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You’re finally taking that trip abroad! You’ve planned everything, but have you figured out how to use your US cell phone internationally without incurring a ton of charges?
You can use your cell phone when traveling abroad, but you need to figure out the best way to communicate with your family and friends back home without coming home to a huge phone bill. After my first trip abroad, I ran up an $800 phone bill. Yikes! I was in college, and I just didn’t know what NOT to do. So, let me spare you from that nightmare. Here are 4 tips for using your US carrier cell phone when traveling abroad.
Using your phone overseas
Before we get started, you need to know two things. First, I’m not a cell phone expert, but I have had some pretty epic cellphone fails (re: $800 phone bill…) #realconfessions. Second, in my experience, if you have a US cell phone carrier, you may have a couple of strikes against you because several US carriers use CDMA and others use GSM. You can read more about the differences between CDMA and GSM here. Meanwhile, the rest of the world using GSM.
On to the tips…
4 cell phone tips when traveling abroad
While I can’t tell you how to use your phone internationally without charges, these tips will help you learn how to use your cell phone internationally without breaking the bank.
1. Check out your carrier’s international plan.
Each carrier will have different options when traveling overseas. In the US, I’ve used Verizon and AT&T. They both (now) have pretty simple international plans and offer day passes for as little as $10 USD/day. But you have to study their terms and conditions. If you’re only going to be gone for a few days OR you don’t use your cell phone that often, that may be a good option for you.
2. Turn Your Data Off Your Cell Phone While Traveling Abroad & Use Wifi Only
If you really want to save money while traveling overseas, you can turn your cellular and data off on your cell phone and opt to use wifi instead. If your hotel or accommodations have wifi, you’ll never be disconnected.
But how do I make phone calls when traveling internationally on wifi?
Great question. You can make data calls, using any number of apps. My favorite app for making international calls on wifi is WhatsApp. It’s free and they encrypt your texts and your phone calls. Facebook now also offers data calls and if you’re an iPhone user, iMessage is great for data calls. When you’re traveling east, you can use Wechat for text and data calls.
Now, it goes without saying that if you’re only using wifi, when there’s no wifi there’s no phone.
3. Buy a local SIM Card
I’m pretty attached to my phone, specifically to all the data. So, my favorite option when traveling is to buy a cheap local pay as you go SIM card. I pop my US SIM card out (I use AT&T) and insert the local SIM card. I automatically get a local number and I have all this lovely data. The best part is that I don’t have to worry about overpaying for data usage. It’s perfect. When my data runs low (and it generally does at some point), I just top up my phone.
Before you travel, just install an alternative phone call app like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or plan to use iMessage and then tell your nearest and dearest how to contact you. The best part about this tip is depending on how long you’ll be out of the country, you can download your US carrier cell phone plan since you won’t be using it.
4. Make sure your phone is unlocked.
Before you buy a local SIM card, you need an unlocked phone. After my 20+ years with Verizon, the hubs and I switched last summer to AT&T because we wanted to be able to use our unlocked phones in the US and when we traveled abroad.
After the fact, I found out that all new Verizon phones, come unlocked. (grr!). Anyway, check with your carrier to see if your phone is already unlocked and if it’s not, this post will tell you how to get your carrier to unlock your phone.
You can also always buy an unlocked phone, and you can use that phone in the US, based on carrier restrictions. AT&T let us our US numbers on our unlocked phones without an issue.
Buying the plane tickets, getting your visas in order, and nailing down hotels for each leg of your trip overseas probably seems simple relative to figuring out how to use your cell phone while you travel abroad, but it doesn’t have to be hard.
Just figure out what you want and need from your mobile device during your international trip and make a few strategic decisions about how you’ll use your cell phone internationally. My 4 cell phone international travel tips, should help. After all, your cell phone should be the last thing on your mind.