International cell phone plans may not be your first thought when planning your vacation or business trip, however, they should be high on your list.
You'll also want peace of mind knowing that you won't return home to an enormous phone bill packed with international roaming and overage charges.
All of the major mobile phone plans offer options for using your phone abroad. Each plan works a little differently, giving you choices for various budgets as well as data, calling, and texting needs. In the following guide, I'll give you an overview of the best international phone plans from the major cell phone providers. You'll find what the key considerations are when selecting international cell phone plans, the major provider international calling plans, information on global roaming, and more.
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Key Considerations When Choosing an International Plan
According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults own smartphones. That means the odds are that if you travel to another country, you've got a phone you want to take with you - and know it will work.
There are a few things that are helpful to keep in mind as you choose among international phone plans.
- Consider the purpose of your visit. If it's for pleasure, you may be able to get away with a lower data allotment and fewer calling minutes because you'll be focusing on enjoying your trip. If you're taking a business trip you may need more calling flexibility, as well as data for uploading and downloading files.
- Look at alternatives for longer stays. If you're going to be spending a considerable amount of time in a foreign country you may want to pick up a pre-paid cell phone that is more affordable to use while traveling. You can even rent pre-paid cell phones too. One company that lets you pick up a prepay phone is Mobal. Companies that let you rent a prepay phone are Verizon, Cellular Abroad, OneSimCard, and more. You may also be able to replace your phone's SIM card with a local SIM card.
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However, you can always purchase an international SIM card. If you do purchase a local SIM card, you should know you will be assigned a different phone number, which you tell your friends and family about. If you purchase an international SIM card, you'll be able to save more when traveling worldwide.
You can also consider a temporary wireless service such as Airvoice Wireless. Airvoice Wireless allows you to save up to 95 percent on your international calls.
Related: You can learn more about SIM Cards in our guide here.
- WiFi is your friend. Many hotels offer free WiFi or a daily rate for usage. There are also numerous internet cafes and public areas with Wifi available in many countries. This makes it much cheaper to access the internet without getting hit with roaming fees. Just be cautious when using any public connection. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) recommends using passwords on your devices and logging out of all accounts when not in use. It's wisest not to use any unsecured connections if at all possible, so if you need to, you may want to take into consideration a secure VPN service. If you need help securing your WiFi, we can show you how here.
- Make sure you can monitor usage. Even some of the best international phone plans may not allow you to track your data usage while out of the country. In some cases, you can monitor your usage but the results aren't up to the minute. Fortunately, most smartphones have a data usage feature that allows you to see how much you've consumed in real time. You can learn more about monitoring your data usage with our guide to checking data usage.
- Know which system your phone uses. There are two technologies used for cell phone service - GSM (Global System for Mobiles) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). AT&T and T-Mobile phones use GSM, while Verizon and Sprint phones are on CDMA. Most foreign countries use GSM cell phone technology and GSM phones, however, CDMA cell phone carriers have CDMA phones which allow you to use them abroad. Learn more about GSM phones and CDMA phones here.
- Watch for generous North America plans. According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, about 55% of American travelers each year are headed to Mexico or Canada. If you're staying in North America you can save by choosing a plan that only covers those countries.
Following these common sense tips will help you reduce the cost of your international cell phone plan. Saving money while traveling is something that makes any trip more enjoyable!
Read More: We also have a guide that dives into specific mobile hotspot plans that you can make use of while traveling abroad.
Verizon International Plans
The largest cell phone carrier in the nation gives you several options for staying connected during your travels. It's important to remember that Verizon is on the CDMA network. You'll want to make sure you have one of their global phones in order to use your device internationally. Most of the cell phone company's most popular smartphones are global-enabled, including the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy lines.
This no contract plan allows you to use your existing plan in other countries. You pay a daily rate to access your talk, text, and data while traveling. This means whatever you use away from home will count against your normal monthly allotment.
- $2/day for Mexico and Canada, except for plans 12 GB and above (access is free for these plans)
- $10/day for over 100 countries, including China, Israel, and throughout Europe
With TravelPass you are only charged on days you use your device.
If you want a monthly plan, you can choose a one-time fee for a short trip, or recurring charges for longer trips. Monthly plan charges are per device.
- $15/month - Canada and Mexico: 100 talk minutes, 100 sent texts/unlimited received, 100 MB data
- $25/month - Canada and Mexico: 500 talk minutes, 500 sent texts/unlimited received, 1 GB data
- $25/month - 140+ countries: $1.79/minute talk, .50 per sent text/.05 per received, 100 MB data
- $40/month - 140+ countries: 100 talk minutes, 100 sent texts/unlimited received, 100 MB data
Verizon also offers pay-as-you-go and cruise pricing, ranging from .99 to 2.99 per minute talk, up to .50 per text, and $2.05 per MB of data.
Verizon International Support
If you happen to be traveling abroad and your device is lost, stolen, broken, or what have you. You'll be able to contact the Global Support Help Desk toll-free number from any landline phone in the countries where a Global support toll-free number is available.
Read More: You can read more about Verizon's plans here.
Sprint International Plans
Sprint is on CDMA, which means you'll need one of their international phones if you want to use your device while traveling to another country. At the time of this writing, the carrier features 14 international devices including iPhone, Samsung smartphones, and popular Motorola models.
There is a wide selection of Sprint international call plans, including:
This plan is free for all Sprint customers whether on a "family plan" or a single line plan. It comes with:
- Unlimited calling and text and 1 GB of high-speed data, throughout Canada, Mexico, and most of the rest of Latin America
- Discounted calling rates throughout most of the rest of the world
- $30 per GB data throughout most of the world
With Open World you get free calling from the U.S. to Canada and Mexico and discounted rates to other Latin American countries.
