Planning a trip abroad? Whether you plan to use Google Maps for navigation, stay in touch with friends and family, or if you absolutely HAVE to upload that gorgeous picture of the sunset on the beach to Instagram (like, right now!), it’s never been more important to have an active mobile connection when traveling.
Everyone knows that international roaming charges for calls and data, in particular, are extremely expensive and definitely not worth the hassle. Luckily, relatively affordable alternatives are available in the form of travel SIM cards, international roaming packs for your network carrier, or by exploring local options. Here’s everything you need to know!
Before you go
There are a couple of factors to keep in mind before you leave for your travel adventure. The first is that you’ll need an unlocked device to use a travel or local SIM card. So if you’re smartphone is locked to your carrier’s network, there are a few more things you’ll have to do.
You’ll either need to get it unlocked or opt for an international plan offered by your carrier. Every network in the U.S. has a device unlock policy and various eligibility requirements – a minimum number of days on the network, no unpaid bills, and more – that you’ll have to meet. The unlocking process has become quicker and easier, but you should definitely start the process a week, if not longer, before your trip starts.
The second thing is that you’ll likely need a GSM-compatible smartphone. There are two types of mobile networks in the U.S. — CDMA and GSM. The former is used by Sprint and Verizon, while the latter is used by AT&T and T-Mobile. Of course, this has become less of an issue now, at least with Verizon smartphones, with most modern CDMA devices from the carrier being capable of GSM SIM cards.
If you are planning to go the local SIM card route, which is also generally the best and most affordable option, making sure that your device will work is extremely important. WillMyPhoneWork remains a useful resource to check this, even though the site isn’t very up to date. However, this is also becoming less of an issue with a lot of smartphones released over the last couple of years featuring global band compatibility.
The best international travel SIM cards
OneSimCard has three SIM card plans available – Universal, Expedition, and Europe & More. Outgoing calls start at $0.29 per minute, while data costs as low as $0.01 per MB — bi-weekly and monthly packages are available. However, pricing depends on where you’re traveling to, so do check the rates before making the purchase as they can become quite expensive.
All SIM cards include $10 of balance for talk, text, and data. You’ll also have to pay for shipping if your order doesn’t exceed $50. The Universal SIM card is priced at $39.95. If you’re traveling to the old continent, the OneSimCard Europe & More might be a better option. What makes it different than the Universal SIM card is that it “only” works in 70 countries and is cheaper. Also, some outgoing calls are more affordable, starting at $0.25 per minute.
This travel SIM works in more than 200 countries around the globe with free incoming calls in 118 of them. It has a UK and U.S. number and you can also add your personal number or a local number as well. The card itself is free of charge and comes pre-loaded with either $26, $38.50, $64, or $128 of credit, which you can spend on calls, text, and data.
Prices vary depending on the country. For instance, calls from the U.S. to Spain cost $0.22 per minute, a text will set you back $0.08, while 1MB of data goes for $0.23. If you’re traveling to Australia, you’ll have to pay $0.21 per minute to call back home, $0.08 to send an SMS, and $0.21 for each MB of data you download — check out all prices here.
You can also add additional data bundles to the SIM card (up to 4GB), which are valid for a period of 30 days and may be the cheaper option if you plan to use a lot of data. For example, if you are going to Spain, you can get up to 4GB of data for $38. Again, the price does vary significantly so make sure you check the rates here. And once you run out of credits, you can add more via your credit card or PayPal account.
GigSky SIM card
Unlike the travel SIM cards mentioned so far, GigSky’s is only good for accessing the web. That means you won’t be able to make calls or send messages, unless you do so via VOIP apps like Whatsapp and Messenger. The card retails for $9 and is easy to set up. Insert it into your device, download the GigSky app to configure and activate it, and purchase a data plan.
Pricing depends on the destination: in Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America, and North America, you can get up to 5GB of data for 30 days for $50. However, in the Middle East or Africa, you only get 1GB of data for the same price. You can check out all the plans and prices here.
International phone plans
Project Fi is a great carrier, even though it has a few limitations like how it only runs on select devices. One of the best things about Fi? Its international rates. Simply put, Fi offers flat-rate data no matter what country you travel to, as long as it’s within its supported list of over 200 countries. That means you’ll pay $10 per gig regardless of where you go. You’re calling is also automatically included, priced at $0.2 per minute, while texting is free. For more details on Fi, you’ll want to head here.
