What kind of a phone plan do you have when traveling internationally?

I know I’m supposed to be the one sharing tips here, though I’ve never been disappointed with the suggestions you guys have provided, between the Macbook Air and Canon S95 I purchased as a result of the suggestions on this blog, so I’ll go for it again.

So I’m curious, what do you all do as far as staying connected when traveling? Probably out of sheer laziness, my phone goes into airplane mode as soon as I board an international flight, and stays that way until I land back in the US. To some extent it’s part of what makes vacations peaceful for me, though I realize I need to be a bit more “connected” when traveling. I use my laptop to connect to the internet, and use Skype for any phone calls I have to make, though that makes me completely unreachable when I’m spending hours a day walking around in a new city.

As I’m about to embark on a two week international journey, I’d be curious to hear what y’all do. I’m guessing most business travelers use their work phones, but for those of you that are leisure travelers, what do you do? Do you turn your phone off for the whole trip or do you sign up for some sort of an international plan? If so, do you use it just for web, or do you also make calls?

For what it’s worth I use AT&T, so I’d be curious to hear if anyone has any suggestions. If nothing else, it would be nice to Tweet from Qantas A380 first class with a glass of champagne by my side. 😉


  1. Personally, I get a SIM in the country I’m in if I plan to be there for a reasonable amount of time (usually a week). In most countries this is a piece of cake. In some, you can even get unlimited data plans easily (like Thailand).

    I also use Simple Mobile in the US, which is built on the T-Mobile network and gets me $60/month unlimited everything. Because it’s pre-paid, it ends up saving me a lot and, combined with Google Voice, my number never changes.

  2. Many smart phones should have an option to make calls and get online via wifi only which can be free but varies with provider and many have started cracking down on this practice.
    Alternatively, in some places you can purchase a prepaid sim card to put in your own unlocked phone. This will only work on multiband phones and did fine with my BB on my recent trip to NZ.

  3. When I’m somewhere for a longer time, I just buy a local simcard. Works fine, is far cheaper and mostly they have special packages for tourists. Did it in Dubai (UAE) and Malaysia.

  4. I bought a cheap quand-band phone (this one actually: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0016JB8K0/ref=wms_ohs_product_T2) and buy SIM cards in each country I need it in (unbelievably cheap sometimes). However, this is mainly for my own convenience when needing to call hotels, etc, within that country.

    Since you want to be reached, it might be better to do some sort of very round-about Google Voice to Skype to cell phone forwarding?

  5. I get a SIMM for the countries that I visit often. I’m one of them freaks who needs to have the latest iPhone – meaning I have a couple old ones unused. So I just bring my regular phone, in non-data mode, and a second phone with a SIMM for that country.

    Within Europe I have found Vodafone to work pretty well. They are present in almost all countries, prepaid cards are free, and often one can get data for a day for €1. The only thing to keep in mind is that your valance will usually expire after a few months, so make sure you only buy the vouchers for a couple euros each.

  6. I have a GSM phone that is not locked to any specific provider. Before going to Europe for business I do a little research on which provider I need to be able to call the US cheaply. I found really cheap deals (between 4 and 8 cents per minute) in the UK, Denmark, and Germany (the countries I frequently go to). Typically it cost something like $20 to get a cheapo provider to mail a sim card to your hotel, and the card usually comes with the same amount in your account.

    With these prices I end up calling my family every day when on business in Europe. The hard part is to find the right provider for cheap calls to the US, and to estimate you phone needs.

    Alternatively, AT&T has a jungle of options.

  7. I keep the phone on for important calls, turn off the data roaming, and look for places with wifi to do everything else. Buy $10 in skype credits for wifi calls, and have never had a problem.

  8. Int’l Voice roaming from ATT is a RIPOFF. You get some “discounted” rate of a $1 a minute in most of Europe using this. In some countries like India I think ATT’s discounted roaming rate is $2.95 a minute!

