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3 Tips For Using Your Cellphone Internationally

Strategies to help you connect in other countries without paying a bundle


En español | If you travel to another country and use your smartphone as you would in the states — to access maps, check email, text the kids, many times a day — you could end up with hundreds of dollars in fees. To connect abroad affordably, you need a strategy. Here are your easiest options.

1. Put your phone in airplane mode. Only use it (besides features such as the camera) when you can connect to Wi-Fi. Some phones and apps automatically download data when the phone is on and connected, leading to charges — even if you aren't using the phone for calls. To make calls, use apps such as WhatsApp (which is also great for texting photos to friends), FaceTime, Skype, Google Voice, Viber and Facebook Messenger.

2. Get an international plan. Every phone carrier offers its customers international plans, which vary. If you use Sprint or T-Mobile, for instance, your monthly plans include unlimited overseas texting and data, at no extra charge, and 25 cents per minute for phone calls. But, again, you can avoid those fees by switching to airplane mode. (See tip number 1.) For Verizon customers, overseas options include a Travel Pass plan that costs $10 per day for unlimited calling, texting and data. (You only pay if you use it, however.) AT&T's International Day Pass is also $10 per day with the same benefits. Google offers a wireless phone service called Google Fi: The plan covers texting and data, whether you're at home or abroad, though you'll pay 20 cents a minute for overseas calls. The Federal Communications Commission maintains a list of select service providers and how to contact them about their international plans. (Most carriers offer cheaper options if you're visiting Mexico or Canada.)

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3. Buy a prepaid SIM card. This is a slightly more complicated option: A SIM card stores your subscriber data in your phone. When you're traveling internationally, you can replace it with one that gives you a local phone number. The first necessary step: Ask your carrier to “unlock” your phone. The unlocking process varies depending on the phone and the carrier; some new phones are unlocked by default.

You can buy a SIM card before you leave. Amazon, for example, sells SIM cards for Europe ranging from around $17 to $49, typically for 30 days of use. (Before you buy, research the most used networks in the country you're visiting and buy that brand of SIM card. In France, for example, the largest mobile company is Orange, followed by SFR and Bouygues Télécom.) The cards vary based on the amount of data, minutes, and texts, and the number of countries where you can use it. You can install it after you land by following instructions that are included with the card.

Another option is to buy a SIM card at your destination — such as from a mobile provider at the airport or a local department store. The upside of buying it when you arrive: A store employee can you help you choose the right data plan, install the card and make sure it's the right one for your phone. (Older iPhones, for example, have different SIM cards than new iPhones.)

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