Current cell phones are one of modern life’s miracles, but they also present multiple issues in international travel especially for Americans. U.S. based cell service is usually a costly option when traveling outside of America and, from experience, we’ve found it is often not the most reliable option. Before you leave on a trip, contact your carrier to find out what your options are and the potential costs and apply a bit of skepticism.
CDMA vs. GSM, Prepaid vs. Contract Service.
There are three U.S. based CDMA providers: Verizon, Sprint and U.S. Cellular. While these companies offer international roaming, there may be countries where the service doesn’t work or is unreliable, primarily because most countries are based on GSM service. It is also dependent on your specific phone (i.e. These companies international service do not work with iPhone 4 and older iPhones). These CDMI providers offer special international plans but they are limited to specific countries and vary by cost. Again, we recommend that you find out your specific options before traveling.
All the rest of the U.S. service providers use GSM. Because of this, phones from these providers are more likely to work reliably while traveling internationally. Their service costs can still be high so, again, we recommend that you find out your specific options and costs before traveling.
Buying Sim Cards While Traveling
We would also strongly suggest that you find out if your GSM phone is unlocked or if it can be so you can buy a sim chip from a local provider in a country you are visiting. Often this can provide really inexpensive service for using data, calling locally as well as home. (See information on our Australia trips for an example of this).
A word of caution when buying a sim card while traveling outside your home country; make sure that the provider shows you how to call back home because many countries and providers have different ways of accessing international service and entering country codes. On one long trip we wasted much of our loaded credits not making calls properly and even when going back to the outlet where we purchased the sim they had difficulty placing an international call using the procedure they recommended. The only thing we recommend is to make sure they and you know what to do and a demonstration is highly recommended.
If you currently use one of America’s GSM companies our recommendation is to buy an inexpensive dual-sim GSM phone so you can subscribe to one of the international service companies or buy sim cards while traveling. There are dozens of options in phones for less than $100 and this would allow you to use your U.S. GSM service along with a foreign sim card in the same phone. We purchased a Blu 5.5” phone for about $80 several years ago and it still provides good service while overseas. We use a OneSimCard chip in the phone and can leave it for months without using it at no additional cost. We do have to use the phone once every six months to prevent losing loaded credits.
If you use one of the popular discount service providers (i.e. Citizen, Straight Talk, Metro PCS) or use a prepaid phone plan, you really need to look into you options for using these services for international roaming. With a majority of these, international service is just not available. Often when they advertise international calling it is only referring to calling from inside the United States.
International Cell Service Providers
International cut rate cell service providers are also an option. They all work on GSM phones and most provide plans that don’t expire and only charge for actual usage*. Some of the providers are World Travel Sim Card, Mobal, OneSimCard, National Geographic Travel Cellular and Cellular Abroad. While all advertise free incoming calls in a large number of countries, they all require the person calling you to call you on a foreign registered phone number. This shifts the cost to the person calling you. We have used One Sim Card service for a number of years and they offer the option of opting for a U.S. based second phone number ($10 year) and than your account is charged, usually about 20¢ a minute for incoming calls. (See our article on our Asia trip for a review on this service as well as using Verizon.)
Most of these services use VOIP (Voice Over Internet) to place calls. Often this process requires a two step method of placing a call. You call and it hangs up and reconnects when it has connected to the called number. Apps for smart phones often simplify these steps.
World Travel Sim Card. They supply a sim card for $10 that allows Voice, Text and Data service with airtime credit that never expire. Includes a U.K. number and extra U.S. number and works in the USA and in over 200 countries. Voice rates start at $0.25 per min and Text rates start at $0.19 each with data rates that start at 10c per MB
One Sim Card Service. Service similar to World Travel Sim Card. It offers a sim card package for $40 that includes $10 worth of service. You can travel internationally on their pre-paid service with charges as little as 20¢ a minute outbound calling.
National Geographic Travel Cellular. This is also a similar service but the provider is actually Cellular Abroad Service which offers their own plans as well.
All of these services offer toll free support along with packages of additional services.
T-Mobile service may be the one U.S. provider with the best international roaming service. This is probably because of T-Mobile’s international roots and the structure of their network. If you are a T-Mobile customer (check your plan) you can use your phone in a large number of countries at no additional cost for text and data. Phone calls average about 24¢ a minute and they have an additional voice discount option.
U.S. Provider International Cellular Rates
As of Early 2018
AT&T and Verizon offer a service where each day of international travel costs $10 (24 hours) from first use. Data, text and calls are used against your monthly service plan. The down side of this service is a two-week trip would cost an $140 for full usage.
Verizon has a 30 day plan that works in 140 countries for $40 for 100 minutes talk and 100 outbound text messages. Incoming text is free.
T-Mobile has some of the best international roaming services. One plan allows you to use text and data internationally at no extra cost with most calls billed at 25¢ max per minute.
Sprint also has a plan that allows you to use text and data internationally at no extra cost with most calls billed at 20¢ per minute. They also offer new discounted international roaming with Canada & Mexico at $2/day or $10/week and most other countries at $5/day or $25/week.
Coming Soon – Updated and New articles on:
International Email Services
Travel Tips for Using Cell Phones
Tablets, Pads and Laptops