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 but apply a bit of skepticism to what they tell you.
If you are traveling internationally from the United States and are looking for cellular service there are four main categories you need to be aware of and the issues with each.
1. The First is economy carriers which offer low monthly fees and often a number of data and messaging options. They include Straight Talk, Citizens, Cricket and more. These services generally offer no international roaming service.
2. Next are prepaid phone plans with many of these services being offered by major American carriers like Verizon and additional economy carriers. Again there are very few, if any, that provide international roaming.
3. The third option is an international cellular company with most of them focused primarily on providing service for only international roaming. Using a GSM SIM card they are usually based in a foreign country and often provide their service using a foreign registered phone number with the most common countries being England and Lithuania. Several offer the option of subscribing to an additional phone number based in your home country. These include Cellular Abroad also marketed as National Geographic, One Sim Card, Holiday Europe and more. A search for “international sim prepaid” will usually provide a dozen or more options.
4. They last, and most convenient service, is one of the major U.S. based cellular companies that include, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon. All of those companies provide international roaming options but you still need to know what each has as options and what potential issues there could be.
There are also a number of clever services that you can use if you need the ability to have long phone calls or need a lot of data.
Depending on where you are traveling and for how long, one option to consider using a dual-SIM phone with one of the American major cellular contracts and also install a prepaid service like One Sim Card which also provides an app for VOIP when you have wifi service available.
Another option if you will frequently have good wifi or inexpensive data available is a VOIP phone service like MagicJack that also provides a VOIP app for your phone. That can provide unlimited telephone service.
Understanding CDMA, GSM and LTE
Thinking about phones and cellular services for your next trip? It’s important to have a passing knowledge of the services involved in order to make the right decision.
GSM and CDMA are network technologies for cellphones. They were both developed in the nineties to provide primarily for 2G service. In the US the FCC decided on a “dual-system” approach allowing either GSM or CDMA. Today the United States still uses a mix of different technologies while most of the rest of the world, has settled on GSM. That’s why GSM is the preferred technology for traveling the world.
With the introduction of 3G, American carriers just improved the original GSM and CDMA technology. Because of the reliance on CDMA by some companies, the switch would have required a massive expenditure.
With the introduction of 4G a completely new cellular system for connectivity was adopted called LTE. Designed for data it worked better than previous technology and carriers began replacing everything else with with the LTE system. Things like switching to VoIP (voice over internet) to replace traditional cellular service calling.
Unfortunately, while the cellular networks made the switch, many phone manufacturers continued to use LTE only for data and continue to use GSM or CDMA for voice and texts. So you’re stuck with choosing between a CDMA and GSM phone if you want voice. Two major companies, Verizon and Sprint are now on LTE. Improving VoLTE (voice LTE) solved the voice over CDMA problem allowing phasing out 3G greatly improving their customers use when traveling internationally.
Unfortunately, the four major carriers now provide LTE on different frequency bands and provide phones that are specific to their frequencies, making it difficult to switch. Around the world there are currently some 40 additional frequencies being used that need to be considered.
So now in selecting a service or even an unlocked phone you need to investigate compatibility with LTE networks. That’s because LTE is an umbrella term with many different frequencies. In the U.S., Sprint uses LTE (TD-LTE), a version of LTE with relatively low compatibility while T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T all have LTE bands of their own.
Fortunately many phone manufacturers are now making phones that support CDMA, GSM along with LTE on many bands. That’s why phones now list information on bands and frequencies. In the United States you will find carriers listing these bands and frequencies also:
Carrier 4G LTE Bands 4G LTE Frequencies
AT&T 2, 4, 12, 17 1900, 1700 abcdef, 700 bc
Verizon 2, 4, 13 1900, 1700 f, 700 c
T-Mobile 2, 4, 12 1900, 1700 def, 700 a
So if you are considering buying an unlocked phone pay attention to supported bands and frequencies. Also Switching GSM phones between different networks is easier than with CDMA phones, because all GSM phones use removable SIM cards.
Verizon and Sprint in the United States use a technology called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Most other carriers and the world use what’s called GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication). There are phones on Verizon and Sprint that also support GSM, but those that don’t won’t work as world phones.
International Options From The U.S. Major Cellular Companies
Your first option on Verizon is their TravelPass plan, which gives you the option to take your regular talk, text, and data with you on your trip (meaning, you use whatever amount of talk, text and data speeds you regularly use within the United States).
You will be charged $5 a day per line for days you use your service in Mexico and Canada and a rate of $10 per day for 130 additional countries. Most popular countries are included in this list, such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, the Netherlands, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and more.
Activating your TravelPass is required through Verizon Wireless and when you use your phone in an international location, your phone will automatically recognize where you are and will connect and your TravelPass kicks in for 24 hours. and it won’t renew or use another pass until 24 hours. Using your phone after that starts another 24 hour cycle.
T-Mobile is a great option for international travel because their plans make things real simple.
The T-Mobile One plan for unlimited data lets you keep your unlimited data and texting when you travel to 210 locations and countries. However, they cap your data at 128 kbps throttled down to 2G or 3G speeds. They also charge for international phone calls, usually at 20¢ or 25¢ per minute. Often you can use a VOIP app to make calls on the data service.
T-Mobile also offers International Passes for faster data while you’re traveling abroad. Their 5 GB pass keeps you on a 4G network for 10 days also with unlimited calling at a cost of $35. They also have an option for 15 GB for 30 full days at $50.
On both the Unlimited & More and the Unlimited & More Premium plans on AT&T, you will be able to travel to Mexico and Canada with all of your talk, data, and text already paid for. Their Mobile Share Plus plans allow you to use your talk, text, and data when you are in Mexico.
In 100+ other countries, AT&T offers an International Day Pass for $10 a day (based on 24 hours from start time), offering the unlimited talk, text, and data already in your regular plan.
There’s also the Passport plan that costs $60 for 30 days and offers 1 GB of data and unlimited texting. You can raise this to 3 GB of data for $120 for the month. At that point, you should never go any further if you value your budget, because they charge you $50 for every GB over the 3 GB limit. Phone calls are not included and you will be charged 35¢ per minute.
You can add Sprint Global Roaming to your regular plan and it can remain on your account for free for as long as you want to keep this add-on. By enabling this feature, you can travel to 185 locations with coverage for text and data included. This is only on 2G speeds, though and it also doesn’t include voice calling which are charged at 20¢ a minute.
For faster speeds with the Global Roaming add-on, you can pay for a High-Speed Data Roaming Pass for 24 hours or a full week. The price will vary based on where you are traveling. In Canada and Mexico, a day pass will be $2 or a weekly pass will cost $10. Most other destinations will cost you $5 a day or $25 for a week.
You can also look at specific plans available in other countries like Sim2Roam in Australia a prepaid SIM Card with 28 Days Unlimited Calls, texts and 25GB of Data.