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We live in an ultra-connected world. Most Americans are now accustomed to always being online, with a majority of Americans (53%) admitting to regularly using their phone in bed before going to sleep, according to a 2021 study by Contentsquare, an analytics company. For some, the thought of disconnecting to go on an international trip may seem like a dream, but that idea might be a nightmare for others.
Those who want to stay connected have many options for data and text messages while overseas — from using international cell phone plans to getting a local SIM or eSIM card. Here are our tips on the best ways to use your cell phone while abroad.
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1. Sign up for Google Fi
Google Fi is a virtual cell phone service provider. That means that rather than owning its own towers, it partners with local cell phone providers to provide cell, data and text services. And Google Fi didn't just stop at partnering with U.S. cell phone providers. Google Fi provides service in over 200 countries, making it incredibly convenient for frequent international travelers.
When you land in an international country, you can simply turn off airplane mode and use your phone just like you do at home. You'll get unlimited free texting, and data costs the same as when you're back home and using Google Fi. The only thing that can cost extra is phone calls. You'll pay 20 cents per minute when calling overseas or traveling overseas. You'll pay this same rate whether you're calling friends or family back home or calling a hotel in the next country on your itinerary.
The downside to Google Fi: depending on the plan you choose, data prices can be quite high compared to other cell phone service options while you're in the U.S.
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2. Get free overseas data using T-Mobile and Sprint
The budget option for staying connected while overseas is to use T-Mobile or Sprint as your cell phone provider. Many plans offered by these providers come with free text and data while traveling overseas. However, you get what you pay for when it comes to data speeds.
T-Mobile customers with can get unlimited 2G data, unlimited texting and calls costing 25 cents per minute across 210 destinations if they have the following plans:
Don't expect to be able to do much on 2G data, as it’s only around twice the speed of dial-up internet. If you want faster data speeds, you'll need to purchase an International Pass that includes a limited amount of data and unlimited calling over a set number of days.
Similarly, Sprint customers get free text messages and 2G data and 25 cents per minute calling when traveling to more than 200 destinations. As with T-Mobile, Sprint customers can purchase data packages that allow 4G/LTE data roaming for as little as $5 per day.
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3. Buy a local SIM card in your destination
Seasoned international travelers may remember when getting a local SIM card was the only way of staying connected while overseas. But even now, with all of the alternatives that we have, getting a local SIM card can still be a great option. Say you're staying in a country or region for an extended period. A local SIM card might be the best option to make local calls at affordable rates.
Depending on where you go, a local SIM card could be the most economical option. For example, when I visited Vietnam in January 2019, airport vendors offered local SIM cards with unlimited LTE data for just $8. This was cheaper than paying for even 1GB of data using Google Fi. So, I alternated between using this local SIM card for data and Google Fi for text messages.
4. Utilize an eSIM card
eSIM cards are a high-tech solution to getting a local number without having to hunt down a SIM card in your destination. Rather than getting a physical SIM card, you can purchase and download an eSIM on your phone to connect to cell networks and get data while overseas.
Tons of providers sell eSIMs online with options and prices depending on where you're going and how much you'll need to use your phone. So, make sure to dig around and check reviews before purchasing. But, let's take a look at one provider to show you generally how it works.
Airalo sells a variety of eSIMs that cover a combined 190+ countries and regions. You can search for eSIMs by country or region, or you can purchase a global eSIM that covers 87 countries.
Say you're heading to Europe and want to have data for navigating around the cities you're visiting. Airalo currently offers six European eSIM options:
1GB of data valid for 7 days for $5.
3GB of data valid for 30 days for $13.
5GB of data valid for 30 days for $20.
10GB of data valid for 30 days for $37.
50GB of data valid for 90 days for $100.
100GB of data valid for 180 days for $185.
As you can see, you can drop the price to just $4 per GB by buying 5GB of data or just $2 per GB by buying 50GB of data. That's very affordable compared to options like Google Fi — which can cost up to $10 per GB. However, you generally won't have access to SMS text messages through eSIMs. One option is to switch between using an eSIM for data and either Google Fi, Sprint or T-Mobile for text messages.
Airalo succinctly spells out the process that you'll need to go through when purchasing any type of eSIM. Generally you'll need to:
Download the provider's app.
Purchase the eSIM.
Install the eSIM.
Then activate the eSIM once you're ready to start using it.
One major restriction to this option: you'll need to have a phone that supports eSIMs. Also, you'll want to have some technical knowhow. As I've learned from experience, setting up an eSIM can be much harder than the Airalo screenshots make it seem.
5. Pay for an international plan add-on
If you want to use your phone number to call and text while overseas — and you don't have Google Fi, T-Mobile or Sprint — you're likely going to need to purchase an international add-on to your plan. The rates and options for these types of services are going to vary between cell phone providers. Let's look at Verizon's options as an example.
All unlimited Verizon plans include free talk, text and data in Mexico and Canada. Just beware that data speeds are reduced to 2G speeds after 0.5 GB per day. For travels outside the U.S., Mexico and Canada, you have two options:
For $10 per day, TravelPass will let you use your phone like you do at home with unlimited talk, text and data in over 185 countries. Get the International Monthly Plan for $100 per month to get a package of minutes, data and text messages for use overseas.
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If you're looking for the best way to use your cell phone abroad
The right solution is going to depend on what cell phone service you use in the U.S., where you're going and how much data you'll need. If you just want basic data to keep up on emails and search directions, using T-Mobile or Sprint can save you from having to pay when traveling overseas.
However, if you want high-speed data, you'll want to look into options like eSIMs or purchasing a local SIM card. And for those who want the simplicity of using their cell phone just like at home no matter where they go, Google Fi or an international add-on plan can be an excellent option.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card