    Further it is not easy to simply put a new sim card in an i-phone. I think you have to go to the ATT store and get it unlocked. They will only do this once a year! ATT in general is a pain to deal with.

  9. I just use my normal phone and roam. I turn data OFF, though. Personally I found the SIM swapping thing to be a total PITA.

    With AT&T you have to enable International Roaming in your account (it’s a $0 option), or you can pay like $6/mo to get a lower rate.

    If you need data, you can get a prepaid 100MB or 200MB a month international package. They will prorate it so you can add it at the beginning of your trip and remove it as soon as you land.

    Not sure if you have an iPhone, but, with the AT&T app for the iPhone you can tweak all these things directly on your phone.

  10. I use a roaming SIM from Telestial with their cheap $19 kit.
    Since I’m not using my smart phone I don’t worry about getting pickpocketed, and it gives me a US or UK based phone number which I have in advance of the trip so I can give it out as a contact number for providers (airline, hotel, cruise line).

    Call quality is not fantastic but good enough, data service is offered but I like local SIM cards for that if I’m in the same country for a decent period of time.

  11. Just heading home from France & Italy using my (software) unlocked iPhone 4 i got local sims using info found online pretty easily. Just used data plans for google maps, searches and email/social updates. Tethering was included in some plans. Be wary of: activation times and low data caps

  12. I will be traveling a lot this summer, and plan on using Skype over hotel wi-Fi for all calls, as well ad using hotel wi-Fi for all data usage. I plan to use AT&T just for the simple calls to my parents – “I’m here” – etc.

  13. I’m living in France temporarily and just use a cheap prepaid phone to make local calls. I can also make free calls to the US with my prepaid phone, but the person I’m calling gets charged international rates. So I don’t usually use it to call the US.

    For calling the US, I just have Skype and Google Voice apps into my iPhone. I can call or text any US number with my Google Voice number for free. Whenever I need to make a call to the US when I’m out, I just wait until I find a place with free wifi (stand outside a cafe or a McDonalds) and make my call there.

  14. Pretty much what everyone else is saying: I use my US carrier (T-Mobile) in roaming mode for shorter trips and if making just a couple of calls here and there. Beyond that, I buy a local, pre-paid SIM and re-charge it as needed. For data, NEVER use your US-based carrier in romaing mode as it will be outrageously expensive. In fact, I wouldn’t use a local SIM for that either as it is usually expensive also. Go the wi-fi way. You might even be able to buy a week or month of global wi-fi at a company such as Boingo…

  15. LIkewise as other travelers have mentioned, I have an unlocked phone and I purchase a SIM card from the local country. Since I travel to France two to three times a year I just have that SIM card handy and reload at Orange Mobile or at a “tabac”.

    At home I use Sprint and have a HTC EVO, even though I can’t use the cell phone in Europe or South America, etc I still carry it with me as I can use Skype, access email and other apps using the WiFi. (also GPS still works) In March while I was in Buenos Aires I purchased the call the US unlimited plan from Skype ( I believe it was around 5 USD) and was able to keep in touch virtually everywhere! (Buenos Aires has basically Wifi at every location I visited: coffee shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, all where covered)

  16. Roaming data internally without a plan is crazy, but it’s actually pretty straightforward to add international data roaming to a Verizon or AT&T plan for the duration of your trip. It’s maybe a couple extra bucks a day, and you can cut it off when you return. (Or, if you use more than the prorated amount–e.g., over 100MB in two weeks if you get a 200MB/month package), you can leave it on until you clear the prorated amount.

    It’s the voice that I don’t touch while I’m abroad. I’d rather find a payphone (or use skype over wifi).

    Something else to consider would be asking your carrier to turn off incoming texts (unless you want them)–those get expensive at 25c or 50c a piece.

