Let’s face it: Our phones have become an essential tool when traveling abroad. Much more than for sharing your experiences with friends and family back home (though that’s part of the fun), smartphones are crucial to be able to communicate with those in your travel group, to find hotels and restaurants, navigate new streets, and use translation apps.
Unfortunately, domestic cellphone plans don’t often include international talk, text, and data services with their monthly rates; if you aren’t prepared, you could end up spending a small fortune in added charges when using your phone abroad.
But all is not lost. Travelers have a wealth of options at their texting thumbs when it comes to staying connected while traveling internationally without having to dig deep into their savings.
From affordable international travel plans to pay-as-you-go options, downloadable secrets, and more, here are the best tips and hacks for using your phone on your next international vacation.
Consider a carrier with a free international plan
It does not have to be super complicated to get free data, calls, and texting when you travel internationally. Several wireless carriers bake free international plans right into their business model, including Google Fi Wireless and T-Mobile, to name a couple.
Google Fi Wireless allows its customers free cell, data, and text services because it partners with local cell providers in more than 200 countries. All you have to do is turn your phone on and use it exactly as you would at home. The only thing you’ll have to pay for is phone calls, which cost $0.20 per minute worldwide.
T-Mobile (which merged with Sprint in 2020) is also friendly to those who travel overseas. T-Mobile customers can get unlimited 2G data, unlimited texting, and calls starting at $0.25 per minute. The downside is that 2G connectivity won’t get you anywhere in a hurry. However, you can purchase a faster data roaming package.
Buy an international plan
Switching carriers is a huge hassle, especially for a single trip overseas. If you’ve already committed to another carrier like Verizon or AT&T, you can purchase one of their international travel plans.
Every Verizon plan includes free data, talk, and text in Mexico and Canada. If you’re going farther afield, you can use the Verizon TravelPass, which costs $10 a day for unlimited text, talk, and data in more than 185 countries. For longer trips, Verizon also offers an International Monthly Plan for $100 per month. This option is worth it if you plan to be abroad for more than 10 days.
AT&T has a similar package, called International Day Pass, which also costs $10 per day. AT&T offers a monthly option called Passport, which starts at $70 and includes 2GB of data, unlimited text, and talk for $0.35 per minute. For $140 per month, the data usage is raised to 6GB.
Use Wi-Fi communication apps
If you want to skip additional charges altogether, you can leave your phone on airplane mode for the entire trip. The good news is that today so many communication apps operate over Wi-Fi that you may not even miss having cellular data.
For iPhone users, iMessage operates on Wi-Fi anywhere in the world. But Android users fear not. There are plenty of Wi-Fi messaging apps that apply to all devices. WhatsApp is one of the most widely used messaging apps on the planet. But you also have apps like Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, and the ultra-encrypted Signal app.
Other free options include but are not limited to:
The downside to these is that they won’t work without a connection so if you’re on the road in between Wi-Fi hubs, you won’t receive any notifications.
Download before you go
But you won’t be completely cut off from the outside world on the road if you opt to work from Wi-Fi only. Downloading things you need while you’re on Wi-Fi can save you a lot of headaches for when Wi-Fi isn’t available.
You can download Google Maps to your phone so that you can navigate offline. Simply tap your profile picture in the app and go to Offline Maps. This will allow you to select the area you want to download and save the map to your phone. The downside is that it only provides driving directions, not walking directions, and it won’t reroute you if there is a slowdown or traffic.
Downloading podcasts and television shows to your phone can also be a lifesaver. Long train trip? Travel delay? Wi-Fi connectivity goes out? At least you’ll stay entertained.
If you’re headed to a country where you don’t speak the language, you can download that language to your phone on Google Translate. That way, even when you’re offline, you can still keep communication lines open to help you navigate more easily.
Rent a hot spot
This option tends to be less popular, but it has certain advantages. A rentable Wi-Fi hot spot is a small device, about the size of a cellphone itself, that creates a mobile Wi-Fi network for you and those in your travel party. You can connect everyone’s device to it when you need it and shut it off when you don’t. This is a much cheaper alternative than everyone getting their own international plan.
You can rent a mobile hot spot from most cellphone stores for as low as $7 per day. With this option, though, you’ll have to return the hot spot whenever you’re done with your travels, which means either bringing it back to wherever you got it or sending it back in the mail.
Purchase a local SIM card
Avid travelers will remember when SIM cards were a widespread thing for staying connected abroad. A SIM card was a small chip that would need to be activated and inserted into your phone in order to use it abroad with a local number and local rates. These days, it’s more common to purchase and download an eSIM in lieu of a physical SIM card. An eSIM is a downloadable digital chip that can be activated remotely.
You can find loads of eSIM providers online with a wide variety of pricing options depending on where you are going and for how long. If you’re headed to Europe, for example, Bouygues My European eSIM is a popular and cost-effective option. The eSIM costs $45 and offers 30GB of data and unlimited calls and texts within Europe. It’s also valid for 30 days, which is great if you’re doing a longer trip.
The downside to eSIMs is that you will be given a new local number depending on where the services are from. With Bouygues, you’ll receive a temporary French number.