How Cheap Can Foreign Phone Plans Be? (Or Why Not To Use Your US Carrier Overseas) - Running with Miles
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How Cheap Can Foreign Phone Plans Be? (Or Why Not To Use Your US Carrier Overseas)

Local SIM
Written by Charlie

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We live in a day when we feel that we are lost if we are somehow not connected to the world – whether it be by voice, internet, or text messaging. So, when we travel internationally, that need to feel connected can often cause us to pay a very high price to maintain that access. Paying the roaming costs with your US carrier is certainly not the cheapest way to go and you can maintain that connection for far less using local SIM cards.

Getting a foreign plan can take as little as 10 minutes and save you anywhere from $30 to hundreds of dollars depending on your usage – and you may be able to load and control it all online! It does not have to be hard to live like a local with your phone!

Is It Worth It To Buy A Local SIM And Plan?

First, I understand every country is going to be different and the price that you may have to pay may not be worth the hassle if you are only going to be in the country for a few days. But, if you are going to be there for a week or more (or maybe returning at some future date), having phone service so that you can keep friends and family bored up-to-speed with your travels can be worth it! 🙂

US carriers can charge outrageous international fees, even with the packages that they all now offer. The data offerings are very poor and the price is high. Of course, if it is important to you to be able to use your home number on the go, than go with that. But, you don’t have to pay that much when you are in a foreign country for a few days or more!

Phone Unlocked?

If you have a phone that is unlocked, meaning it is not tied only to your US carrier, then you are ready to go and drop another SIM card (the tiny chip-like piece that goes into your phone and is your phone’s identifier for phone access). If your phone is not unlocked, call your carrier and ask them about it. If you have paid for your phone and/or are a customer in good standing, they will unlock it for you. Just make sure that the phone you are using is one that has a SIM card (not all Sprint or Verizon phones do).

Read More: Guide To International Travel – Communications

Finding A Carrier And SIM

When you arrive in a foreign country, if the airport of your arrival is a large international airport, you will likely find at least one cell phone provider in the terminal. From them, you can at least purchase the SIM card you will need and some basic credit. If you can wait until you reach the city, you can stop in any cell provider’s storefront and ask them for a prepaid card and some credits. In Greece, these stores are everywhere and I know that is true in many other countries as well.

The SIM card may cost you a little something – in Greece, it costs about $5 for the SIM card itself. In some countries and with some carriers, the cost of the SIM card also includes some credit for use so it is a wash. Next, you need to put some credit on the phone. With prepaid plans, it is all about the credit as you can often choose from there what type of service you want. Ask them if they have an online portal for loading the phone as this is definitely going to be the easiest (and cheapest) way to fill your phone.

For me in Europe, it only takes about 10 minutes to walk in and get setup – max. They will need to scan your passport but then you just get the SIM, pay and go. At least in places I have done this, there are no applications to fill out and the process is done quicker than you can imagine!

What I Pay Per Month

In my case, for a while, I just kept loading my phone once a month with some credit (the credit for this particular program expires every 30 days but the SIM card’s number is good for 12 months without use) in the store. But, when I found out about loading my account online, I really started to get some great savings! Not only that, but I could do it anywhere I had internet instead of going into a store.

Load Up Online!

Here is what I get for my monthly account. We use something called the Blender (the cost is about $5.50) which gives us a pool of minutes, text messages, and data that draws down in equal proportions as one of those is used.

Local SIM

Our “Blender” package for $5.50 and what we get.

With that, we then have access to weekly gifts that we can give to ourselves or other users. In my case, I give my gift to me as well as my wife’s gift pack since I use more data than she does. The amount that is available fluctuates but is either 100MB or 300MB each week per phone. So, in addition to the 500MB I get with the Blender pack, I now get from 800MB to 2.4GB for free every month also!

Local SIM

The “Gifts” that I can choose from for free every week

But, that’s not all! If I load my account with $11, it automatically gives me another 100 messages, 500 minutes, and 1GB – without drawing anything from the $11 I just loaded! That $10 is still there for me to use for any other packages I want to load. That includes special calling plans to places around the world (it costs $7.70 to call the US for 240 minutes – equaling the cost of 3.2 cents per minute to call the US from your cell phone in Greece!).

Local SIM

Get an extra package to call the US for only pennies a minute!

To make it even better, you can pay for it with your PayPal account online – no problems! Not only that, but your SIM card is good for 1 year (if you do not use it all during that time) and you can access your account online from anywhere to reload for your next trip (or even use it from the US for a minute to keep the account alive past the 1 year).

Monthly Totals

So, what I get in a month is:

  • at least 600 minutes to call around Greece
  • at least 200 SMS around Greece
  • at least 1.4 GB (just taking into account the gifts from my account and not my wife’s)

And I get all that for a total of $5.50 (though I load $11 into my account for future packages). So I spend $10 to load the account but the above is only using $5.50 of that. That is cheap!

