As you know, we live in a connected world where most of us don’t go a full day without disconnecting from our digital devices. We are constantly texting, messaging, and updating our friends. When we travel we are researching restaurants to eat at, fun things to do, and places to stay.
There has been a 271% growth in WiFi hotspots between 2013 and 2015 and that number continues to grow throughout the world. It’s estimated that by 2018 there will be one WiFi hotspot for every 20 people on Earth.
Even though WiFi hotspots are continuing to grow in number and more cities are offering free WiFi, accessing data abroad is still a major issue. When we count on our phones to do almost everything in our regular lives, we find ourselves uncomfortable not having access to them. Using your phone abroad is a major concern that travelers address before hopping on that first plane.
Sure, its not that bad going without your phone for a week or two. But you lose a lot of the efficient processes we are accustomed to when you take away our phones or our data.
We don’t yet have world wide WiFi or high-speed data wherever you go. Fortunately, there are options available that make traveling abroad with your phone a viable option.
In this post, we’ll explore the different options and give you the resources to keep you online while you’re traveling.
This is the most inexpensive and basic option you have when it comes to using your phone abroad. It’s as simple as turning off your data and roaming before you leave and only using your phone when you are on a WiFi network.
The main issue most people face when using WiFi abroad is actually finding free WiFi. I’m not sure about you, but I’m not a big fan of paying for WiFi for some reason, especially when I’m trying to save my money for fun activities.
In order to fix this problem, there are a few solutions. First, look for a McDonald’s or Starbucks. These places are common in major cities and will most likely offer free WiFi, with the intention of getting you to buy something.
Personally, I’d rather have ‘free WiFi’ and pay for a coffee than have to pay for WiFi.
While traveling you’ll likely come across what looks like free WiFi, but then quickly learn you have to pay to use it. Boingo is one of the most common culprits of these WiFi hotspots. If you have an American Express card, you might be in luck. Boingo and American Express partnered up to offer free access to Boingo hotspots to eligible American Express card holders.
Since your phone’s GPS capability is not connected to your data plan, your GPS will still work when you aren’t connected to the internet. The app uses the GPS information and it’s database of WiFi hotspots to show you where the closest WiFi spots are around you. Pretty cool!
Keep in mind that some places have way more hotspots than others. Do your research before you leave to see if the city you’re visiting is WiFi friendly.
One of the downfalls of using WiFi hotspots is the hassle of having to find them, log in, and hope it’s a fast connection. If you’re traveling on a limited amount of time, as most people are, you probably don’t want to spend precious minutes searching for WiFi.
Unlock Your Phone and Swap Your SIM Card
If you see the words ‘unlock your phone’ and get a little freaked out, don’t worry it’s perfectly safe and legal.
The process of unlocking your phone used to be banned by the major phone carriers. Thanks to the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, the wireless carriers no longer have this control.
When you unlock your phone you are able to use your phone on any carrier you want. As you can guess, this isn’t good news for the wireless carrier companies that want to keep you on their phone plan as long as possible.
This is all fine when you’re at home and you’re able to use your network, but what about when you want to go outside the country? Well, you used to be stuck with WiFi or paying outrageous fees for using your phone abroad.
Now that we are able to unlock our phones, we can swap out our SIM card and be on a new wireless network in minutes.
This means if you are in Spain, you can buy a SIM card at a phone store or kiosk, load it up with prepaid minutes or data, and be on your merry way. There are usually multiple networks in each country. Here’s a list of the major networks with their associated countries.
Here are links to the four major US carriers’ instructions on how to unlock your phone:
- Unlock your AT&T wireless phone or tablet
- Verizon’s Device Unlocking Policy
- T-Mobile’s SIM Unlock Policy
- Unlocking your Sprint device
This strategy is excellent if you’re going to be in one country for an extended period of time. If you’re going to be moving around a lot, buying sim cards and data will add up.
Also, keep in mind that your phone number is connected to your SIM card. If you swap SIM cards, you’ll have a new phone number.
It’s worth mentioning dual SIM phones as well. These phones have two SIM card slots which means you have access to two different numbers at the same time. You could keep your US SIM card in one slot and put a Germany SIM card in the other slot.
Get an International Plan with your Current Carrier
The major carriers offer plans that give you access to data while you’re abroad. Unfortunately, these costs are extremely high. I’d only consider this option if you absolutely need to keep your phone number or you don’t mind paying for the additional cost.
