Ask Help Desk: How to use your phone while traveling abroad

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Even as we get some mixed signals, many Americans say we have turned the corner on the worst of the pandemic. It is no surprise then that people are gearing up for a big travel season, even if it might cost more than usual.

For some readers, dealing with this wanderlust has some wondering what they should do with their phones when traveling overseas. And finding the right answer can be trickier than people expect. Why? Well, the best solution usually hinges at least a little on your personality. The roaming deals offered by American wireless carriers are also not always straightforward.

You can rest easy, though. We put together a brief guide to walk you through the options for staying connected. If you have treasured technology travel tips of your own, consider sharing them with us in an email to yourhelpdes[email protected]. In the meantime, here is where you should start.

This should be pretty easy, but it is an important place to start because different wireless carriers offer different roaming rates and features for international phone use.

If you have a plan with AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, and you passed a credit check when you signed up, you have the most options available to you. Meanwhile, customers of prepaid services like Mint Mobile, Tracfone or others might not be able to roam with their phone numbers at all. If that is you, skip to the local phone service section.

This is also a good time to think about what you need from your phone while traveling. Do you want to be online the whole time? Or is the occasional phone call you are really worried about? Some travelers may want to disconnect almost entirely. If that is you, consider leaving your phone in airplane mode, disable data roaming and jump on WiFi networks when you can find them. (Just be careful about what you do while connected to them.)

Weigh international options

If you get a monthly bill from AT&T or Verizon, you have access to day passes, a very convenient international roaming feature. AT&T basically lets you use your devices the same way you did back home for $10 a day for the first phone and $5 a day for each additional one. Verizon offers the same feature for $10 a day for each phone.

The benefit? You can send and receive calls and text messages with your existing phone number, plus use your mobile data at reasonably fast speeds for online browsing and streaming.

The problem, as you might have noticed, is that these can get expensive pretty fast. I usually go with this option myself because these companies stop charging for day passes after 10 days, or $100 for a single person. But if you have an entire family that wants to stay connected, be prepared for the next bill to be much higher than usual.

Yet the alternatives those companies offer are not much better. For AT&T customers who want to go without day passes, their only choice is to pay for each text and each minute of a phone call at obscene rates. Verizon works the same way, with one twist: It offers an “international calling” feature for $100 per line that gives you 250 voice minutes, 1000 text messages and 5 gigabytes of data. In a word, ouch.

T-Mobile customers have it a little easier, since most of their plans have some free international features built in. The Essentials plan gives you free unlimited texting while abroad and charges calls at 25 cents a minute. The Magenta plan offers the same thing but adds unlimited data at 2G speed. Meanwhile, customers on the most expensive Magenta Max plans get those same features but with slightly faster data service.

Even then, expect some frustration if you want to do more than basic online browsing, since T-Mobile says the standard speeds on those Magenta Max plans are far less than 1 megabit per second.

Consider a local phone service

If none of your wireless carrier options feel like a great fit, consider buying a SIM card from a local cell service provider once you arrive. The biggest benefit here is price because you can stand to save a lot of money.

In Hong Kong, a favorite haunt, $15 gets you 8 gigabytes of data to use for Web browsing and calls through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram over eight days. In France, Orange offers “holiday” SIM cards that give you unlimited calls and texts inside Europe and buckets of data you can still use if you head to another European country. Buy these from a local carrier store instead of generic travel SIM cards at the airport.

The only real downside is that you have to use a different phone number while abroad. That could get confusing for people you try to contact, and you cannot easily access passcodes sent to your usual phone number via text. Still, these deals might make the occasional drawback worth it for some. But taking advantage of them requires some prep work.

First, you have to make sure your phone is unlocked. That means it can accept SIM cards from different carriers and work on their networks properly. Most American wireless carriers do not sell unlocked phones, but if your account is in good standing, you can request that AT&T or T-Mobile unlock a phone you bought from them. Verizon phones, meanwhile, are automatically unlocked after 60 days.

Alternately, if your finances allow, you could buy a separate unlocked phone for use while traveling. If you use a prepaid phone service like the ones we mentioned earlier, you could also buy an unlocked phone for travel, after checking its compatibility with your provider, that is. Prefer to stick with your own phone? Your provider may agree to unlock it for you.

Mint Mobile will unlock a phone you purchased from them if you meet certain criteria. After a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission a few years ago, the parent company of Tracfone is mandated to do the same. Since that company runs other brands like Straight Talk Wireless, Simple Mobile and Net10, you can ask it to unlock a phone you bought from any of them.

Before you leave, consider bringing a few of these items that could help keep you connected in a pinch. Some people spend more time using their phones abroad than at home. A portable battery can help keep it running for as long as you need it.

A paper clip will also come in handy. If you buy a SIM card while abroad, you may have to install or remove it yourself. Some phones require you to stick something into a tiny hole to do this and a small paper clip usually does the trick.

Finally, consider an international phone card as a bit of insurance. Keep it with you while you wander, but not with other valuables like your wallet. That means you have a way to reliably contact people back home if something happens.