Travel Tips: International Cell Phones

Posted on: April 22nd, 2016 by Santana

Should you stay connected while traveling abroad? If so how?

Whether or not you want to stay connected while you are traveling is a very personal question. It depends on your level of responsibility and dependence with your career, family and home, to name a few factors. If you own your own business, for example, it may be essential that you are able to keep up with your emails; and if you are leaving children behind while you travel, you always want to make sure they can contact you in an emergency.

With so many options and the complexities of smartphone plans, it can be very confusing (and costly) to determine the best way for you to stay connected while you travel abroad. Although you will still need to do a fair bit of digging into specific mobile plans and options, we have provided some tips and summarized the options that we have found worked best for our clients in the past. We hope this post will help reduce the stresses that can accompany arranging international travel so you can start your adventure relaxed and ready to explore!

Items to consider when making you decision:

  • How long are you traveling?
  • Where are you going? Major cities, countryside, multiple countries?
  • Are you going alone or with a group? Is it a large group that will need communication or a small group where you can share phones?
  • Who or what are you leaving behind?
  • Keep in mind that for any of Cyclomundo’s self-guided tours you are given the representative’s local cell phone number to call should trouble arise on your trip.

 

INTERNATIONAL CELL PHONE OPTIONS

 

International Package through Current Carrier

Most major cell phone companies now offer international packages and through global partnerships it is becoming a much more practical option in terms of coverage and cost. Because you will continue to use your phone the same way you would at home, this may be the simplest option if you wish to stay somewhat connected while you travel, but be warned it has very strict limitations. Companies like AT&T or Verizon in the US or Vodafone in the UK or Australia offer plans where you can activate international services, generally for about one month at a time. With these plans, you have reduced rates for international minutes or text messages used. They also offer plans that include a specific amount of data usage for emails, internet, social media use, etc. This option is ideal for the traveler that needs to stay connected but plans to limit the time they focus on their obligations back home.

Best for trips:

  • Up to 1 month in length
  • Multiple countries
  • Traveling alone
  • Leaving behind children or business

Limits:

  • Limited number of minutes, texts, data included in packages
  • High coverage charges

 

International SIM Card

For the traveler who is staying for an extended period of time and plans on conducting business as usual, this is the more practical option. You can generally order your international SIM card before you leave, and activate the phone immediately on arrival. Note that this option requires an unlocked phone to be used with the SIM card. (An old phone that you no longer use and has been unlocked from the network provider is a good option.) You have an abundance of options for pay-as-you-go SIM cards from different providers, but there are also some companies that offer (unlimited) monthly plans without a contract like Bouygues. I would not suggest this option for a very short trip, as it requires quite a few steps to become fully connected, but for a longer trip it is definitely beneficial to have better connectivity and not be constantly worried about getting slammed with massive coverage charges.

Best for trips:

  • 3 weeks or longer
  • Visiting 1 country
  • Connecting with locals
  • Greater data availability
  • Multiple trips to the same country (check with providers about reusable SIM cards)

Limits:

  • Only functional within country of activation
  • May be restrictions on international calls and texts
  • Costs and elements vary by plan

 

Pay-as-you-go Rental Phone

A rental phone with an international SIM card is a good option for those who will only need to be minimally connected as most of the phones offered are only good for calls and limited texting. This option is ideal for those on a strict budget because minute and text usage is cut and dry, while calculating data usage can be very tricky. Most of the providers of rental phones make the steps to activate and return the phone very clear. I would recommend this option for first time international travelers who will be staying for at least a few weeks, and those who are traveling in a large group that will need to communicate to make arrangements. Many rental companies like PicCell or Cellular Abroad frequently offer unlimited communication to all their users and they provide a virtual US or UK number so it is cheaper for anyone trying to contact you.

Best for trips:

  • Between 2 weeks and 2 months
  • Traveling with a large group

Limits:

  • Limited Data availability with rental phones
  • Remain aware of usage as it is related to costs

 

TIPS FOR USING YOUR PHONE ABROAD

For whatever option, package, plan, or phone you choose to use while you travel abroad, we have some general tips that may help reduce costs and potential headaches.

 

1. Understand Your Options

Make sure you understand all the aspects of your international service before you leave and especially before you turn on your phone in another country. If you do not activate an international plan and you habitually turn your phone on when you land in another country you could be charged for those emails and texts that automatically download. Having a clear understanding of the number of minutes, texts, and amount of data you can use will make it much easier for you to negotiate the best way to communicate. For example, if you have a larger number of texts than minutes, it may be better to send two texts to check in with the house sitter and save the minutes for family calls.

2. Understand Your Phone

Androids are particularly sneaky phones when it comes to data usage, but with so many apps, connections to multiple accounts and complicated notification settings, all phones can be tricky to navigate. Automatic downloads and background features like weather or social media apps are the main culprits of constantly using data without your awareness. A simple solution if you don’t know all the tricks disabling your data usage is to only take your phone out of airplane mode when you are connected to a WiFi network. Another option is to turn off all data usage in the mobile network settings in which case you will only receive texts and phone calls. With any smartphone it is a good idea to go through and check your notification and sync settings before connecting to an international network.

3. Be Aware of Your Usage

The most important thing that can help you feel at ease with using an international phone network (and how much you are paying for it) is to remain aware of how much you are using. When you know how many texts, minutes, and data you have used, you don’t have to worry about going over your plan and won’t have any surprises when the bill arrives. For many people who have grown dependent on their phones, they are not even aware that they are playing a game or checking social media, so this is easier said than done. And while it can be a challenge to disconnect from everything at home, reserving the use of your phone for only necessary communication can help you have a better overall experience while you travel. You may come to find you don’t miss those status updates from home so much after all.

PHONE OPTION RESOURCES

Verizon International Plans: http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/global.html

AT&T International Plans: http://www.att.com/shop/wireless/international.html

Vodafone International Plans UK: http://www.vodafone.co.uk/discover-vodafone/managing-my-costs/travelling-abroad

Vodafone International Plans AU: http://www.vodafone.com.au/personal/international-roaming

B and You (specific for France): https://www.b-and-you.fr/

PicCell: https://www.piccellwireless.com

Cellular Abroad: http://www.cellularabroad.com/

AT&T Data Calculator: http://www.att.com/att/international-data-calculator/

 

For more helpful information, check out Cyclomundo’s Travel Tips post or the Huff Post Travel Section’s  “10 Ways to Prepare Your Cell Phone for a Trip” .

 

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3 Responses

  1. Harry Brasco says:

    Are all international SIM cards for only 1 country? Are there better options that won’t be to expensive for going to lots of countries staying about 3-14 days in each?
    (I’ll need data as well)

    • Santana says:

      Hello Harry,
      Most international sim cards are for only one country (even if the carrier is international), but I did find one package through Cellular Abroad that offers a multi-country sim card with data (http://www.cellularabroad.com/cellAbroadSIMcard.php). However, it is hard for me to say if this option will be less expensive than activating an international data package with your existing phone. As much as possible you should try to analyze where you will be calling most and how much data you plan to use so you can effectively match a plan with your needs.

      • Harry Brasco says:

        Thanks so much for your help!
        You’re right though, this may be too expensive and a lot of countries that I’m visiting aren’t listed. The ones that are listed either don’t have data or charge $15/ MB.
        It’d be great if I could find a flat rate SIM card that I can use anywhere and receive calls from anywhere without a problem.
        I’ll keep searching!

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