  17. I also discontinue service (with Verizon) when traveling abroad. What’s very handy is that you can switch it on via web just before you fly back to the U.S. I use a Droid Pro which also has Quadband-GSM, so it works in almost all countries.
    Lucky, have you seen the GlobalSIM or WorldSIM or whatever they’re called that theyoffers in some of the SkyMall brochures that some airlines still carry? You get a U.S. and a U.K. number and free incoming calls and texts in many countries — that’s a pretty unique feature.

  18. I’ve got an iPhone 4 that I do use internationally, but I agree that AT&Ts roaming plans are complete rip-offs. I also have a Blackberry from AT&T, and will start to purchase sim cards in each country. I did this with my iPad in Sydney, and got 5gb of data for 30AUD, while AT&T wanted $250 for 150mb.

  19. I use a paid Skype service for most of my “longer” calls. I then get a cheap mobile and pre-paid sim for local everyday calls. This is limited and not that cheap, but cheaper than the AT&T plan which I have also used. The minute charge on the AT&T is high ($1 per min in most countries.) NEVER USE YOUR US BASED DATA PLAN$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ Much cheaper to just wait until your at the hotel and pay for access or use free WIFI.
    Ubiquitous is great but so expensive!

  20. For foreign trips, I buy a local SIM and use an unlocked Motorola RAZR for local calls. I use a refillable Sam’s Club AT&T prepaid phone card for calls back to the US.

  21. How does one use Google Voice via Wifi? With my current setup, Google Voice dials a US number to connect: Great for when I’m in the US, but terrible if I’m abroad.

  22. Due to the high cost of roaming charges, I keep my phone on airplane mode and use a cheap nokia with a local sim chip using local prepaid phone cards that load minutes to the SIM.

    As mentioned earlier, Mr. Pickles’ suggestion regarding Skype is worthwhile if you want a simple alternative and a good forwarding option.

  23. A lot depends on your travel and call patterns (obviously). I spend a lot a time in Germany there use a SIM I’ve had a for a long tome (Solomo — but it is not easy to get outside of Germany). When traveling in the EU I don’t bother with a local SIM for voice — with the Euro Tariff incoming calls (from people back home) are not that expensive. Outgoing calls I generally use Skype (or some other VOIP), unless it is urgent, in which case I’ll use my German SIM — again, the Euro Tariff makes this relatively reasonable (compared to, say, AT&T).

    Outside the EU it gets more complicated and if I’m there for a week or so I’ll buy a local SIM for voice. I have a “virtual PBX” service (Ring Central) and will just change the “contact me now” extension to forward to my new local number.

    This has worked well for me the past 4-5 years.

    Another option is an “International SIM” such as those offered by NatGeo — more expensive than local SIMs but cheaper than AT&T and you have a fixed number. These work great if it is mostly people in the US (or UK) calling you.

  24. At&t had the best plan for international travel – blackberry international unlimited. Slip the sim into any smartphone (I use a Google Nexus One) and enjoy unlimited browsing/tethering anywhere in the world all for $65 /mo but alas they did away with this plan about a year ago. I still have it but get calls every few weeks to change it.

    However if you are looking for a cheap solution I would second any of the comments left here about either calling your provider and having your phone unlocked (blackberry) or jailbroken (iphone) or pick up a cheap second GSM based phone, then just pick up a local pre-paid SIM. Cheap and readily available.

  25. I have ATT and if it’s a shorter trip or I’m going through several countries I’ll just upgrade to the International Plan (there is one to call Internationally and one when you travel internationally – I’ll let you figure that out, but didn’t want you to pick the wrong one without looking) I think that is $5 or $6 and reduces the price of calls. It’s still expensive, but if you just want to check in with home or call in an emergency then it’s nice.

    I also get the international texting plan, which is $10 for 50 texts (includes MMS).

    You can add and take those off of your plan through there website and can add them just for the trip.

    For data I just use local wifi.

  26. Just get a 3G iPad, there’s iPad plans for most carriers throughout the world. Sometimes it can be much easier than getting a pure data sim.

