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How to Use Your Phone Internationally With Minimal Charges

5 strategies to help you connect in other countries without paying a bundle

Video: 5 Tips for Using Cell Phone Abroad

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 to avoid charges

Aside from features such as the camera, only use the phone 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.

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2. Get an international phone plan

Every phone carrier offers its customers international plans, which vary. If you use 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 No. 1.) For Verizon customers, overseas options include a TravelPass plan that costs $10 per day for unlimited calling, texting and data. 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 (click on “Web Resources: Service Providers”). Most carriers offer cheaper options if you’re visiting Mexico or Canada.

3. Buy a prepaid SIM card to use your phone in another country

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 step: Ask your carrier to “unlock” your phone (a “locked” phone will only work on your carrier’s network). 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 $20-$50, 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 Telecom.) 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 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 newer iPhones, which might not have SIM cards.)

spinner image woman checks her phone on the beach
When abroad, consider putting your phone in airplane mode to avoid hundreds of dollars in fees.
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4. Try an eSIM card in your phone

Most new phones have what’s called an eSIM card. Unlike the physical SIM card that you can remove from a phone, an eSIM is a microchip embedded in the phone’s hardware. That eSIM can be useful when you’re traveling internationally. Instead of replacing a SIM card, you can add a plan to your eSIM from a local provider in the country you’re visiting, or purchase data through eSIM providers such as Airalo, Flexiroam, GigSky and Nomad. Apple maintains an online list of wireless carriers and service providers that offer eSIM service. You also can find information online about eSIMs in iPhones and Android phones (including which ones support eSIMs, since Android phones vary depending on the manufacturer).

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5. Mix and match options while traveling

It’s OK to choose more than one of these options. Seattle-based travel writer Mary Jo Manzanares, 68, uses Airalo for data but makes calls with WhatsApp. Andy Gibson, 54, an IT specialist in Virginia who recently traveled to Germany, used T-Mobile for its free data but also used WhatsApp for calls. A combination of strategies can help you save money.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Aug. 20, 2019. It's been updated to reflect new information. 

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