mobile data: Usually possible, although it can be prohibitively expensive. Depending on the handset you have, your roaming plan, and the foreign network you’re connected to, you may not receive the same speeds as back home.
  • Before leaving:
    • Contact your cell company to make sure international roaming is enabled for your account, and whether your phone will work in the countries you’re visiting.
    • Find out if there are any special plans or packages that you can purchase to keep the price down, and any instructions for getting connected at your destination.
    • Confirm your exact model of phone will work in the places you’re going. If you have a quad or penta-band GSM handset it should work in most of the world, but there are plenty of quirks, so do your research. The best place to start is this site.
  • Other considerations: Even though your phone remains the same, the power sockets may not. Make sure you have a travel adapter if you need one.
  • Our view: While international roaming is often the easiest way to stay connected, it’s typically the most expensive as well. There have been a few positive changes in recent years for travelers wanting to roam affordably, however.
    • The European Union banned most roaming charges in 2017, so travelers who have service from one EU country can typically roam in any other EU country without extra costs.
    • T-Mobile in the United States offers low-cost or free international roaming with most of its contracts. Data speeds are limited, but it’s very hard to argue with the cost or convenience.

Phone Rental

  • In brief: Renting a phone to use in a given country, either before leaving or at the airport on arrival.
  • Best for: Short to medium-length trips to a single country, particularly if your usual phone won’t work there.
  • Cost: Moderate.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Mobile data: Sometimes available, usually limited and/or at additional cost.
  • Before leaving: Confirm the process with the company you intend to rent from. Some companies will send you a phone before you leave, and expect you to return it when you get back. Others will have a package waiting for you at the airport or your hotel when you arrive, and you’ll typically drop it into a mailbox or back to the airport service counter when you leave.
  • Other considerations:
    • Be sure to check the fine print regarding things like deposits and damage. Your phone will come with a usage plan of some sort, and it may be quite different to what you’re used to back home. Make sure you are aware of any restrictions.
    • Your rental phone will have a local number, and won’t contain any of your usual contacts or call history. If you can’t copy them across before you leave, take your usual phone with you so important phone numbers are still available, or have a copy of those details printed out.
    • Be sure to pass your new number onto those who will need it.
  • Our view:
    • Renting, collecting and returning the phone can be a bit of hassle, although it doesn’t have to be. The process tends to occupy a middle ground between international roaming and using a local SIM card, without the convenience of the former or the price advantage of the latter.
    • Renting a phone tends to be the option of last resort for those who need a phone overseas when their usual handset won’t work. If you don’t fall into this category, we’d suggest looking at other options.

International SIM Cards

Woman sitting down using phone
Al Couture
  • In brief: Buying a new SIM card that works in many countries around the world, for use in your existing phone.
  • Best for: Short to medium-length trips to multiple countries, especially if having a consistent number is important.
  • Cost: Moderate.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Mobile data: Usually available, at (often significant) additional cost. Data-only international SIMs are also an option.
  • Before leaving:
    • Make sure your phone will work in the countries you’re going, and that it’s not locked for use only with your current service provider.
    • If necessary you may be able to get the handset unlocked (particularly if you’re off-contract) by asking your cell company. If they won’t do it, you’re stuck with less-official methods. Use at your own risk.
    • Do plenty of research, since international SIM costs vary widely. Check the fine print closely, as the per-minute or per-megabyte rate is rarely the only cost involved.
    • There are three different sizes of SIM card currently in use: full, micro, and nano. Be sure to get the right one for your model of phone.
  • Other considerations:
    • Be sure to pass your new number onto those who need it. Although it will stay consistent wherever you go, it will be different to your current one.
    • If you plan to use your international SIM for multiple trips, check the expiry dates for both credit and the SIM itself.
    • While some international SIMs include a phone number from your home country, most will be an international phone call for both your friends and family back home, and people in the country you’re traveling to. Having to make an international call can act as a disincentive for people to call you.
  • Our view:
    • If having a working phone and consistent number everywhere you go is important, international SIMs aren’t a bad compromise between cost and effort.
    • Even if you plan to use local SIM cards (below) to save money, an international SIM lets you get connected as soon as you arrive in a new country. This way, it doesn’t matter if it takes a few hours (or a few days) to find someone to sell you a local SIM.
    • We compared several international SIMs here.

Local SIM Cards

Cellcard street vendor in Cambodia
  • In brief: Buying a local prepaid SIM card in each country to use in your existing phone.
  • Best for: Trips where you will spend more than a few days in each country, and/or for moderate/heavy call and data use.
  • Cost: Low.
  • Difficulty: Moderate to high.
  • Mobile data: Almost always available, at relatively low cost.
  • Before leaving: As with most of the other options, make sure that your phone will work in your intended destinations and is not locked for use only with your cell company.
  • Other considerations:
    • Purchasing and using a local SIM card is very easy in some countries, and remarkably difficult in others. We have guides for many different countries, but if we don’t yet cover the place you’re going, it’s worth doing some research (both online and on the ground) to find out the best approach.
    • As with international SIMs, be sure to buy the right size of card for your phone.
    • Your number will change every time you go to a new country. Have a method for notifying people of your new number each time, or use a service like Google Voice or Skype that offer a consistent virtual number.
  • Our view:
    • This is our preferred method when we are in a country for a week or more. The process can be challenging at times, but the pay-off is worth the effort. The costs are much lower than any of the alternatives, especially when using data.
    • As a general rule, budget somewhere around $10-50 in most countries for a local prepaid SIM card with enough calls, texts, and data for a month.

