You come home from vacation. You’re relaxed. You’re refreshed.
Then you check your cell phone bill and find that you owe $800.
International roaming rates are nothing to mess around with, so it’s important to know what you’re on the hook for before you travel abroad. We’ve surveyed the mobile landscape and picked out the carriers and plans that are most friendly to frequent out-of-country travelers.
Keep in mind that bringing your own phone with a U.S.-based plan might not be the most cost-effective option.
Best postpaid international roaming plans
For most countries, T-Mobile is where it’s at. The carrier includes unlimited texting and 2G data in more than 140 countries with every T-Mobile One plan. Talk costs only 20 cents per minute, a relative bargain compared with other international voice rates.
If you can’t go without high-speed data for the trip, you can upgrade to T-Mobile One Plus for an extra $15 per month. This upgrades your international roaming data speeds to 3G.
In Mexico and Canada, you get access to your monthly 4G LTE data allotment, plus unlimited talk and text, all included with your plan. Few other carriers comes close to beating that.
If you plan on traveling to South America often, Sprint’s Open World international add-on — which you can sign up for at no charge — is worth a look. Except for Cuba, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, Sprint allows unlimited talk and text in North and South America, plus gives you 1GB of 3G data — all for free. After you use that data, Sprint charges $30 per GB, a relatively good price for data abroad, especially since you’re only charged for the data you actually use.
Sprint offers competitive rates in many other countries, too: 20 cents per minute to talk, unlimited texting and a $30-per-GB data rate.
Things to Know
- T-Mobile: You have the potential to get 4G LTE in Mexico and Canada, but it’s not guaranteed everywhere. Wi-Fi calls back to the U.S., Canada and Mexico are free from included countries. Wi-Fi calls between included countries are charged at the same rate as mobile talk, 20 cents per minute.
- Sprint: The actual speed of the promised 1GB “high-speed data” depends on the country and location. Sprint only promises up to 3G speeds, not 4G LTE.
How They Compare
- Verizon: $10 for every day you use your phone outside of the country. In Mexico and Canada, it’s just $2 per day per line. You keep your Verizon talk, text and data allowances. This means possible 4G LTE data speeds, depending on the country, but you could be paying $140 if you use your phone every day during a two-week trip. If you don’t plan on using your phone daily, Verizon could be worthwhile. Available in over 100 countries. The carrier also offers monthly and pay-as-you-go international roaming prices.
- AT&T: The basic international plan costs an extra $40 per month for unlimited texting, $1-per-minute talk rates, and 200MB of 2G data (25 cents per MB afterward). Available in roughly 190 countries.
Best prepaid international roaming plans
Only two prepaid carriers allow international roaming beyond North America: Google’s Project Fi and MetroPCS.
Until recently, Project Fi was invite-only but is now open to anyone. If you can live with some of its restrictions (like offering only four phones), Google’s unconventional mobile service can actually get you great international roaming rates in over 120 countries, especially on data.
While abroad with Project Fi, you get up to 3G data speeds (and sometimes even 4G, depending on the country) at a rate of $10 per GB, plus unlimited texts. You’ll be charged only for the data you use, with no overage fees. Voice rates in most frequently visited countries are 20 cents per minute and can be even cheaper over Wi-Fi.
MetroPCS’ World Calling add-on has a good bit of South America covered, plus Mexico, Canada, Spain, Switzerland, Japan and Thailand. World Calling costs $10 extra per month and gets you 200 minutes of talk, 200 text messages to send (unlimited received) and 200MB of data while you’re in those countries.
Things to Know
- Project Fi: You’ll have only four phone options: the Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6 and Google Pixel. Stateside, Project Fi uses a combination of networks: Sprint’s, T-Mobile’s and U.S. Cellular’s, plus public Wi-Fi when available.
- MetroPCS: It also offers Canada Unlimited service and Mexico Unlimited service, each at $5 per month. You get unlimited texts and calls within either Mexico or Canada, plus access to as much data as your MetroPCS plan allows, although you’re not guaranteed 4G LTE speeds while outside of the U.S.
Best international cell phone plans: summary
|Carrier||Plan name||Best for||Cost||Get started|
|Project Fi International Roaming||People who want a prepaid carrier||International roaming included with $20/month base plan|
|MetroPCS World Calling||People who want a prepaid carrier||$10/month on top of a required $50 or $60/month base plan|
|Sprint Open World||People who want a postpaid carrier||Free to anyone on Sprint (plans start at $40/month)|
|T-Mobile One International Roaming||People who want a postpaid carrier||International roaming included with T-Mobile One plan (starts at $75/month)|
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While there are some good options from U.S.-based carriers right now (much better than in the past), it’s always worth your time to research carriers in your destination country, especially if you want high-speed data access.
Buying a cheap prepaid phone when you get off the plane can often be much more cost-effective than using your usual plan abroad. Or, you can call your carrier and ask whether your phone is compatible with international SIM cards. If so, you can buy a prepaid SIM in your destination country and simply pop it into your phone for access to the local network.
We evaluated all the major international roaming cell phone plans on the market, including those offered by AT&T, Google’s Project Fi, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
To determine the best plans, we looked at the price of the international roaming option before taxes and fees, the price per gigabyte of data, and the price of international calls and texts.
Updated on Feb. 2, 2017.
Stephen Layton is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: email@example.com.