Traveling abroad is expensive enough without having to worry about paying international rates and fees on your phone. Even if you don’t plan on calling home that often, there are still hefty texting and roaming rates to consider.
While there are plenty of apps that allow you to text internationally for free, sometimes you just really need to use a bit of data to download directions or find a nearby place to grab a bite.
Fortunately, it’s never been easier to free your phone from your carrier’s high rates. Here’s how to save on mobile phone service while traveling abroad.
Is your phone unlocked?
When you’re preparing your smartphone for its next trip abroad, this is the very first question you should ask yourself. While having a locked phone literally “locks” you into your current cell phone provider’s international rates, unlocking it means you’re pretty much free to use the phone however you like.
The main difference between a locked and unlocked phone is that locked phones accept SIM cards only from your current provider (such as Sprint, Verizon, or AT&T), while unlocked ones can be paired with cheaper SIM cards from vendors you’ll find abroad. And although you may have signed a contract which requires you to keep it locked for a year, most of these companies are legally required to unlock it after your first year is up.
Even if your provider doesn’t want to unlock your phone for you, you can possibly unlock your Android or Apple phone yourself, or otherwise head to one of those independent phone stores and have them do it for you for a small fee.
4 ways to save money on your phone plan abroad
There are plenty of simple ways to save money on phone charges while traveling abroad. See if any of these will work on your upcoming trip.
1. Only use Wi-Fi
Depending on where you’ll be staying when you travel, chances are your Airbnb, hotel, or even friend’s house has Wi-Fi. One of the simplest ways to avoid paying international fees is to keep your phone in Airplane mode unless you’re in a place with Wi-Fi. This is a great option for anyone willing to go a few hours a day without using their phone’s data.
If you choose to go this route, just be sure to get everything done when you’re connected to Wi-Fi — send messages to friends and family or even download maps to your phone so you can find your way around later without using data.
But if you’re concerned that you may need to use your phone while out and about, you can also look up a few cafes with Wi-Fi in advance and bookmark them in your offline maps. That way, you’ll have a place to go to quickly look something up or check in with people throughout the day.
The main pro of choosing this option is that it’s free and relatively simple to implement, requiring just a little advanced research on your part. The main con is that you’ll be limited in how and where you can use your phone while traveling. And if the Wi-Fi isn’t great (or is nonexistent), this will pose an even greater challenge.
2. Buy or rent a portable hotspot
Another option to avoid high fees when traveling abroad is to buy or rent a prepaid Wi-Fi hotspot in advance. Depending on where you’re traveling and for how long, a hotspot can be a great investment toward securing reliable internet throughout your trip.
While some of these devices are region-specific (for example, only working in Europe), others work in nearly 200 countries — meaning even if your travels involve a world tour, you can be connected wherever you are. For shorter trips, renting a hotspot might be the ideal solution; on longer trips, you might buy a hotspot and pay a daily or monthly rate to use it.
Although this alternative requires a bit of digging to find out which option is right for you, hotspots can be a huge time saver when visiting places with notoriously unreliable Wi-Fi. Rather than wasting time searching for a secure connection, you’ll have one right in your pocket.
3. Check what your current service provider will charge you
Before cracking open your phone and messing with the SIM card, you might as well contact your current carrier and see what it charges for international rates. Some carriers offer standard rates for most countries. Sprint, for example, provides free texting, low-speed data, and phone calls starting at $0.25 per minute.
Other carriers, such as Verizon and AT&T, offer temporary international phone plans for shorter trips. You could pay a daily fee of around $10 to use your phone abroad. Or if you plan to travel for a longer period of time, you could upgrade your monthly plan to include international options.
This alternative may not be the most cost-effective but could give you more freedom to use your phone while abroad — whether or not you have a solid Wi-Fi connection.
4. Use a local or international prepaid SIM card
Now comes the time to (gently) open up your phone and unleash the beast that is your SIM card. Swapping out SIM cards is actually pretty easy, and once you find out just how cheap they can be in some foreign countries, you’ll wish you hadn’t waited so long to give it a try.
So how cheap are we talking? In some countries, you can snag a local SIM card that includes calls, texts, and low-speed data for less than $20 per month. If your trip involves multiple destinations, you might even consider shopping for an international SIM card that works in most places, such as the OneSimCard.
And although this option will (again) require a bit of digging, it should easily pay for itself if you end up avoiding crazy international fees from your phone provider.
Don’t wait until you’re out of the country (and without Wi-Fi) to start doing your research. Make a plan in advance for how you want to use your phone while abroad, based on your daily data as well as texting and calling needs. That way, you can use your phone as you normally would upon arrival — without the possibility of returning home to an unexpected phone bill.
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