  27. There is really no easy way to do this. I assume you want to use your phone so people can reach you. Then to buy a local SIM can be a PITA because you do need to inform everybody about it.
    I do have an old Nokia unlocked phone if I stay longer (e.g. China) and buy a local card to make local calls.
    I still keep my AT&T US phone on so people can reach me but will tell them that I call them back. Most countries it is 1$ per minute (with the plan mentioned above for 5$) and a lot of my incoming calls are below 1 minute.
    It really depends what you plan to do. Local SIM cards are best if you make a lot of in country call. If you want to connect back home to the US just use Skype.
    You can also get cheap data cards in a lot of countries if you want to use 3G without being locked into the hotel.

  28. I recommend Google Voice. I wrote an detailed instruction on flyertalk. It’s completely free.
    other than that, the best( and cheapest) way is to unlock your iphone and use local sim card. or you can combine both Google Voice and local 3G sim card.

  29. I always pick up a SIM card in every country I go to if I am there for more then two days and use it in a old unlocked Motorola Razr I picked up in Thailand for dirt cheap. If people need to get a hold of me, many times I will setup call forwarding from my Skype # to my newly found international phone.

  30. I apologize that this will be long winded, but I’m giving a full explanation)

    It really depends on how connected you wish to stay while traveling. First thing I would do is change all of your calling to a google voice number. From there you can route your calls to any number you need. Next is to get a good unlocked GSM phone. If you want you can even find some unlocked android phones (while I love iOS, using a microSIM makes it harder to swap out) and then you can get a local plan, and keep using the same phone anywhere, and have full service. Plus with certain apps, you can even set it up for free tethering and avoid some of the crazy internet fees.

  31. Got an iPhone? Regrettably those are carrier locked to either Verizon or at&t. If you’ve got an at&t phone, you can at least go roaming, although at their usurious rates. For a short enough trip, sign up for the international roaming plan. It’s something like a $6 or 7 monthly premium for a slightly discounted rate on the voice call. Not cheap, but will make the quick and dirty phone calls acceptable. Always, always make sure you have data roaming disabled.

    If you’re lucky enough to have an unlocked GSM world phone, then I always just buy a local SIM card when I pop in the country. If you don’t already have an unlocked GSM phone, I think it’s worth buying a used one off ebay and keep it around.

    Little known fact, at&t will unlock most non-exclusive phones: http://www.wireless.att.com/answer-center/main.jsp?solutionId=55002&t=solutionTab. TMobile has a similar policy.

  32. I’ll add myself to the cacophony of the have an unlocked GSM phone and buy-the-local-SIM camp; I have quite a collection by now. As far as phone goes, I can’t rave enough about the Nexus S due to the lack of restrictions (you can use it as a hotspot out of the box, it’s SIM unlocked, etc.) and of battery-draining carrier and manufacturer crapware. For GSM, there’s a T-mobile version and an AT&T version; both work great abroad. And while pricy, freedom has no price and you’re not locked into any carrier.

  33. For buying an unlocked GSM phone, the best choice is to go with a AT&T model, as it uses more standard bands and has better coverage around the world. The main difference is on the data bands, with AT&T’s bands having better support on a global basis, used by tier one providers while the T-mobile bands are secondary (as an example, Rogers and Co. in Canada use AT&T’s bands while the smaller carriers use the T-mobile bands. This carries over worldwide). If you want just a voice phone, then there is no need to worry, as long as the phone is a GSM phone

  34. I also use a sim card.
    I also use google voice with http://www.localphone.com. You could use localphone without google voice but you number could change. I have people in USA call my google voice number which then calls my localphone number which then calls me in whatever country I am in. I jut have to logonto the localphone website and put my new phone number in. I keep the same number with localphone so I don’t have to loginto google voice also. I just edit the number of my international number. (2cents a minute) To call the states I use rebtel.com and it allows me to call a local access number and then call the states or other places for cheap. Also has option for free calls but that requires asking the other person to hangup and call back the number on the caller ID which I feel is too much trouble for one cent a minute.

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