And that does not have to be a monthly type plan. Since there is no contract and no package that you have to sign-up for, this same amount of usage could simply be for a week if that is how long you are in Greece. In that case, it would be $5.50 for the SIM card, $11 for the initial load, and only drawing $5.50 from that $11 to pay for the package. So, you will pay a total of $16.50 but will have another $5.50 for future use or other packages (like calling to the US).

It Gets Even Better Later This Year

To make it even better, in December, the carriers around Europe are getting rid of their roaming charges so that customers of their networks can call and use their phone from any country in the EU like they do in the originating country (in the EU). That means that if you buy a SIM card on your next trip to Greece, for example, next year, you could load up the card with what you need and land in Germany ready to go with a cheap phone package. Of course, the charges will likely go up a bit to compensate for the roaming but they will still be nothing like the US phone charges.

Alternatives?

Of course, T-Mobile has a great option for all those on eligible plans for the international data roaming at no charge. That is great! Another option is Google’s new Project Fi that will allow international roaming and a very flexible data pay package. For now, that is by invite only and only on the Google Nexus 6, but that should expand over time.

But, if you are not in one of those two categories, look into the local SIM option for your next trip. You may be surprised how easy and cheap it is to stay connected while out. Not only is it nice to stay in touch with family and friends, but it is so much easier to have access to the internet while you are out exploring the city.

*These prices are from Greece and every country will have a different carrier structure and price. Make sure you check with your carriers in the foreign country you visit but they will just about always be cheaper than using your US carrier in a foreign country for voice and data.

Editorial Note - Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

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About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

10 Comments

  • A lesson I learned the hard way is that even if you pay cash for an AT&T android phone (in my case a moto X), it is not unlocked. It should be, and if you call or go to a store they will tell you it is, but it is not. I bought a foreign sim and popped it in and I was told I needed a network access code. I called AT&T on Skype from my hotel and it took a while before I was able to speak to any who knew what a network access code was and they said they would send me one via email. Amazingly, the next morning I had the unlock code in my email inbox and my phone worked. So if going abroad with an AT&T android phone, get the network unlock code. You will need it no matter how much the people at AT&T insist you don’t. Interestingly, my wife’s IPhone didn’t have this problem and worked right away.

  • I bought an iphone 6plus outright that’s tied to AT&T

    1) Can it be unlocked?

    2) What’s the best solution for my going up to Canada for two weeks?

    3) When I get a sim card, is there a way to keep or reroute calls from my phone number to the number attached to the sim?

    • Yes, it can. As long as your account has been open for at least 60 days and is in good standing, you are good to go. Check more here. Check with Rogers as they are the big carrier in Canada. You should be able to see what their prepaid plans are online.
      AT&T would have call forwarding, but it does cost and will cost to send it to a foreign number. One option, especially if you are not in contract and will be traveling more often, is to port your current number to Google Voice or something similar. Then, you can have that number forward all calls to your AT&T number (you would get a new number) and then switch it when you are in a different country. I do that with a service called Ring Central (they are more phone service for overseas, basically like Vonage) and it works great. Have a great trip!

  • Its not exactly clear but what is blender..is it a type of sim or service..where in Greece would you pick it up?
    Thanks

    • Sorry about that! I was just giving an example but should have put more info in for any visiting Greece (I will update the post as well). My phone carrier is WIND and I am on their prepaid, or F2G, plans. The blender is simply one of the packages available with the prepaid plans. You can get a WIND SIM at any WIND store in Greece. I know you can load your account at the Public store (electronics store like Best Buy) but I am not sure if you can get a SIM there – you probably can. They have those all over as well.

  • NY Times has an article on this. As of this writing over 260 reader comments and tips.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/travel/how-to-pick-a-cellphone-plan-for-traveling-abroad.html

    If you are going to Japan, Sprint has a $5 unlimited roaming (talk, text, data) add on for Japan, thanks to their ownership by Softbank. It’s now available to all customers (previously it was only for “business” customers) and has no expiration date, despite earlier literature.

    • Thanks for the NYT link! I will have to check it out. Great news for Sprint customers as well! Here’s hoping that other partnerships with US carriers bring the same types of deals to their customers.

  • If you go on Amazaon and seach “sim” and the country you are visiting you can find many options. For example, I’m going to Mexico and I got a sim for 45$ with 1.5Gb of data and free incoming calls. I can Skype out with the data and use imessages for most texts and whasapp for others.

    • Great info! Thanks for that about Amazon! That is one of the things I like about my iPhone (even though I do get Android envy sometimes!). The facetime audio and imessages are a great way to keep in touch with my family and friends, most of whom have an Apple device. I know it is possible to do it with other services as well but I like having it baked right in.

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