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Traveling Abroad With Your Smartphone: Three Ways to Cut Data Costs

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
June 11, 2014
Traveling Abroad With Your Smartphone: Three Ways to Cut Data Costs
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.

Our recommendation: T-Mobile is the best international smartphone carrier for consumers, for email, texting and web browsing. It’s not so good for videochat or streaming.

Option 2: Stick a Sim In It

SIM cards are smart microchips that carry a unique ID number and store personal data. Not all phones have them, but the modern majority do. In the U.S. we have mobile phones using two main types of carrier technologies: CDMA and GSM. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA and AT&T, T-Mobile and pretty much the rest of the world are on GSM. Anyone who wants to use a prepaid SIM card abroad will need a GSM supported device. Otherwise nothing will happen when you stick the little microchip in your phone. There are a few CDMA phones that have SIM card slots. To find out which carrier technology your company uses, consult this chart, or ask your provider directly.

But there’s more! Your mobile carrier might have locked your phone so it can’t accept another company’s SIM card. You may have to ask your current provider to “unlock” your phone. They may refuse, especially if you have a newer phone and are still paying it off in your contact. 

If you are able to use a SIM card, you can buy one at any phone store at your destination. (International SIMs are more expensive in America). Just be warned that activation instructions will likely be in the native language of the country you’re visiting. I speak from my study abroad experience in Lyon, France when I say that basic language skills may not be adequate enough for this task. Don’t attempt to set it up in the privacy of your own hotel room. Instead, ask a representative at the store (or your hotel’s concierge) to guide you. Even if they can only speak a little English, they’ll probably know what you want and oblige.

And once you get it set up, you’ll have a local number for your stay there. Anyone who calls or texts you from the United States will likely have to pay international rates, but that’s not really your problem. 

The short version: SIM cards are a great option if you can speak the language abroad or find a native speaker to help. But if you don’t want the hassle, consider a hotspot.

Option 3: Get Your Own Personal Wi-Fi

The wonderful thing about Wi-Fi? It gives you access to data, texting (through services like GroupMe or WhatsApp), and calling (throughGoogle VoiceTalkatoneSkype, or Facetime audio), all through one medium. Some services, like Voxer, even provide all three. Which is why setting up a temporary personal hotspot is worth it for serious data users.

Boingo, a company that has over 1 million hotspots worldwide, is a well known provider with a good track record. For $7.95 a month, you can get worldwide Wi-Fi on up to four mobile devices. It’s a recurring subscription, but you can cancel it when you return with no penalty. Be sure to see what the coverage is like in the location you’re visiting here. Some are better covered than others. 

PC Mag also has a good list of some of the best mobile hotspots by carrier. Costs for this equipment can get expensive without a contract, and you also have to consider the fact that you’ll have to sling around yet another gadget in your bag all day, but it might be a good long-term investment if you’re traveling abroad a lot for work.

There is a downside to using hotspots: though your data won’t be affected, real-time voice calls might be dropped more easily. In this case, your connectivity relies on the particular hotspot you’re linked to. When you move around, your phone will switch from hotspot to hotspot. This will cause your calls to be dropped. Stay put when you’re talking. 

The short version: If you’ve got an especially intimate relationship with your phone or tablet, opt for a hotspot. It’s worth the $8.

And that’s the thick of it! If you haven’t already gathered, it’s important to plan before you go. Bon voyage, and may the Internet be with you.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.