Thanks to miles and points, many people have traveled the world for what others pay to travel to a different state in the US. With them, many of us have gotten to enjoy learning and experiencing many countries and cultures. However, with all of those experiences, we sometimes forget that there are many aspects of international travel that can be confusing to people just starting out. Hopefully this multi-part Guide To International Travel will help to simplify things for the travelers just starting out to explore our world. Previous parts covered – guide to international travel – passport, guide to international travel – visas, guide to international travel – global entry, and guide to international travel – driving.
Guide To International Travel – Communications
I remember my first international trip back in 2000 (yes, I know – I am a late bloomer to global travel!). A bunch of us went on a tour and to keep in contact with our families back home and let them follow along in our travels, we had what we would now call a blog :). It was just a way to put updates and pictures so others could travel along with us. I still remember loading the 3 1/2 inch disk from the camera into the computer to upload the photos from a very weak internet connection. Forget trying to use a cell phone – way too expensive and hard to get a hold of.
Well, those days of travel are gone. In fact, if we do not stay connected while traveling people wonder what is wrong with us! Fortunately, there are many options to keep us connected with family and work while abroad. Some are good and some are most certainly not. Here is what you need to know so that you are prepared to stay connected.
Will Your Cell Phone Provider Work Overseas?
All major US cellular companies do offer global plans. They are just limited in their offering (with one exception). Here is an overview of what they offer and the cost.
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One additional note about those plans is that T-Mobile offers free, unlimited 2G data to customers on their Simple Choice Plans. Those plans start at $50 a month. Technically, you could sign-up for one of those plans for the time when you are out of the country if you do not mind paying the $50 + tax (if you are not already a T-Mobile customer). From all accounts, the T-Mobile speed on that plan is quite slow.
When it comes to voice options, they are more regionally variant. The different carriers can offer different rates by country and/or region. For more of the particulars, check the various websites for the carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.[table “” not found /]
Using Local SIM Cards and Service
It is definitely cheaper to use local SIM cards from local cell providers. This is easily the best route to go if you are visiting one country for at least one week. If you are going to go this route, there are some things to consider.
Things to know:
- You will need an unlocked GSM cellphone (GSM is the type of cellular technology that is most used around the world – Verizon and Sprint operate on CDMA networks and AT&T and T-Mobile operate on GSM networks) more on unlocked phones later
- Prepaid plans are plentiful around the world and much easier to obtain than in the US
- You will need to show your passport when signing up for the plan
- Rates in country are very cheap and many countries have free incoming calls
- You will never pay overage amounts as you have prepaid
- It requires going to an actual location so you may not have service immediately after arriving (though many countries have carriers available in the arrival halls of the airports)
- You may not understand what is available with the plan (data pulls from minutes, messages are not included)
Local phone service is really cheap. In Greece, I can get 500MB of data and 300 minutes around the country for only $13 for a month. That price is typical for locations all over Europe and can be cheaper in other countries. It definitely beats using your US cell service!
Using International Providers
There are several providers that give you a balance between using your own provider or a local service. It could be the best choice for the traveler that is in different countries for a week or less. I have used some of these services and have not had a problem. The cheapest of the services are able to offer the prices they have because of a callback function – you call the desired phone number, the service dials it for you, and then calls you back to make the call. A couple of extra steps, but it provides much lower rates.
The rates for these providers can be as low as $.05 per minute to some countries or average around $.50 to multiple countries. That is much cheaper than US based providers! Here are some of the providers:
There are many others, but those should be a good start. You can also order country-specific cards from some of those companies.
There is one other option which should be considered, but it is currently in beta. It is called Cell-Buddy and you can read more about it here.
Using WiFi Only
Of course, it is possible to take advantage of the huge amount of free wireless available around the world and just use apps like Viber, Google Voice, Skype, or FaceTime to connect with the people you need to speak with.
Internet is everywhere and access to it can be free (or, at least cheap). If you do not need communications wherever you are during your visit, you can use those apps as needed when you are connected. My app of choice when traveling is FaceTime because everyone I know and keep in contact with have Apple devices. When I needed to, I used Google Voice.
Unlocked Cell Phones
Of course, all of the above is dependent on you having an unlocked cell phone. What that means is that your phone will accept a SIM card from a different carrier. Normally, phones sold in the US are locked to the original provider. It is possible to get them unlocked by the carrier (under various circumstances) or pay for an unlock code (can be had for around $20).
This means that you can use an AT&T and T-Mobile phone globally as long as it is unlocked. If you have a Verizon world phone or a 4G phone, you can also use it globally as long as it is unlocked. Even though Verizon is a CDMA carrier (and not GSM like most of the world), the 4G service requires a SIM card that allows it to be used on GSM networks. Sprint’s phones are mostly unable to be even unlocked to work with other carriers. Many of their phones actually have the SIM glued into place. Any of their phones that are marked as global phones (like their Blackberry devices) can be used overseas.
What if you do not have a phone capable of being unlocked or you do not want to take your expensive smartphone with you on your trip? There are options! If you try to buy an unlocked phone from the normal sources (your carrier, Best Buy, Amazon, etc), even a “feature” phone (not a smartphone) can be very expensive.
Here are some of the ways you can get a good deal on unlocked phones.
- Telestial – They actually sell cellphones as well as cards. You can purchase regular phones from them for as little as $19 (for a dual-sim) or a smartphone for $149. These phones even come with credit!
- Buy local – This can be a little risky if you don’t know how much they will be, but you could plan on purchasing a phone when you arrive in the foreign country. Here in Greece, they sell basic phones for as low as $20 or you can purchase phones like the Samsung Galaxy line for $150. The expensive, well-known phones will actually be a lot more than the in the US (iPhones can be almost $1,000!).
eBay – I would not look for unlocked phones from private sellers but check the deals that eBay releases everyday. Barely does a week go by that there is not a great deal available on unlocked smartphones. Some of the most popular are phones like the Verizon Droid Incredible 2. I see them quite often for under $80 and they are very decent smartphones of great build quality.
- Amazon – I know I said Amazon is not a great place for unlocked phones, but there are some phones that can be had at a decent price. One of the best phones can be bought on Amazon for around $280 new – that is the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini duos. It is a very strong smartphone that has a dual sim card slot that you could pop two sims in for home and away.
My personal phone is the iPhone 5 (Verizon). It made some news when it came out a couple of years ago because the Verizon phones were unlocked to accept any carrier – including domestic carriers (which does not normally happen).
There are a lot of options for the international traveler when it comes to staying connected. Technology changes quickly so it is ok to expect better rates and options in the near future. For now, these are some of the best options out there and I hope it helps you.