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 travellers leave home with their phones they’re quickly confronted with a mess of confusing options and high prices, usually with unnecessary 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 you are overseas.

Best for: Short stays, or longer trips with only a few days in each country.

Cost: High, often unbelievably so.

Difficulty: Low.

Mobile data: Usually possible, often insanely expensive. Depending on the handset you have and the foreign network that you’re connected to, you may not receive the same speeds as back home.

Before leaving: Contact your cell company to make sure that international roaming is enabled for your account, and that 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 that you need to get connected at your destination.

Confirm that 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 even then there are plenty of quirks, especially when it comes to data, so do your research.

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 this is often the easiest way to stay connected, it’s almost always the most expensive as well. Unless you plan on very limited phone usage, international roaming costs can be prohibitive – especially if you’re using data.

The one piece of good news on the horizon is that new regulations will come into effect in 2014 for customers based in the EU, eliminating roaming charges when travelling to another European Union country. Until then – and for the rest of us – though, we don’t recommend this option for all but the shortest trips.


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 that you intend to rent from. Some companies will send you a phone before you leave and expect it returned once you get back, while others will have a package waiting for you at the airport or your hotel when you arrive.

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, be sure to take your usual phone with you so important phone numbers are still available, or have another 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 isn’t always), and the process generally 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 while overseas but their usual handset physically won’t work in an intended destination. If you don’t fall into this category, we’d suggest looking at other options.


Al Couture


International SIM Cards

In brief: Buying a new SIM card that will work in every country to 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: Sometimes available, at (often significant) additional cost

Before leaving: Make sure that your phone will work in the countries you’re going, and also that is 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, but if they won’t do it, you’re stuck with less-official methods. Use at your own risk.

Do plenty of research – international SIM costs vary widely. Check the fine print closely, as the per-minute rate is rarely the only cost involved. There are three different sizes of SIM card currently in use – full, micro and nano – so be sure to get the right one for your model of phone.

Other considerations: Be sure to pass your new number onto those who will 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.

Calling a number associated with such cards is likely to be an international phone call from every country in the world. While you can set up services like Skype numbers to provide an alternative local number (at extra cost to you) for folks back home, the international call will act as a disincentive for people in the country you’re currently in.

Our view: If having a working phone and consistent number everywhere you go is important to you, this isn’t a bad compromise between cost and effort.

That said, there are ways of achieving the same outcome at lower rates (albeit with more work), so we’d recommend this only for those who don’t want to deal with the challenge of buying local SIM cards in each country, or who only use their phone sporadically. We compared several international SIMs here.


SONY DSC


Local SIM

In brief: Buying a local SIM card in each country to use in your existing phone.

Best for: Trips of any length where you will spend more than a week in each country, and/or for moderate to 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 activating a local SIM card and topping it up with credit is very easy in some countries, and remarkably difficult in others.

We’ve got plenty of guides for specific countries and regions on this site, but if we don’t cover the place you’re going yet, 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. Nano SIMs (for the latest iPhones) in particular can be hard to find.

Your number will change every time you go to a new country, so have a method for notifying people of your new number (or as above, use a service like Skype numbers to redirect a local number from home) if they need to call you.

Our view: This is our preferred method when we are in a country for a week or more. The costs are much lower than any of the alternatives, especially when using data – as a general rule, it costs around $10-$50 in most countries for a local SIM card and enough call and data credit to last a month.

The process can be challenging at times, but the pay-off is worth the effort.





Other Options

Depending on your specific situation, there are a few other options that could be 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, Yuilop 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 is possible to 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.
    We’ve reviewed several of these devices, and our recommendation would be to do your research carefully before committing to a particular company.
  • Finally, if you’ve got a local SIM card but your internet connection isn’t fast enough for making VoIP calls, you’ve still got a couple of options for saving money on international calls.
    The old-school method of buying a calling card (where you call a local or toll-free number to use prepaid credit) still works in some parts of the world, and services like NotVoIP (where you initiate a call from a smartphone app or web browser and it calls you back to connect the call over the voice network) are also available.

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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5 Responses

  1. Zab

    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

    Reply
  2. SnarkyNomad

    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.

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      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. 🙁

      Reply
  3. Laura D.

    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.

    Reply
  4. Dave Dean

    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?

    Reply

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