Most Cost-Effective and Secure Ways to Use Your Phone While Abroad

You’re traveling to another country — how exciting! Do you have a plan for using your phone while you’re there? Your cell service provider covers you in the U.S. but what are your options for international calling and data use? And how about texts? Sure you can use free WiFi apps like Skype but is that enough?

So many questions! No worries, globehopper. Here are some answers:

First off, as long as you have a newer phone, you’ll almost certainly be able to connect to a cellular network unless you’re going someplace really remote so you don’t have to be concerned about the technology. And WiFi is ubiquitous so you’re covered there, too.

Pay as you go
With the pay-as-you-go approach, you let your phone “roam” and connect to whichever carrier network happens to be available in the area. This is the most expensive option — or the cheapest, depending on how much you use your phone. If you don’t want to use a cellular network at all, turn on Airplane Mode to turn off all cellular signals. You can still use WiFi. Then if you need to use a cellular network briefly or in an emergency, turn off Airplane Mode and connect briefly via roaming.

But beware, roamers! You may have heard horror stories about cell phone bills that end up costing more than the airplane tickets. Pay-as-you-go calls average $1.50 per minute and can run as high as $2.99 per minute (Verizon). Texts are usually 50 cents to send and 5 cents to receive. Data is where you can really get hurt. Without an international data plan, data charges cost between $2 and $20 per MB. For context, one MB of data gets you 50 text-only emails, three emails with attachments, about five web pages or ½ second of video streaming.

And while you can use WiFi to browse the Web and communicate with people who also have Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and other chat apps, it won’t help you when you need to call a local restaurant, museum or your Airbnb host’s emergency contact. Same goes for using Google Maps in real time while you’re out and about.

International roaming plans from your carrier
For trips that last longer than a couple of days, signing up for an international plan from your carrier before you head out is a good idea. Use your past bills to predict your usage. AT&T Passport offers three package levels with data rates starting at $30/month (here are AT&T’s tips). Verizon offers a Travel Pass or Preferred Pricing Plans starting at $15/month for Mexico and Canada and $25/month elsewhere (Verizon tips here). Both AT&T and Verizon’s packages are monthly. Remember to turn them off when you get home.

Sprint and T-Mobile do it differently. They include Mexico and Canada in their U.S. plans so you don’t need an international plan when traveling to those countries. Some plans also include international roaming with unlimited data and text — but you’ll still pay 20 cents per minute for calls and your international Internet speeds will be slower (they’re throttled on purpose). To get faster speeds, you can buy high-speed Internet passes for one, seven or 14 days starting at $10/day. Plans can be confusing and caveats apply, however. Read the small print.

SIM cards, hot spots and calling cards
If you’re traveling for a month or more, consider getting an international SIM card. You’ll have to unlock your phone but that’s not a big deal, even for iPhones. Another option, if you travel often or with a group, is getting a WiFi HotSpot like those offered by KeepGo. A KeepGo HotSpot costs $129 (you own it), comes with 1GB of data and can be recharged for as low as $39 per GB. Up to 10 users can connect to a HotSpot at the same time.

Finally, you can go old school. Just buy a prepaid international calling card when you get there and use landline phones to make your calls — crazy, we know.

Security for any international strategy
Us frogs want you to stay safe online no matter where you are! Public WiFi can be a problem waiting to happen so we recommend international plans so you can stay off of public WiFi (password-protected WiFi is much safer) — you’ll have one less thing to worry about. Just set your phone to track your usage and keep it on Airplane Mode when you don’t need to use cellular data.

If you’re using your phone to access financial or other private accounts, are traveling for business or are heading to China or other countries notorious for phone hacking, consider taking your security up a notch. It’s easy to get and use a VPN, aka Virtual Private Network, that encrypts your data and masks your IP address.

And to keep malware off your phone while traveling abroad (or staying at home), consider Kaspersky for Android and a content blocker for Apple devices. The bottom line is you’re going on vacation to have fun — don’t let your phone get in the way!

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