Using your mobile phone in another country has always been a tricky proposition. There can be a number of hoops to jump through, and there are many considerations to take into account. It is a subject many people approach with trepidation, for if you’re not keeping your eye on your spending and usage habits, it can end up costing you a lot of money.
Fortunately, there are a number of options to help keep you in your comfort zone, and allow you the freedom to stay connected by making calls, sending and receiving text messages, and surfing online without incurring unreasonable costs.
Horror stories abound of people returning from a trip abroad only to discover that they have accrued a huge amount of International mobile roaming charges. You can usually use your current domestic mobile plan while abroad, but roaming charges are often high. Do your research before you leave by contacting your cellular provider and ask them what they offer for International roaming. Once you have the facts, you can decide if they offer a good deal you can live with, or whether you need to explore other options.
Before you travel
If you are considering using another mobile plan, make sure that your mobile phone is ‘unlocked’, since they are sometimes ‘locked’ so that they can only be used with your mobile service provider that sold it to you. In this case, enquire about having your mobile phone unlocked before you leave – this may take a couple of days, and there might be a charge. You should also make sure that your phone will work in other countries. Older models of mobile phones sometimes operate on frequencies which may not work when you travel out of your home country, so research this carefully before you travel.
Some smartphones support having two SIMs installed at once, which allows you the option to keep your usual phone number “alive” so you can receive calls or voice mail, while still taking advantage of local calling and data use at your destination, however watch out for escalating costs and complexity! You can also buy a dedicated Hotspot device, which allows you to create your own local WIFI network. This can be handy to connect your family’s other users all under one data plan while keeping costs down while you travel, however these devices don’t support voice calling – just data.
Local mobile plans
In most cases, the least expensive type of cellular service involves buying a local SIM from the country you are visiting, and signing up for a local pay-as-you-go plan. Airports, newsagents, phone shops and other stores will all usually carry these SIM cards bundled with a pay-as-you-go mobile plan for use in a particular country or region. Just top up the SIM with a credit and you will be charged the low, local rate.
There are some drawbacks to using a local mobile plan in a foreign country. You may, for example, be required to register before you are able to use the SIM, and produce passports, visas and other information. These signup procedures can take a while to complete, so carefully consider if your precious travel time is worth spending on this. Many foreign mobile providers only provide help in the local language, so there is a risk you won’t fully understand what you’re signing up for, and you may not get help when you need it!
If you are only in a country for a short while, tracking down the right store, making sure you have the best deal and waiting to be registered can eat into time you would probably rather spend seeing the sights. If you are travelling to multiple countries, this will also mean you will need to purchase a new mobile plan (and therefore a new SIM card and phone number) and go through the process again in each country. The exception to this rule is the European Union countries, where roaming between countries must by law be supported by all carriers.
If you will be using your home cellular provider’s roaming service while travelling, be sure to note their customer service number to call. You want to find the non-toll-free number you can call from overseas if you need help. Enter these numbers in your Contacts, so you can quickly get help when you need it most. Don’t forget to add the “+” sign and country code in front of these numbers!
International mobile plans
International mobile plans (also known as Roaming SIMs) are not quite as cheap as using a local country/regional mobile plan, but they can be less expensive than roaming on a Canadian or USA mobile plan. There are a number of additional benefits as well as the price, since they can provide you with coverage in multiple countries where that normally might not be commonly available. This can come in handy if you are on an extended trip covering a lot of distance and multiple countries, since it will save you from making repeated arrangements.
Where can I get a SIM and mobile plan for my international trip?
Pay-as-you-go plans are sold from airport kiosks and stores run by mobile service providers, and usually come with credit for voice calls and data within the country. Prices of plans can be less if you wait until you arrive at your hotel and find a local mobile store in the city. Prepaid SIM cards with mobile plans can be purchased online using Amazon or other sites specializing in providing international mobile services to travellers.
Prepaid mobile plans offered by the big European mobile providers often include roaming in other countries and even other continents. Perform a search on Amazon for “international sim card” to compare plans. Some plans only provide voice and text; others provide voice, text, and data; and some just provide data with no voice or text. If you decide on a plan that includes data, read the descriptions carefully if tethering your other devices to your smartphone is important to you, since some plans don’t support this feature.
If you don’t want the hassle of telling friends and family to call a temporary international number to reach you, it is possible to keep your current number to use for voice calls, and use an e-SIM for data. Many high-end smart phones now support two SIMs – either physical SIMs or eSIMs. This means you won’t have to swap physical SIMs, assuming all you need is to have some data available at a cheaper rate than offered by your domestic mobile carrier’s roaming plans. If this appeals to you, I recommend signing up with Airalo, which sell eSIMs for data services only (no voice). Airalo is the world’s first eSIM store that gives you access to 190+ eSIMs (digital SIM cards) globally at affordable prices, with no shipping involved. You can buy eSIMs that work for specific countries, regions, or worldwide. Use my referral code JOSEPH4203 to get $3 off your first purchase with Airalo. Another trusted eSIM provider for data-only mobile plans is Ubigi.
If your destination is the USA, you have a vast array of prepaid mobile plans to choose from, which are available from the carrier outlets as well as almost any corner store, gas station or big stores such as Walmart or Costco. Check out the carriers’ coverage maps beforehand, to ensure you will have service in the areas in the USA you plan to visit, since some US carriers’ coverage can be non-existent in some areas of the country! International travellers can also buy prepaid mobile plans from any of the major USA mobile service providers, however you will have to find and go into one of their stores to sign up, since many don’t offer online SIM/plan purchase or delivery to International travellers.
You can often save significantly over roaming charges from your home country provider. A third-party service provider I found (for Canadians and Japanese only) is Jethro Mobile, who resell T-Mobile service for very reasonable cost. They ship a physical SIM, so allow yourself a few days to receive it. Jethro Mobile also sells through Amazon.ca, where you can avoid shipping charges if you have Amazon Prime. Activate the plan a few days before you start travelling, so you can pick the US address your number will be local to, and your mobile phone will be ready to use as soon as you arrive. Most of these plans also allow free calling from the USA to: Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, and 80 other destinations.
When you’re going off the beaten path but have to keep in touch, satellite phone rentals can make sense, however they are much more expensive than traditional cellular service. This option also involves carrying another communication device, since regular mobile phones don’t support satellite services.
There is usually cellular service offered aboard most cruise ships, but your mobile provider will charge you very high fees to use it. There is a way to stay connected while aboard ship at a modest cost by leaving your cellphone active but turn off data roaming. That way, caller ID (no charge) is usually displayed when someone calls while you are aboard ship, but simply don’t answer unless it looks urgent. Listen to voicemail and/or return the call when you are at a port and connected to less expensive mobile services. Alternately, send them email or use Facebook Messenger or Facetime using the onboard Wi-fi, which is much less expensive. Hint: follow the crew to find free or low-cost Wi-fi while ashore!
Perhaps it’s not worth it…
After exploring all the options described above, you may decide it simply isn’t worth the hassle or expense to keep in touch while you’re travelling. You may decide that using free local Wi-fi in coffee shops and other businesses will be enough to keep you connected to your family using social media messaging and/or email.
Getting hung up on staying in constant touch with friends and family may defeat the purpose of why you are travelling – to get away from it all, to relax and get into the moment!