The horror story goes something like this: a family returns from a trip abroad, and the vacation glow is just beginning to fade when a cell phone bill with hundreds or even thousands of dollars of international fees arrives. The phenomenon even has a name: shock bill.
Smartphones have become an indispensable part of international travel. You can use them to check in at the gate, cross borders, find your way in a foreign city, and pay for breakfast at a sidewalk cafe. Now it’s easier than ever to use your phone like you would at home without putting a strain on your wallet.
There are two main options: You can get a data plan directly from your phone carrier, or you can swap out your phone’s SIM card, a small chip that stores data about you and your carrier. On newer phones, you can use an app that does this. the same thing. Here are a few tips:
Choose the right package
The three largest U.S. carriers all offer some version of an all-inclusive international data plan. Prices and countries covered vary. Some take effect automatically when you cross a border, and others require registration before your trip. Almost all send a text message detailing your options when your phone connects to a foreign network.
AT&T offers the International Day Pass for $10 a day, allowing travelers to use their phones as much as they would in the United States. AT&T automatically adds a day pass when customers with unlimited plans connect to the network in a foreign destination.
Customers on this plan can use their phone as many days as they want, but they will only be billed for a maximum of 10 days per billing cycle. The plan covers around 210 destinations, including Canada and Mexico. Some exceptions: Cuba and the Maldives.
Verizon offers a similar offer: Travel Passwhich gives customers on Unlimited Plus, Unlimited Welcome and other unlimited plans the ability to talk, text and use data for $10 per day (there is no cap on the number of days you may be billed in a billing cycle), or a $100 monthly pass. The first 2 GB of high-speed data each day is included; After that, travelers enjoy unlimited data at a slower speed.
Unlimited plan Customers traveling to Canada or Mexico do not need to purchase TravelPass, but for all other packages, a day pass for those countries costs $5. TravelPass covers around 210 international destinations. Exceptions: Cuba and the Maldives.
T-Mobile automatically includes international coverage at no extra cost in its most popular plans, said Mike Katz, president of marketing, strategy and products. Depending on the plan, it includes unlimited SMS to over 215 destinations worldwide and 5 GB of high-speed data per billing cycle (but most phone calls cost 25 cents per minute). As with AT&T and Verizon, Cuba is not covered, but the Maldives is.
T-Mobile travelers needing more high-speed data or free calling can upgrade with the day passes, starting at $5 (unlimited calls and up to 512 MB of high-speed data). For longer stays, a 30-day plan with up to 15GB of high-speed data costs $50.
Swap your SIM card
Subscriber Identity Module cards – tiny, removable chips that connect a phone to its owner’s network and phone number – offer another way to save money while you travel, especially if you’re doing an extended trip or if you use a large amount of data. Instead of signing up for a US provider’s international calling plan, you can purchase a local SIM card, usually as part of a prepaid or pay-as-you-go plan, usually at a cheaper rate. Prices vary depending on provider, country and offers.
If you have a newer model phone, you probably don’t even need to replace and track physical SIM cards: you may have eSIM capabilities built in instead.
Apps like Air it out offer affordable eSIM options for hundreds of destinations around the world. Airalo options include Learn more, a global plan that includes 10 text messages, 10 minutes of talk time and 1 GB of data, starting at $9 for seven days. There is also regional plan (covering places like Europe), from $5 for seven days, and a local plan (for a single country), just $4.50 for seven days.
Two caveats to SIM swapping: your phone usually needs to be unlocked (not connected to a specific carrier) and you’ll usually be given a foreign phone number when you set up the new SIM card, so be sure to share that number with anyone who needs it. contact you. (Your regular phone number will be sent to voicemail.) If you are using an eSIM and your phone has Dual SIM dual standby technology, you may still be able to to use your usual number.
Adapt the technology
There are a few technological precautions travelers can take to avoid surprise bills.
First, control your data usage by turning off data roaming in your phone settings when you don’t need it. You can also download maps when you have a Wi-Fi connection, then use apps like Google or Apple Maps in offline mode. You can also remove data-intensive apps individually by turning off their access to cellular data in your phone’s settings.
Finally, consider using secure Wi-Fi (be wary of public networks) to make calls on services like FaceTime or WhatsApp to avoid voice or long distance charges.