Planning a trip abroad? You don’t want to land and find out you can’t use Google Maps to figure out where to go or that you can’t make that phone call to mom telling her you safely arrived. We’re here to help you stay connected overseas.
Here’s the problem, in short: If you take your AT&T phone (as an example) abroad, you won’t be able to use it to make phone calls, send text messages, or access cellular data unless you take some steps to get that access. If you didn’t know that before, you know it now. But that’s okay, there are plenty of easy ways (and a few easy, cheap ways) to stay connected.
Option 1: Paying Your Carrier for International Access
This is our least favorite option because it is BY FAR the most expensive option, although for many people it will also be the easiest. Most cell carriers have options that allow you to buy access to international networks, but the costs are typically crazy high. AT&T’s passport options, for example, charge $60 per month for 1GB of data in addition to your ongoing phone bill. They also offer a $10 per day pass that allows you to take your existing plan abroad. For short trips, this might be an okay option, but it won’t be helpful for longer trips.
Before we get to our next (preferred) options, you need to know a bit about SIM cards and unlocking a phone. If you’re familiar with this information, jump ahead to the options we prefer for staying connected.
A Quick Primer on SIM Cards and Unlocking Your Phone
A SIM card is a small card that allows you to access a cell carrier’s network and use it for calls, texting, and internet access. Most phones these days have slots into which you can insert a SIM card (if your phone doesn’t have a SIM card slot, we don’t have advice for you other than to get a phone with a SIM slot). When you purchase an iPhone from AT&T, it comes with an AT&T SIM card that allows you to connect to the AT&T network. The phone has to be designed for the SIM card, but it is the actual SIM card that allows you to connect to AT&T’s network. If you place a different SIM card in that phone, it will allow you to connect that that carrier’s network as long as two conditions are met: the SIM card is activated and the phone is unlocked.
Unlocking a Phone
Some people are a bit uneasy about “unlocking” their phone because they confuse it with “jailbreaking.” Jailbreaking a phone (typically an iPhone) involves breaking into the operating system of the phone (against the terms of service) allowing you to do things Apple and your carrier might not otherwise allow.
Unlocking has nothing to do with jailbreaking. Unlocking a phone simply means having your carrier change some settings on their end to allow you to use your phone on other networks (that is, unlocking your phone from their network). Unlocking is something you ask your carrier to do and that your carrier WILL voluntarily do, provided you’ve met certain contract terms (essentially that you own your phone entirely). AT&T even has a straightforward page where you can submit an unlock request.
Unlocking a phone is something that varies carrier by carrier. Digital Trends has a good resource on unlocking. If you’re planning international travel in the future, you should review your carrier’s requirements and look into getting your phone unlocked today.
Option 2: Buying a SIM Abroad
If you’re only going to be abroad for a short time (less than a month) and in a small number of countries, the easiest and cheapest way to stay connected is to buy a local SIM card. Even if you do no research ahead of time, you can typically accomplish this at the airport when you arrive simply by bringing your phone to a carrier’s booth and telling them what you want. Typically you can get a low-cost 7-day plan and then register your account and “top off” by adding days, data, minutes, or money later on. If you’re really uncomfortable with that second step, you can always visit the carrier’s stores and ask them for help.
However, we recommend doing your research ahead of time. This can allow you to save time and sometimes money. For example, when we visited Thailand we saved a few dollars buying our SIM cards with a voucher from Klook. To research your specific destination, search google for the following strings (replacing the brackets):
- “[country] SIM options”
- “[city] SIM options”
- “getting SIM card at [airport]”
In some countries, you’ll need proof that you own your phone, so dig up the receipt. If you can’t find a receipt, try any other proof (like something from your carrier with your name and device number). If that doesn’t work, just try other carriers or stores until someone doesn’t do their diligence.
Option 3: Use Only Wifi
We don’t like this option, but we’re including it before Option 4 (which we use most) in order to explain a few things.
If you take out your SIM card or turn off cellular data on your phone, you can still connect to wifi and use most of your phone. You just won’t be able to make phone calls or send or receive text messages (SMS).
Happily, technology is making the traditional phone call and text message obsolete. Via Google Hangouts and Google Voice, you can make phone calls and send/receive text messages over the internet. This means that as long as you can connect to wifi, you don’t need a SIM card at all.
The downside to this is (obviously) you need wifi access! You might not think this is a huge problem, but WAIT! In some countries (like China), it is common to require you to receive a text message with a code to access wifi. Since you need wifi to receive a text message…well you see the problem. Even where wifi is common and freely accessible, you might run into problems with time limits (30 minutes at many Starbucks). This option just isn’t reliable unless you really don’t think you’ll need internet access outside of your hotel or Airbnb.
Option 4: International SIM Cards
This is our go-to option when we aren’t using local SIM cards. International SIM cards are SIM cards that allow you to access networks internationally. Depending on the company, you’ll pay for data in bulk or per unit at different rates in different countries. Some international SIM cards come with phone, SMS, and data, others only come with one of those (usually data).
There are a few companies that offer these cards. We use both KeepGo and Knowroaming. Here’s how they each work.
Our KeepGo SIM cards allow us access to data (the internet), but not phone calls or SMS text messaging, in many countries worldwide. Since we can use Google Voice and Google Hangouts for SMS and phone calls, this means we’re essentially connected wherever KeepGo is active.
In some countries, like South Korea, where KeepGo isn’t active, we have to settle for a variety of backup options (buying a local SIM, for example) or just for connecting to wifi whenever we need anything. In other countries, like China, we suffer through poor connectivity off of wifi, but it is enough to get the job done. But in a wide range of countries, we have full-speed, 4G data as soon as our plane lands.
We bought Knowroaming SIM cards because they come with free WhatsApp access across a huge number of countries. This meant that for $9.99 each, we would almost never have to worry about being totally disconnected. On Knowroaming, you can also purchase data, SMS, and minutes for rates less than your carrier might offer for international travel, but not as good as KeepGo’s rates. We’ve used this option occasionally.
International SIMs vs. Local SIMs
Make no mistake, in many typical situations, using a local SIM will be a better option than buying an international SIM. If, however, you’re jumping between countries a few days at a time, the International SIM is going to be better. This is because if you’re in Germany for three days, you might find the time, hassle, and expense of getting a local SIM isn’t worth it. You might not even need data over three days!
And That’s A Wrap
As you can tell, there are so many ways you can stay connected while traveling internationality, with options ranging in price and difficulty. But at the end of the day, if you do some research, there’s no reason you can’t keep connected anywhere you travel.
On one of our first trips abroad, we were in London and didn’t think we would need international data plans. We were rushing to catch our train at a busy Tube station and I got on the train and Emily didn’t. We both panicked because we really didn’t have a plan for when or how to meet up and had no way of reaching each other. Fortunately, the doors re-opened and we didn’t have to find out how to navigate that. Don’t end up like us. Follow this guide and get set up with data for your next trip.