Global roaming - or international roaming - provides cell phone service to over 150 countries, at no extra charge to Sprint customers. This Sprint international plan gives you:
- Calling for $0.20 per minute
- Free texting
- Free 2G data
- 3G data in the form of high-speed data passes at rates between $15 and $50 depending upon how much data you want
While most of Europe and a large number of other countries are included in Global Roaming, it's notable that China is not covered by this plan.
International Data Packs
You can add more data to your Sprint international plan by purchasing the desired number of MB. Prices range from $30 to $125, depending on whether you're going to use the data in Canada and Mexico, or one of the others in the long list of covered countries.
You can also choose not to enroll in any of the Sprint international plans and pay as you go instead. Rates vary for talk, text, and data depending upon the country.
T-Mobile International Plans
T-Mobile, which requires GSM cell phones, international long distance plans come with both Simple Choice (which is grandfathered now, but good to keep in mind anyway, as many subscribers still use these plans) and T-Mobile One service. They are fairly straightforward:
Mobile Without Borders
The no contract plan company T-Mobile offers a North American international long distance phone plan, known as Mobile Without Borders. It allows you to take your talk, text, and high-speed data with you to Canada and Mexico. You use your T-Mobile phone just as you would within the U.S. Any data you use counts against your regular plan, and some areas may not have 4G data coverage.
You use your T-Mobile phone just as you would within the U.S. Any data you use counts against your regular plan, and some areas may not have 4G data coverage.
Unlimited Global Data
With qualifying Simple Choice plans as well as the unlimited plan T-Mobile One, you get unlimited international data and text in over 140 countries and destinations worldwide. Calling is .20/minute to both mobiles and landlines.
Data is limited to 2G unless you're in one of the covered 4G countries (which include South America and some European countries like Germany and the UK). You can purchase faster internet access at a rate of $10 per GB, in increments of 500 MB, 1 GB, or 3 GB.
T-Mobile One Plus International
For a certain extra amount per line per month (meaning this can be applied to a family plan type of add-on), you can attach this add-on to your unlimited plan. You'll receive unlimited talk to landlines in over 70 countries and mobile numbers in over 30 countries, unlimited 4G LTE mobile hotspot, unlimited HD video streaming in the United States, unlimited in-flight WiFi on Gogo-enabled flights, the ability to go abroad with two times the data speeds, and more.
Furthermore, T-Mobile offers pay-per-use international pricing. Texts cost $0.50 each and calling and data rates depend on the country you're traveling to. These rates also apply if you travel outside the 140+ countries covered by the Unlimited Global Data plan.
Read More: T-Mobile cell phone plans
AT&T International Plans
AT&T international call plans include:
Roaming in Mexico
Subscribers to a Mobile Share Advantage plan of 10 GB or higher get free talk, text, and data throughout Mexico. Your data usage will count against your regular monthly allowance, so keep that in mind. Additionally, calls made from within Mexico to another country's phone numbers are subject to normal international charges.
Roam North America
This AT&T international plan is free for customers who subscribe to one of the carrier's unlimited talk, text, and data plans. You get unlimited calling to and from Mexico, Canada, and the United States. You also get unlimited sent texts to all three countries, as well as the use of your data plan. The caveat is that if your total monthly international usage is above 50% of your total usage, AT&T may turn off your roaming feature.
For the serious traveler, there are three levels of the Passport plan. For any of the three, you can choose between a one-time fee that lasts 30 days or a recurring monthly payment. You get coverage in a wide range of countries all over the world.
- Passport: $40/month for 200 MB data, $1.00/minute talk, unlimited sent texts, and unlimited access to participating WiFi hotspots
- Passport Silver: $60/month for 300 MB data, .50/minute talk, unlimited sent texts, and unlimited WiFi access in participating locations
- Passport Gold: $120/month for 800 MB data, .35/minute talk, unlimited sent texts and unlimited WiFi access in participating locations
With Passport, received texts are charged at domestic rates.
AT&T also offers pay-per-use rates costing between $1.00 and $3.00 per minute for talk, .50 to $1.30 per text, and $2.05 to $10.24 per MB of data. These rates depend upon your location.
Read More: AT&T cell phone plans
There's no question that international cell phone plans are getting more and more traveler friendly. You still want to be sure to choose one that matches your anticipated usage while out of the U.S. and won't lead to an unwelcome surprise on your bill when you arrive home. Here are a few last-minute tidbits I uncovered while analyzing the best international phone plans:
- Unlimited international data plans are typically restricted to 2G or 3G speeds, depending on your service provider and where you're going.
- There are often differences between incoming and outgoing text message rates, so be sure to also check with your cell phone provider to verify details.
- Newer phones tend to be quad-band, which means they can operate on frequencies used virtually anywhere. If you want to be sure your own device will work, however, you can check bands by country here.
- You may need to sign up - even for free plans - before you leave the country. Check with your cell phone company.
- Major service providers also offer stateside calling plans. This type of plan is good for if you're looking for the best international cell phone plan for using your mobile to call from the U.S. to another country.
- There are cruise ship rates. Cruise ship rates vary by the provider.
- Depending on the wireless provider and the location, you may be able to receive free incoming calls. Free incoming calls are always a good thing.
Don't forget about Skype and other VoIP services which can help defray your overseas communications costs.
You can also check out our guide avoiding expensive cell phone fees while traveling abroad to get even more information before making your decision on international phone plans. Most importantly, have a safe and fun trip!
Did you know that UK smartphone users pay a lot less each month than Americans? Read on to find out why!