Traveling Abroad With Your Smartphone: Three Ways to Cut Data Costs
Here’s the best way to get robbed when traveling abroad: Turn on your smartphone the moment your plane lands, and start browsing Facebook. The very moment you connect, your U.S. mobile carrier will start charging you absurd international data fees.
Unless you’ve planned ahead.
Your options are complicated, and each approach requires certain sacrifices: Cost, or time-consuming set-up, or another gadget to lug around while you’re sightseeing. But if you don’t want a nasty surprise in your mobile bill when you get home, you need to pick one. Here they are:
Option 1: Modify Your Current Phone Carrier Plan
Most major phone carriers offer an optional travel plan, of sorts. Some of these come in prepaid voice and data packages that you can buy before you travel. These plans usually detail the cost of a text or how much you’ll pay per minute for a phone call, but things get murkier when it comes to data. And data is what you need to post a photo to Instagram, to video chat with someone, or stream music, or search for the address of the Eiffel Tower. Depending on what you’re doing with your phone, you can end up using a lot of data, and that can cost a fortune if your plan doesn’t cover away-from-home or “roaming” coverage.
That’s why anyone with T-Mobile lucks out. Its Simple Plan is a fantastic option. For $50 a month, you get unlimited talk, text and data at home, and—for no extra charge—unlimited data and text in over 120 countries (many of which are common vacation destinations). You can also set up a temporary data plan for cruises. None of these plans require a yearly contract, so you could theoretically use the simple plan on an old phone for the month and then cancel it when you return with no penalty.
T-Mobile’s unlimited global data speeds are limited, though, so video streaming or video chatting may not work on its basic plans. If you want to get around that, you can buy one of the company’s high-speed data passes. They go for $15 for a one-day 100 megabyte pass and $50 for a 14-day 500 megabyte pass. That’s a lot of cash for not that much data, but it is an option.
AT&T’s International data plan is much less of a deal. It’s sold separately from its talk and text options and starts at $30 per every 120MB.
120MB gets gobbled up quick. Video calls are pretty much out of the question, as just ten minutes takes about 24 MB. Though sending emails with just text leaves a negligible data footprint, just one high-resolution photo in a message can use anywhere from 2 to 5 MB. And uploading a photo from Instagram online is 1 to 5 MB. Those little things can add up quickly.
Verizon users get even less. Its “Global Data” plan, which is separate from its voice and text plans, costs $25 per every 100 MB. Sprints plans depend on the country, and are even less kind, if you can imagine.
If you’re not a T-Mobile user, you might want to become one for the duration of your trip, using a cheap or spare phone. You won’t be able to transfer your number, but if you give your temporary contact information to friends and family, that shouldn’t be a problem.
If you’re constantly going abroad, and wouldn’t mind buying a dumbphone dedicated solely to that, a company called Mobal offers service in over 190 countries for no monthly fee. After you pay (a very small price) for the phone, you only pay as and when you make the calls. It’s a good option for serious world travelers; you can use your smartphone on WiFi (with the cellular turned off) for data when you need it.