Are you traveling abroad this summer and absolutely can’t be without your smartphone?
Unfortunately, the cost of calling when you travel internationally hasn’t been very convenient, and minutes can easily turn into dollars. That is, up until now.
Overseas phone bills are no longer mind-bogglingly huge, due to the overseas calling packages that several major American mobile carriers have begun to offer.
There are different options for cutting an overseas phone bill, that hinge upon one’s current phone carrier, type of cell phone, countries you’ll be visiting, and willingness to change calling habits while away. Consider the following options before you pack your bags.
Buy a Data Package
Buying a data roaming package or a voice roaming package before you leave will enable you to keep your existing cell phone number while abroad. Buying a roaming package will save you money when making calls, and friends and relatives calling from the U.S. would most likely pay their usual rate. The cost of a data package isn’t cheap, but it is significantly cheaper than using your phone without any type of international package.
Here are prices from major mobile carriers. (*These prices are subject to change, so check their sites to make sure the price hasn’t gone up.)
Note: Verizon claims that 110 megabytes is roughly enough to allow you to send and receive 50 emails, read 5 websites and use your maps app for 15 minutes every day for a month. Other factors to take into consideration include how long it takes to open an email and the quality of your connection.
- AT&T offers three levels of data: 120 megabytes for $30, 300 megabytes for $60, and 800 megabytes for $120.
- Verizon’s data package is 100 megabytes for $25.
- Both the carriers add an increment of the same amount when you use up the first, so make sure you know how much you’re using, as you won’t be cut off when the limit is up. For example, if you chose 100 megabytes for $25 and used 101 megabytes, you will automatically be charged another $25.
- For voice roaming, AT&T charges $30 for 30 minutes of phone calls, and offers text packages starting at $10 for 50 texts.
- Verizon’s voice charges vary significantly, starting at 99 cents per minute from Britain to the U.S., to $1.99 per minute from Israel, and $3.99 per minute from Russia. It costs 50 cents to send a text while abroad, and 5 cents to receive one.
- T-Mobile doesn’t offer a data package, and charges a sky-high $15 per megabyte, 60 times AT&T’s lowest rate.
- Sprint’s roaming data packages start at $40 for 40 megabytes of data, and voice calls cost $1.49 a minute from Britain, $2.99 a minute from Israel, and $4.99 per minute from Russia.
When Wi-Fi is available, you can make calls using Skype, Apple’s FaceTime app, and other similar apps. Unlimited calls to the U.S. costs $13.99/month and can be used to call in from the U.S., U.K., China, and over 60 other countries.
Buy a local SIM card
Buying a local prepaid SIM card gives you your own phone number in the country you are visiting.
Only buy a local SIM card if your phone is unlocked (meaning that it can work on any network) and your destination uses the GSM phone standard, which includes the U.S. and Europe (the AT&T and T-Mobile networks).
Buying this card means having to do the transaction with foreign mobile phone store employees where language could be a barrier. However, airport phone retailers are used to dealing with travelers, and often speak English.
Another alternative is to buy the SIM card from a supplier (such as Telestial) in the U.S. for the country you’re visiting. However, the card will be more expensive, both in the cost to buy one and its usage.
Buying a local SIM can still be somewhat costly, and it’s important to learn about the rates the cellular carriers charge.
- One Telestial SIM card option charges users 84 cents for every first minute of outgoing calls.
- Outgoing text messages cost 69 cents.
- Data costs 49 cents per megabyte from Britain, which is double the AT&T package price, and a pricey $15 per megabyte from Israel and Russia.
It’s important to compare the rates you would be charged in a roaming package and the rates charged for using a local SIM. Knowledgeable foreign customer service from various cellular carriers can differ, and you may want to call them to find out if they can estimate what the phone charges will be.
If you purchase the SIM card, make sure your friends and family in the U.S. have their own international calling plan.
Got a locked phone?
- AT&T will unlock your phone when your contract is over.
- T-Mobile does so after 40 days of service, but if you’re under a two-year contract you’ll have to wait 18 months.
- Verizon sells 20 models of “world phones” with SIM cards for use overseas, and typically these phones come unlocked.
- Phones purchased before Jan. 26, 2013 can be unlocked by anyone willing to do it. ChronicUnlocks.com charges $20 to unlock an AT&T iPhone, for example, but also charges $120 for the same phone tied to the Orange network in France.
- Other unlocking companies include JmunLocks.com and EasyUnlock.ca.
Google Voice is a telecommunications service. You can use Google Voice by downloading the cell phone app, using the web-based application, or dialing your Google Voice number.
To avoid getting hit with data charges while using Google Voice, only use it while you’re in Wi-Fi hot spots. Calls to the U.S. from Canada are completely free, and only a penny from everywhere else. Be sure to go into the Google Voice settings to make sure that you can receive calls as well as make them.
Tips to remember
- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have calculators to help you figure out how much data you will realistically need while overseas.
- Use Wi-Fi whenever it’s available to avoid using up data plan minutes. Wi-Fi can usually be found in most hotels and coffeehouses.
- Turn the “push” data option on your smartphone off, or else your phone will be continually checking for new-emails, which will eat away at your data.
- T-Mobile users can access the company’s Wi-Fi calling feature to make voice calls with no roaming charge. However, calls made to the U.S. do count against your monthly amount. This feature is only available on several Android smartphones.
- All data and voice packages are sold for a minimum of one month, and you’ll need to call customer service or go to your carrier’s website if you want to end the package when you return home.