Ask Kate: Should I Get An International Phone Plan?

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Ask Kate: Should I get an international calling plan when I travel?This week’s question is one that I get asked quite often.  If you bring your phone on your travels, how do you make calls abroad?

I was wondering what cell phone and carrier you use? I have a centro and I’m with sprint but have never used my phone outside the USA. I’m going on a cruise for thankgiving and next summer going to Italy and possibly somewhere else early next year.

Lots of people assume that I have an international plan on my iPhone — how else would I be able to use it in so many countries?

Well, that couldn’t be less true.  Having an international plan on your phone can be astronomically expensive.  What I do is what most long-term travelers do: I buy pay-as-you-go SIM cards in the countries I visit and switch them into my iPhone.

I’ve actually only bought SIM cards in a few countries: Thailand (1-2-Call), Indonesia (Telkomsel), the UK (a TalkMobile card that works all over Europe), and the US.  While many US plans are expensive, I’m currently on a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go plan that gives me 100 minutes of talking, unlimited texts, and 5 GB of data for just $30 per month, which is perfect for me.

Where do you buy SIM cards abroad?  At the airport when you arrive, or at a phone store, or at a convenience store like a 7-11.  Just buy it, pop it in, and follow the directions on the package.  Cards cost next to nothing and most plans are quite cheap.

This will only work, however, if your phone is unlocked.  If your phone is locked, unlocking it will require you to finish your contract or pay a lot of money, and it is now illegal to unlock American phones without the assistance of your carrier.  Outside the US, most phone stores offer unlocking as one of their services.

If you don’t want to unlock your phone, I suggest you buy a cheap phone and use that as your travel phone.

Phones aren’t always necessary to have on your travels — but they certainly make life easier.  And if you plan on meeting up with lots of locals while abroad, they’re essential.  I couldn’t last for long without a phone in Bangkok.

But don’t think you need to change your home plan to an international plan — it’s not worth it.  And if you leave your home SIM card in your phone, be sure to turn off your data or keep your phone on airplane mode in order to avoid charges.

Good luck and have a FABULOUS time in Italy!

Image: Anywhere But Home

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38 thoughts on “Ask Kate: Should I Get An International Phone Plan?”

  1. I agree with going the SIM card route with a caveat — they are difficult to get in some countries. Because of security concerns in India, you need a passport photo, photocopies of your passport and a local address (hotels work), and even then it may take a few days/trips back to the store to get it properly activated. Doable, but may be too much of a pain for some travelers — and in my case I needed service immediately upon arrival. I opted for the international plans while in India. While a bit more expensive, the convenience was worth it in this case.

    I think the bottom line is, try to do the SIM card but do your research ahead of time on country-specific travel message boards and the like to see if there are any hurdles.

    1. We only were asked for passports in Europe and India. The proces in India is a bit of a hassle but we had it done in a matter of minutes. Most reputable companies will help you do it. Just don’t leave your passport to some street vendor…

      In SEA, it is a breeze. Pop in a convenience store, buy a SIM card (1-5$) and add some credit (the SIM usually comes with some credit, enough for SMS and a few calls). 3G price is different depending on the coutry/carrier but it is usually under 10$ for 500Mb of data, which is plenty for quick searches and using the map applcation (really useful). In India, we lived in a flat without wi-fi, we bought 6Gb of 3G (fast and reliable), tethered the computer to the phone and voila! Cheap Internet anywhere.

      Yes, a smartphone (or phone) is a must and it is easy to get local service almost everywhere.

  2. Great post, Kate! This is something I’ve been wondering about for a long time. I have a second, old brick phone that I use when I travel, but I’m so used to having the Internet at my fingertips with my iPhone, that it’s becoming harder for me to travel without it. Thank god, my contract expires this year!

    I agree that it’s worth getting your phone unlocked in another country. Asia is particularly great for cheap prices and reliable service. Just make sure you do your research about where exactly in the city is the best spot to do it where you won’t get ripped off.

  3. So I have two points here.

    First of all, She has sprint, which means her phone does not use Sim Cards. Its CDMA model which likely means it will not work at all in Italy. (or in most of the rest of the world either). To have a phone that will work with the pay as you go sim world, you need to either have AT&T or T-Mobile in the USA.

    Second, I was actually rather surprised how reasonable AT&T’s international roaming plan was. Certainly not for calls, but the Data was $30 for 140mb nearly everywhere in the world was helpful. The only place it didn’t cover that Surprised me was Vietnam. The again I don’t use voice minutes ever.

    1. Very good point, Muerl. Same concept applies — if you don’t have an unlocked phone or phone that otherwise won’t take SIM cards, go buy a cheap generic phone to use while traveling.

      Vietnam is a bit of an oddball — there are no McDonalds or Starbuckses there, either!

      1. Kate, what do you mean by “Verizon is an oddball”? Verizon is my carrier here in the U.S., and I tried using a local SIM card when I was in Istanbul last month; I had Verizon unlock my phone, and I purchased a (Vodafone, I think card) upon arrival at Ataturk Airport. But while I did get a signal, etc. after installing the local SIM and entering in the PIN I was given, I was never able to get my phone to wok for data (i.e. internet browsing, etc.) with the local SIM card in it. And I wasn’t in town long enough to take the time to go to a local phone store to try to get my problem troubleshooted. Could there have been something about having a Verizon phone that contributed to my problem? I’m really hoping I’ll have better results using a local card (or cards) in Russia an the Ukraine this spring.

  4. I wish I had an iPhone to travel with, since my basic travel cell phone does not have good camera capabilities, nor does it have internet access.

