Figuring out what to do with your cell phone can be a confusing and frustrating experience. This comprehensive phone travel guide will help teach how to save money and select an option that best fits your travel needs. The most basic questions you need to ask yourself first are (1) how long you’ll be traveling for, (2) where you’re traveling to, and (3) how often you actually need your phone.
If you’re traveling for less than one month, you can easily (and should) get by with only Wi-Fi. Not only is this the cheapest option, but it will help break your cell phone addiction. Personally, I don’t think it’s good to be connected 24/7. You can still check emails and make VOIP calls when you have a Wi-Fi connection, so this is a good happy-medium.
If you’re traveling for more than one month, you will probably want to get an unlocked phone and buy local SIM cards. This allows you to use a smartphone around the world without having to pay exorbitant prices. If you use your phone wisely, you might actually even spend less than what your current phone bill is in the U.S.
Ok, so lets get into it. Below you’ll find all of the options to think about. Keep reading this phone travel guide and you’ll be an expert in no time.
Use a Local SIM Card on an Unlocked Phone
First, you’ll need an unlocked phone, which allows you to use local SIM cards. Most phones you buy from a wireless operator in the U.S. (i.e. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, etc.) will be locked. Locked phones are phones that have been programmed so they can only be used with a particular provider. This is done to keep customers from easily switching providers (pretty annoying, huh). You will need to contact your carrier and ask them to unlock your phone.
Alternatively, you could unlock your phone yourself. This isn’t very difficult, a few YouTube tutorials will teach you all you need to know. You can also bring it directly to a mobile phone shop abroad, but you’ll be charged a small fee.
You’ll also need to make sure you have a GSM Phone. If you’re from the U.S., your phone will either be CDMA or GSM compatible. Sprint, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular use CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. GSM networks are pretty much the world standard outside the U.S., so you’ll want a GSM compatible phone so it’s easy to put in local SIM cards wherever you’re traveling. This is much more of an issue with older phones. Most new phones are world compatible, it’s just important to make sure.
RoverBob Tip – instead of going through the hassle of unlocking your personal phone, I recommend just buying one from Amazon. They are not that expensive and start at $40.
SIM Card Tips
OK, so now you’ve got an unlocked GSM compatible phone. Now you just need to buy a local SIM card. If you’re in Europe, you can find these at local cell shops, convenience stores, and sometimes in vending machines. Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind:
- SIM cards come in a variety of sizes, so make sure you buy the right one.
- The best rates are normally with SIM cards bought from local operators in the country you’re in. I typically go with a regional provider, such as Vodafone in Europe that gives good rates across multiple countries.
- Rates do vary across providers, so you might want to ask fellow travelers or your hostel attendant for some advice on the best options.
- Some pre-paid credit is only valid for a few weeks once activated, so be sure to know when it expires. Therefore, you don’t want to buy a ton of credit all at once and then find out it expires after 30 days. It might make the most sense to buy credit in small chunks.
RoverBob Tip – if you’re traveling for a long period of time, put your current cellular service on hold before you leave (most providers allow you to do this). You can easily do this by phone or online. You will generally have to pay a small fee, but it will save you a lot of money and your phone will be ready to use when you get back.
Use Google Fi or T-MobileIf you’re a frequent traveler, not a heavy data user, and are ok using an Android phone, there isn’t a better mobile provider than Google Fi (this is what I use). The plan is simple:
- $20 per month for unlimited calls and texts from the U.S.
- $10 per GB of mobile data
- International texts and data are included at no extra cost (note – international data comes in at slower 3G speeds)
- International calls cost 20¢ per minute, but can be made for free over Wi-Fi when calling back to the U.S.
So if you use 1 GB of cellular data per month, your monthly bill would be ~$32 including taxes whether you’re using your phone in the U.S. or internationally (this doesn’t include international phone calls, but those can be made for free over Wi-Fi as mentioned above).
If you are a heavier data user, T-Mobile is also a great choice. With their Simple Choice Plan ($50 – $95 per month), you will get unlimited data and texting in over 140 countries. You do have to pay for calls, but they are only 20¢ per minute. If you wanted to save a little money on phone calls, you could just use VOIP apps when Wi-Fi is available.
Only Use Wi-Fi
This can be an attractive option for short trips or for longer trips in locations with excellent Wi-Fi. There are many VOIP (voice over internet protocol) apps that allow you to send free messages and make free phone calls over Wi-Fi to other users that have the same app (Viber is an example). You can also make phone calls to non-app users for super cheap rates (Viber charges ~2 cents per minute for such calls).
Some cities around the world offer excellent free Wi-Fi networks including New York, Barcelona, Seoul, Tel Aviv, Perth, Osaka, and many more. If you’re spending most of your time in busy urban and touristy areas, it can often be easy to find a free hotspot nearby.
If you’re going to do this, just make sure you put your phone in airplane mode or turn off all cellular data and roaming. You don’t want your phone to pick up service in a foreign country, which could end up costing you a lot of money. It’s crazy how expensive international data is and how quickly it can add up just by checking a few emails.
Buy a Disposable Pre-Paid Dummy PhoneYou can easily buy a cheap prepaid old-school phone at your destination. These phones are good for making texts and calls, but you won’t have your usual smart phone capabilities (i.e. google maps, email, internet, etc.). This can actually be a great option if you don’t mind carrying two phones. You can bring your smart phone and use it when there’s Wi-Fi. When you’re on the move and need to make a call or send a text, you can use your shitty dummy phone.
Upgrade your Current Plan
I don’t really recommend this option, since this is expensive. However, it is the easiest. If cost isn’t really a prohibiting factor, this might be your best bet. As I mentioned above, Google Fi and T-Mobile are by far the best mobile providers since they already include international data and texting in their plans. If you have Verizon or AT&T and you decide to upgrade to an international plan, just remember this will be expensive and you’ll need to monitor your data usage.
Rent a Smart Phone
This can be a very convenient option if you don’t need to have your personal phone. However, if you need to use a lot of data or make a lot of phone calls, it won’t be cheap. You can easily rent smart phones at airports, car rentals, and travel agencies. You normally pay a rental fee and then prepay a certain amount of data & minutes. You can also pay as you go. Some operators will also send you the rental phone beforehand. When your trip is over, all you’ll need to do is send it back.
So there you have it, hopefully this phone travel guide has been helpful. The only option I didn’t go into detail on is ditching your phone altogether. That’s great if you truly want to disconnect. Few people are actually willing to do that and I don’t recommend it due to safety concerns. I always want to have a phone on me incase of an emergency.