Using your phone overseas requires preparation, unless you want to be hit with some steep fees. Sticking with your carrier is more convenient but can be expensive. You can get ahead of those charges by setting up an internet calling app to phone home for free, or buying local data for cheap on the ground. Your flight lands, you turn off airplane mode then—bam!—you get a text from your carrier: You’ve just been charged $10 for the day.
Create an app to phone home for free, and purchase inexpensive local data to avoid expenses. Some trips are designed to be blissfully disconnected. The second kind, where you want to use your phone just like you do at home—to rent bikes, purchase tickets, make reservations, and, let’s be honest, post on Instagram—is the subject of this piece. Moreover, this summer’s plane travel is a chaos. Airport crowds and aircraft cancellations have returned along with international travel. For individuals travelling overseas, it is now necessary to pay particular attention to potential delays and increasing health requirements.
The tricky part is that the daily charge is automatically triggered, and carriers have different rules for what usage activates it. Before you take off, disable data roaming in the settings on any iPhone or Android device that you don’t want to be charged. Doing so will likely prevent unintended cellular data use. Since you may still be able to receive text messages and phone calls, which some carriers charge for, it’s even safer to turn on airplane mode and limit yourself to Wi-Fi.
It’s common for carriers to charge an international roaming fee for each phone in a plan. You get 24 hours of access to your normal data allotment, calls and texts abroad. Granted, this is an improvement over comically high pay-as-you-go overseas rates. But that daily $10 adds up quickly, especially when traveling for a week or more with multiple family members.
For longer trips, Verizon sells a $100 International Monthly Plan, charged on top of your domestic monthly service. It includes 250 minutes of calling and 5GB for 30 days. Each additional gigabyte of data costs $20. AT&T: If you use data, respond to a text message or answer a call, AT&T’s $10 International Day Pass, which gives you access to your current plan abroad, will be triggered in eligible countries. Receiving a text or call won’t activate the pass. For each additional line on your plan, the daily charge is $5.
• Verizon: The carrier’s TravelPass charges $10 a day per phone to access your current plan in eligible countries. The charge kicks in if you make or receive a call, send a text or use any data, including your phone’s invisible background app syncing. (An incoming text won’t incur any fees, but getting a phone call will.) Verizon grants just 0.5 gigabyte of fast data before reducing your speeds. You can buy additional high-speed data, or opt for a high-priced, pay-as-you-go plan instead. Even if you’re being careful, this pay-as-you-go data tally will also include your phone’s behind-the-scenes activity. And Verizon doesn’t have a maximum amount you can be charged.
AT&T no longer offers a pay-as-you-go or monthly international option, but there is a maximum charge of $100 per line per billing cycle. If your trip happens to fall between two billing cycles, you could pay up to $200. T-Mobile: You need to sign up for T-Mobile’s international plans: $5 for 512MB over one day; $35 for 5GB over 10 days; and $50 for 15GB over 30 days. You can activate the plan immediately or set a start date. Magenta plan subscribers get international data and texting in 11 European countries, and for Magenta Max customers, your phone works in over 200 countries, without extra fees.
There are steps you can take to avoid making pricey phone calls. Free communication apps such as WhatsApp and FaceTime audio are good for keeping in touch with loved ones from abroad. For calling landlines—such as customer service numbers—over data or Wi-Fi, you will need to use an internet-based phone service. You can use these apps to make or receive calls and texts. Note that internet phone service usually can’t be used for emergency calls (you need a proper mobile network connection) and some banks, such as Wells Fargo, don’t support these apps for receiving two-factor authentication texts.
If you anticipate having to call a landline back home or being on hold with customer service for a North American-based company (such as an airline), Google Voice is the best option. With the mobile app, it’s free to call the U.S. and Canada over Wi-Fi or wireless data. You can also receive texts and calls to your U.S.-based number assigned by Google Voice. Rates vary for making calls to other countries. After downloading, enable this setting to avoid using your cell network for calls: Open the app then tap the menu icon (top left). Go to Settings then choose “Make and receive calls,” then “Prefer Wi-Fi and mobile data.” (Make sure you have data roaming turned off on your phone to avoid fees.)
For making or receiving calls from elsewhere, use Skype, a Microsoft-owned app. You can get up to 10 local Skype Numbers in 25 countries for $6.50 a month or $52 annually. That’s usually cheaper than getting a local SIM card. (A few countries, such as Brazil, France and South Korea, require proof of residence to set up a Skype Number.) For Frequent and Long-Haul Travelers: Switch Carriers or Plans
If you regularly travel or plan on being abroad for an extended period and want to continue using your home number, consider switching to a travel-friendly plan or carrier. AT&T’s unlimited premium plan includes coverage in 19 Latin American countries, and T-Mobile’s Magenta Max plan includes data in over 200 countries. Both of those plans start at $85 a month for one line. Subscribers to Verizon’s Do More ($80 monthly) and Get More ($90 monthly) plans accrue one Travel Pass day each month of the calendar year. (They expire a year after you earn them.)