3 easy ways to use your cellphone abroad (without going broke)

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iPhone on the beach
Are you ready to take your iPhone on vacation?
Photo: Samer Chidiac/Pixabay CC

Most of us have heard nightmare stories of friends who traveled abroad only to come home with a horrific cellphone bill. Either they forgot to put their device in Airplane Mode, or didn’t consider an international plan. Those types of mistakes have cost people hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in international fees for phone calls and data usage abroad.

Stories like these are becoming less common, however, as technology improves. One of the best and most recent advancements are new plans that make it easier for folks to travel to another country and still be able to use their current phone.

We tell you about three options for using your phone while traveling abroad, so you can keep in touch with friends and family back home — and not spend too much in the process.

Tips for using your phone abroad

Get a plan through the major carriers

T-Mobile and Sprint currently lead the way with the best free international phone plans. T-Mobile started the trend, and offers unlimited data and texting in more than 140 countries and destinations at no extra charge. If you decide to make a phone call, you’ll be charged a flat rate of 20 cents a minute. Sprint followed suit and offers a similar plan.

On both of these plans you’ll be using 2G data speeds, although you can pay for increased speeds on a daily or weekly basis if you desire. Keep in mind that while these plans are fantastic, 2G data is not very fast. But even if slow speeds remind you of the dial-up internet days, the plans are still incredibly useful for checking emails or sending a quick message. Some users have even reported getting 3G speeds in select countries, although T-Mobile doesn’t advertise this. Just don’t expect to stream Netflix flawlessly while abroad.

Verizon and AT&T are another story. They provide daily and monthly international plans, but no completely free options. Verizon’s international plan offers more flexibility and cheaper starting options than AT&T’s. The best part of Verizon’s plan is your ability to sign up daily and use your domestic plan’s allowance of minutes, texts and data overseas. Those plans cost $10 per day (per device), and could come in handy if you know you’ll need access to your phone a lot on one or two particular days of your trip. Verizon also offers a handy trip-planning tool to help you purchase the right plan for your trip.

AT&T only offers monthly international plans, and they aren’t even as robust as the free plans from T-Mobile and Sprint.

If you’re a frequent traveler to Canada or Mexico, you’ll seriously want to consider being a T-Mobile or Sprint customer. T-Mobile allows you to use your cellphone in both countries as though you were still in the United States. Your 4G works the same, as well as your unlimited texts and calls. And Sprint manages to do even better with its Open World plan. You’ll get free calling and texting as well as 1GB of high-speed data in virtually all of North and South America under that plan.

Make calls via Wi-Fi

Making phone calls via Wi-Fi is much easier than it’s ever been, and the apps that make this possible are abundant. First things first, though: Disable your phone’s mobile data connection. Putting your phone in Airplane Mode disables the mobile data and cellular connection, and it’s your best bet for ensuring that you won’t be using any expensive international cellular resources.

As you travel, log on to secure Wi-Fi networks at your hotel or Airbnb, restaurant, internet cafe, etc. If you need free Wi-Fi in a pinch, look for the nearest Starbucks or American fast food chain (like McDonald’s). Those are your best bets for pro bono internet access abroad.

Some of the most popular apps for making phone calls via Wi-Fi are FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and Viber. The key to free calls is making sure that the people you want to call are using the same app. For instance, you can call another Skype user for free if you are both using the Skype app. If you dial up the person’s mobile or landline number, however, you’ll pay a low fee for every minute you chat.

WhatsApp is another one of the most popular apps in this sphere and has some great features. You can send photos and videos or make voice calls to people for free via a Wi-Fi connection. You can also send voice messages and share your location. The app is available for free for iOS, Android and Windows devices.

Use an international SIM card

Another popular and cheap way to make phone calls abroad is by purchasing an international SIM card. First, you’ll need to confirm that you have an unlocked cellphone that is GSM-compatible. Almost every country in the world uses GSM technology; however, two U.S. carriers (Sprint and Verizon) use a technology called CDMA. Many of the phones that run on these two networks won’t be able to use an international SIM card.

More and more phones that work on CDMA carriers also have GSM capability, though, and can be used internationally if unlocked. While each carrier has its own process to unlock your phone, all are obligated legally to do so.

Purchasing a separate unlocked GSM phone is also a valid course of action. You can find cheap ones on eBay, and a huge number of cellphones now come unlocked when you purchase them brand new. If you decide to go that route, consider buying your phone from somewhere besides your cellphone company. You are likely to get the best price by shopping around, and your cellphone company might be selling you a locked phone.

You can purchase an international SIM card before you leave on your trip via sites like GO-SIM, WorldSIM and Telestial. Each of these companies lets you buy a SIM card that comes preloaded with credits. You can weigh the options of how much to spend on a prepaid SIM for the amount of data, texts and calling minutes you get for the cost. WhistleOut has a handy guide to many of the SIM card sellers and what you’ll get for your money.

The relatively new options from major carriers have made international plans more accessible and cheaper than ever before. Many of the prepaid cellphone providers are adopting cheap international calling plans, too. Those are mostly Mexico- and Canada-specific, however. With the extreme competition among the big four U.S. wireless providers, these plans continue to evolve quickly.

Readers, how do you use your phone while traveling abroad? Have you ever racked up a huge phone bill while overseas? Let us know in the comments below!