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Other Options

Depending on your specific situation, there are a few other options worth considering.

  • If the speed of the 3G/4G network is sufficient, or you’re happy to only use Wi-Fi, you can use Skype or similar products (Viber, Google Voice, etc) to place voice calls from your phone over the internet (VoIP).
    This can be frustrating if connection speeds aren’t great, but with the cost being either a few cents a minute or free, it’s worth trying for international calls at least.
  • If you only need a data connection, it’s possible to buy or rent small wireless hotspots in much the same way as the phone rental options above. These typically let you connect up to five devices to them simultaneously, making them particularly useful for couples or small groups.
  • Finally, if you’ve got a local SIM card but your internet connection isn’t fast enough for making VoIP calls, the old-school method of buying a calling card (where you call a local or toll-free number to use prepaid credit) is still available in some parts of the world.

We hope you found this guide to using your phone overseas useful! If you’ve got any questions, or suggestions for approaches that we haven’t covered, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Images via hanspoldoja (man on phone), mwiththeat (phone store) and rayand (woman on phone)

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  1. Hi Dave,

    This is really good information for people travelling, especially when they are not staying in one place for weeks/months.

    One tip I’d like to add for those people travelling to the UK and perhaps sometime around the rest or Europe. The mobiel network 3 is removed roaming charges so cost per minute are clearer. They have several options when in Europe.

    Euro Internet Pass allowing unlimited internet for 24 hours for £5.

    You can find the information here

  2. Avatar SnarkyNomad says:

    Ugh, it’s always so sad how bizarrely complicated it can be. The first carrier to offer global roaming at no extra cost is going to form a monopoly on the international traveler market.

    1. Dave Dean Dave Dean says:

      Ain’t that the truth. A few of the smaller carriers (ie, the ones that have an incentive to offer something out of the ordinary) seem to finally be making a bit of an effort – T-Mobile, for instance, has recently announced free international SMS and data (albeit with speed and duration restrictions) and a flat 20c/minute calling rate in most countries.

      So I think there’s some hope for the future, but for most people it’s still a painful and/or expensive process. 🙁

  3. After reading this informative, helpful article, I was planning to get a local sim card for my iPhone 5s when I arrive in Mexico next week. So I contacted AT&T to get my phone unlocked and (womp-womp-womp) they won’t unlock it because I’m still under contract. So now I have to decide between buying their international packages for one month or just turn off cellular data and rely on wifi. But I’ve grown so dependent on my smartphone for internet while I’m on the go. Decisions, decisions.

  4. Dave Dean Dave Dean says:

    Yep, it’s a depressingly common scenario – most cell companies won’t unlock a subsidised phone unless you’re out of contract (and even then, it’s not a given).

    Other than the options you’ve listed, there are some unofficial ways to get a phone unlocked – which may or may not work or void your warranty – or you could look at buying an unlocked phone (second hand iPhone, or new Moto G, for instance) for your overseas trips.

    It’s a crappy situation for those who don’t buy the phone outright, and without incentives to change, I doubt the cell providers will do so any time soon.

    For what it’s worth, because Verizon has a different type of phone network that doesn’t use SIM cards, the SIM slot in recent Verizon iPhones is actually unlocked for international use. If Verizon plans and service in your area work for you, that could be something to think about next time you’re looking to upgrade your phone?

  5. Avatar Donna Bellinghausen says:

    I am with AT&T and have bought their International Passport plans in the past – it works but is pricey. I am researching the sim card option. What is not absolutely clear to me is if a card bought in Germany, for example, will allow me to text back to the States. How will I know before choosing a provider? Many thanks.

    1. It’s very rare to find a SIM that won’t let you text international numbers. A few packages include a limited number of international texts for free, but most don’t.

      Assuming you buy a package that doesn’t include international texts, you’ll need to pay separately for those. So, you’d just need to find out how much it costs to send a text to the US (receiving will be free), and then take a guess at how many texts you think you’ll send during your trip. Multiply the two together, add that much extra credit to your SIM (plus a bit more to be safe), and away you go.

      If you miscalculate and run out of extra credit, you’ll just need to add more to continue sending international texts.

      If you’ve got a smartphone, the other option is to use something like WhatsApp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, or similar app that sends text-based messages via data. That’ll be free, and just uses the data allowance (or Wi-Fi) from whatever package you buy.

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