For Work or Pleasure, Here’s How to Use Your Mobile Phone While Traveling Abroad

If you’re like most people, you carry your cell phone with you everywhere. You use it not just multiple times per day, but per hour. Your phone isn’t just for making calls – it’s your wristwatch, a paperback, the Yellow Pages, a gaming system, a GPS, a pager (do you remember those?), and a tiny laptop computer all rolled into one.

In other words, most of us would be lost without our cell phones. This is especially true if you’re traveling somewhere new. But did you know? If you vacation outside of the country, your phone becomes a paperweight (or a major expense) unless you actively take steps to use it internationally.

You might think dealing with international cell phone plans and local SIM cards is as difficult as writing resume objectives, but it doesn’t have to be. Take a look at the following tips before you step aboard that international flight.

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Why Do I Need Cell Service When Traveling Abroad?

According to the New York Times, “Having a phone that works just like it does at home when you’re traveling internationally is probably the best thing you can do to reduce stress and maximize your ability to enjoy wherever you are.” That includes making phone calls, text messaging, looking things up on the internet, getting directions from Google Maps, and using Google Translate.

Sadly, though, this doesn’t happen automatically. When you leave the country in which your phone carrier is based, your phone may lose much of its functionality (no longer able to place calls or access the internet), or it may begin racking up large roaming and data usage fees. It doesn’t take a CPA to realize that will blow your vacation budget. But there are solutions! Check out the following options to decide which one is best for you.

Will My Cell Phone Work Abroad?

Most mobile phones can be used anywhere in the world with one of the following usage options. Don’t worry, you won’t need any special talents or technical skills to put these easy suggestions into practice.

  1. Use Wi-Fi

In many places around the world, restaurants, cafes, hotels, shopping centers, libraries, and even whole towns offer free (or paid) Wi-Fi internet access. When traveling internationally, you’ll be able to link up to Wi-Fi hotspots just like you did back home.

When you have Wi-Fi access, you’ll be able to use the internet, maps, email, and Wi-Fi calling apps like WhatsApp. You can even download offline maps to help you get around. The major drawback is that you won’t be able to call for help if you get lost away from a Wi-Fi source.

  1. Get an International Data Plan

Another option is getting an international data plan from your mobile carrier. Usually, these can be purchased by the month from your mobile carrier before leaving home. The price tag? Usually around $60 to $100 per month on top of your usual charges. Or, you can opt for $10 “day passes.” You’ll be given a fixed amount of data with overage charges, so turn off apps that use background data, stay off of YouTube, and monitor your data usage.

According to the New York Times, “If your carrier is T-Mobile, Sprint, or Google Project Fi, you’re covered with some kind of unlimited data in most countries around the world.” The only drawback is the slow data speeds – you’ll be able to use necessary tools but not “image-heavy social media.”

  1. Carry a Mobile Hotspot

You can rent or bring your own international mobile hotspot with you and get data by the gigabyte, by the day, or by the month. Solis is a popular option, and the prices are comparable to mobile phone international data passes.

  1. Get a Local SIM Card

The final and sometimes best option is purchasing a local SIM card after you arrive in your destination country. This is common in many parts of the world and may be the only option available – carrier and hotspot plans don’t service every country.

Here’s how it works: purchase the SIM card, often from a kiosk or automated dispenser at the airport. Remove your old SIM (keep up with it – you’ll need it when you get back home!) and replace it with the new SIM. You’ll have a new local number and your phone will work as if you bought it within the country.

Some local SIMs have a month’s service with plenty of data; others are pay-as-you-go. Either way, this is often the cheapest option for travelers.

It should be noted that carrier-locked phones must be unlocked in order to work with new SIMs. If you need to make a call internationally – i.e. back home – use an app that uses data, such as WhatsApp, especially since your normal number will be out of service until you replace your original SIM.