Below I break down the cost for one month of travel outside of US, Mexico, and Canada. Most of these costs are in addition to your normal monthly wireless bill. The information below is based on the assumption that you’ll use a measly 1GB of data. And keep in mind that there are 1,000MB in 1GB.
- Monthly cost: $40
- Data: 100MB
- Overage cost per MB: $0.25
- Cost for 1GB of data over 1 month: $265
- Monthly cost: $80
- Data: 85MB
- Overage cost per MB: $10
- Cost for 1GB of data over 1 month: $9,230
- Monthly cost: $120
- Data: 800MB
- Overage cost per MB: $0.15
- Cost for 1GB of data over 1 month: $150
First of all… what in the world are you thinking Sprint?!
This is outrageous. I checked it three times to make sure it’s right since I couldn’t believe it. You can check it yourself if you want to. Just click on the Sprint link above.
At least Verizon and AT&T are somewhat reasonable with their pricing. Keep in mind that this is only for one gigabyte, which is hardly anything. If you’re using your phone to get directions, look up restaurants, or upload photos, you’ll need more than 1GB.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t include T-Mobile in the breakdown above, its because it’s special enough for its own section.
T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan
Instead of having to do the math and closely watch your data usage, T-Mobile makes international data very easy.
For $50/ month, you get unlimited data and texting in 120+ countries. Simple, easy, and cheap. They also have additional options that range from $60 to $80 per month, which are all still cheaper than the other carriers.
It costs $15 to get a T-Mobile SIM card. Unlock your phone as mentioned above, swap out your SIM card, sign up for T-Mobile and you’re good to go.
Even if you’re in a contract with your wireless carrier at home, you could keep paying your phone company, sign up for T-Mobile, and still come out ahead.
Fortunately, you can save even more money by temporarily suspending your current carrier contract while you’re on vacation.
- Verizon Suspend Service FAQs – Stops monthly billing and resumes when you are ready
- Sprint Seasonal Standby Plan – $8.99/month to put your account on hold. Other fees may apply.
- AT&T Suspend Your Wireless Device – Unfortunately this one doesn’t save you any money. You will continue to be billed as normal.
Since T-Mobile doesn’t have contracts you can cancel your account when you get back home. Simply put your other SIM card back in and you’ll be back with your original carrier.
This may sound like the perfect plan you’ve heard yet. It’s less expensive and has unlimited data. The only problem is the quality of the data.
If you’re used to 4G LTE speeds at home, you’ll need to find some patience when you’re traveling with T-Mobile service. Keep in mind that many other countries are still on 3G and even 2G networks. This means everything will be way slower than normal. Also, your service will likely be spotty depending on where you go.
Just because T-Mobile says you get unlimited data in the country you’re visiting, doesn’t mean T-Mobile will cover the city you’re visiting. You still might find yourself searching for WiFi every now and then when your service isn’t coming through.
Buy or Rent a Phone or Hotspot
If you can’t unlock your phone for some reason or if you want internet access for more than just your phone, here are some options for you.
If you can’t unlock your current phone for some reason, you can buy or rent one that will work abroad.
Companies like Cellular Abroad offer this service as well as SIM cards and data plans for specific countries. Their Italy data plan offers 10GB of data for $99.95.
They also offer WiFi hotspots so that you can use the data across multiple devices. This works well if you’re traveling with your family or in a group and don’t want to pay for everyone to have their own plan.
Depending on the length of your trip, you can also look into companies like TEP Wireless that offer unlimited data plans. In Europe, this plan costs $9.95 per day. This will certainly add up, but it can connect 5 devices at once. If you split the cost among five people you’re looking at about $60 per person for a month, which is right in line with T-Mobile’s offering.
One of the benefits of traveling is being able to get away and disconnect for a bit. Hopefully, you remember this and enjoy your experience traveling rather than constantly checking Facebook to see if your friends liked your selfie.
Staying connected doesn’t mean you have to constantly be answering emails and text messages. Instead, you should stay connected to enhance your experience.
Use your internet access to find the best way to travel from point A to point B. Use it to find the secret entrance to the Louvre so you don’t wait in a 2-hour line. Use it to search for authentic cuisine and fun experiences that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about.
There are plenty of options for you to stay connected while abroad, it’s just a matter of figuring out which option is best for you.
How do you use your phone while traveling to other countries?