    One thing I learned the hard way, too, is that in Turkey buying a sim card is easy but getting it to work can be tricky. You have to register your phone, which costs quite a bit, and if you don’t, then the sim card just stops working after a few days (this is NOT something they tell you when you buy this sim, by the way). If you’re staying in Turkey for a long time, buy a Turkish phone so you can more easily use a Turkish sim card.

    Also, I found that it was helpful to buy a more common brand of sim card (like Vodafone, for example) when traveling through a lot of countries because I could recharge it in many places. That was *not* the case when I stupidly got a TIM sim card while in Italy and then couldn’t recharge it anywhere else once I ran out of minutes.

    Generally not a big deal, but that meant when I switched sims to my new Croatian one, I couldn’t easily access half my numbers because they were saved on the other sim. Lesson there: save your numbers to the phone.

    Anyway, this post was really helpful; I always wondered how travel bloggers could afford to be using so much social media on their smart phones internationally. 🙂

  5. Our unlock phone was an essential item for us and it was easy to get our hands on a SIM card in every country we visited. Cheap too.. so totally agree with you – buy as you go plan is the key. 🙂

    1. So MOST phones take “MiniSIMs” These are usually the ones they sell in stores.

      Some new phones (High end Android BB10 iPhone 4/4s) take MicroSims

      The iPhone 5 takes NanoSims.

      All three can be cut down to size.

      I actually took my Mini Sim to a local used phone store and they has a tool to cut it to a Micro sim, but keep the outside, so I could either put it into the “left over plastic” into and older phone or pop it out for an iPhone.

  6. I’m currently trying to suss out how to do this myself. It’s confusing. I’m on Verizon right now with an iPhone 4 (meaning no SIM capabilities). My contract is up for renewal soonish, so I’m debating upgrading to a SIM-compatible phone, getting it unlocked, and then paying to get out of my Verizon plan since I don’t plan to be in the US for a while and I don’t think Verizon has cheap pay-as-you-go plans. The problem is, when you go to a Verizon store to ask questions about this sort of stuff, nobody ever knows what they’re talking about and just try to sell me on a global plan, which I don’t want! Ugh.

    1. If your contract is up for renewal then you should change providers when it is up. As Kate said the best bet for US based pay as you go is t-mobile. It would likely be cheeper to buy a phone from t-mobile at full cost and have them unlock it, than it would be to reup your contract with verizon and pay the termination fee.

    2. I did travel around with two phones at once (unlocked 3GS and locked 4S) for more than a year, which was doable but annoying. I would add up the costs to either wait out your contract or pay the penalty and see what works better with the months when you’re leaving.

  7. I travelled from England to Spain with my mobile contract and I was amazed at how expensive it was to call/text England! Luckily I turned the internet off and just used WIFI otherwise I would have come back to a massive bill!
    I have unlocked my iphone and I’m going to buy pay as you go sims liek you advised when I leave for Asia in 48 hours 🙂

  8. To be honest, I wouldn’t bother with a SIM in Italy unless you luck out and find a shop where someone speaks fluent English. When my friends and I arrived in Milan for study abroad, it was a total nightmare trying to find a SIM that didn’t have any expensive “extras” included (or a salesman who didn’t pretend they were obligatory).

    It’s can also be a paint in the arse to top up Italian SIMS. Either you have to go to the supermarket, keep your receipt, phone the hotline, go through a “Press 1 for X” menu and then type in your short code (hard to navigate the button pressing menu, if you don’t speak Italian). Or you call, and I could not understand a WORD the pre-recorded voices and had to get other people to do it, or go back to the store and puppy dog eye the salesman who had a thing for blondes, despite speaking really good Italian!

    For Italy, I’d take the SIM out your phone (to avoid roaming charges) and rely on wifi (at your hotel, unfortunately public wifi isn’t a thing in Italy without an Italian SIM and registering loads of details) or whatsapp and skype.

  9. I currently have an iPhone 4 with AT&T. Would I need to just get the phone unlocked? Or does unlocking the phone mean that I now have the capability to use a sim card in the phone?

  10. Great advice, I was wondering Kate, about pick pocketing and how to keep your stuff safe while being in a crowd without having to buy one of those hidden belts. If you carry your purse under your arm at all times, would that be fine?

  11. Last summer my sister and I travelled around Europe and I brought my iPhone but didn’t have an international plan- I just downloaded Skype and used that wherever there was Wifi. I never had to pay for internet or phone calls which was nice and used that to contact whoever we need to!

  12. well it depends – whether I am traveling to a modern city or 3rd world. If I am traveling to city like Singapore or Tokyo or Sydney – I normally hunt for free- wi-fi spots and use Skype or Viber for voice/video confs

  13. Hi Kate, you explained everything very nicely. To use the a SIM card I need to unlock my phone first. This will save my money in foreign counties. This blog is really helpful

  14. How good is the service with T-Mobile? I used to have it ages ago then I switched to Verizon and now I’m with Virgin Mobile so I really don’t remember if it was any good. But that $30 plan sounds really appealing….

    1. Hmmm, it’s not great. It was fine in Boston itself, but the suburbs were a mixed bag — worked fine in some destinations, no signal in others. A mixed bag, and I guess you do get what you pay for.

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  17. Nicole Tarnogursky

    Thanks for this post! I am leaving for a round the world trip this week and will be in multiple countries/continents over the next year. Do you have any recommendations for using a global SIM card versus local SIM cards or a U.S. based international plan with T-mobile?

  18. i have a ip6 and ip5 ..going to south africa for 30days ..need to keep in touch in usa with family ….what do u suggest.

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