Big Red’s Go Unlimited, Beyond Unlimited, and Above Unlimited plans include unlimited talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada. However, data is throttled to 2G speeds after downloading 512MB in a given day.
Verizon is also offering an option called TravelPass. It costs $10 per day for those heading to one of the 185 countries you can check out here. If you have the Above Unlimited plan, you also get 5 free TravelPasses each month. Talk, text, and data are based on your domestic plan’s allowance, but the speeds get throttled to 2G after the first 512MB each day.
There are also a few monthly plans available starting at $70 per device for those traveling overseas — see more details here.
The carrier is offering a Global Roaming option you can add to your Sprint account to get texting and data on 2G speeds for free — calls are charged at $0.25 per minute.
You can increase the data speeds by opting for Sprint’s High-Speed Data Roaming Pass that’s valid for 24 hours or a week. Pricing in most countries is set at $5 per day and $25 per week, although it can be higher or lower depending on where you’re traveling to.
Additionally, Sprint is offering International Data Pack, which gets you 40MB or 85MB of data in most countries around the globe for $40 or $80 per month. Pricing for Canada and Mexico starts at $30 — see details here. However, the very limited data and high monthly cost mean that this is definitely not a good option to go for.
If you’re on AT&T’s Unlimited Plus or Unlimited Choice plan, you can already call, text, and use data in Canada and Mexico without additional charges. If you’re not, or plan on traveling to a different country, you have two options available.
The first is the International Day Pass. It lets you make calls, send texts, and use data in over 100 countries within your plan’s allowance for $10 per day. The second is called the Passport and offers 1GB of data and free texting for $60 and up to 3GB of data for $120. The plan is valid for 30 days and can be used in 200 countries across the globe. You’ll still have to pay extra to make calls, though, charged at $0.35 per minute.
The carrier is offering those subscribed to the T-Mobile One, Simple Choice, New Classic, and Select Choice plans unlimited data and texting in more than 210 countries. You still have to pay for calls, which will set you back $0.25 per minute. But keep in mind that the download speed is capped at 128 kbps. You can bump it up to 256 kbps for $15 a month, which also gets you unlimited calls in certain countries, unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi if you’re on a plane that uses Gogo, and more.
Customers with ualifying plans (including T-Mobile One, Essentials, and Simple Choice) can also by an International Pass for $5 per day that will give allow for LTE speeds for up to 512MB per day, as well as unlimited calling.
Look for local options when going abroad
All the international travel SIM cards and network carrier roaming plans mentioned above are great options, as you can set them up before you go on vacation and connect online as soon as you land. However, you can also opt for a prepaid SIM card from one of the carriers based in the country you’re visiting. This will almost always offer more bang for the buck.
If you’re vacationing in Italy, for example, you could opt for a travel SIM card sold by the Italian carrier TIM. It offers 15GB of data and 200 minutes of national and international calls for €20 (around $23), which is a fantastic deal. You can find similar tourist-specific SIM cards from a lot of networks in most countries. All you need is your passport and some places may also require an address. If a tourist-only plan isn’t available, most carriers will allow you to subscribe to its standard prepaid plans, which might be even cheaper.
What is important here is to do the research before hand. Apart from figuring out network compatibility for your smartphone, you can also find out which local networks offer the best tourist-friendly prepaid plans, how the coverage is (if you plan to be on the road a lot), and how easy it will be to pick up a SIM card.
A quick Google search will tell you whether the airport you are arriving in has network carrier kiosks in the arrival lounge, and it’s great if it does. If it doesn’t, I usually subscribe to a daily international pack (similar to the International Day Pass from U.S. network carriers) that gives me around 500MB of data and a 100 minutes of local calls.
This is more than enough data book an Uber or other online cab services, or pick up the car rental and use Google Maps to navigate. My first stop with the latter is often the closest local network carrier store. In a few cases, you can order a SIM card online and have it shipped to your hotel.
Bottomline – International travel SIM cards like those mentioned above are good, and having an international roaming pack is useful in a pinch. However, getting a pre-paid SIM card from a local network while abroad will often yield the best deals. Just do as much research as you can ahead of time to ensure that you get connected as quickly as possible.
Travel SIM cards, international plans, and local options- Conclusion
There are have it — these are some of the travel SIM cards and international plan options you can choose from for your next travel adventure, which will keep you connected online and in touch with your family back home on the cheap. Ultimately though, getting a local SIM card may be your best option.
Would you rather go with a travel SIM card or an international plan offered by your carrier? Or do you think that getting a local SIM is the best way to go? Let us know in the comments.