Planning to leave the United States for a trip abroad? You will definitely need one or more travel SIM cards or to check in with your U.S.-based carrier before you head out to ensure you won’t face any connection issues while you’re away.
Whether you plan to use Google Maps for navigation, other apps stay in touch with friends and family, or if you absolutely need 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 few things to keep in mind before you leave on your travel adventure. The first is that, if you plan to use travel SIM cards on your trip, you’ll need an unlocked device to do so. If your current smartphone is locked to your carrier’s network and you don’t own a secondary unlocked device, you will need to address this problem.
For your carrier-locked phone, you’ll either need to get it unlocked or opt for an international plan offered by your carrier (and not use travel SIM cards). Every network in the U.S. has a device unlock policy with various eligibility requirements, such as a minimum number of days on the network, no unpaid bills, etc. The unlocking process has become quicker and easier over the years, but you should definitely start the process as soon as possible, as it could take weeks before your device is officially unlocked.
You'll need an unlocked phone to use different SIM cards abroad. If not, you'll need an international plan from your carrier or you'll need to buy a second phone.
If you can’t or don’t want to unlock your phone, you will be stuck with just two options: pay for an international plan through your carrier (if available), or buy a second phone.
Whether you get your current phone unlocked or buy a second phone, the phone you’ll use with your travel SIM cards will need to be GSM-compatible. 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. The rest of the world almost exclusively uses GSM networks, so you’ll need a GSM phone once you leave the country. Most modern CDMA devices are also GSM-compatible, but it is essential you check before you head out.
This is especially important if you are planning to go the local SIM card route, which is also generally the best and most affordable option. WillMyPhoneWork remains a useful resource to check if your phone is GSM-ready.
The best international travel SIM cards
OneSIMCard has three travel SIM cards available – Universal, Expedition, and Europe & More. Outgoing calls start at $0.25 per minute, while data costs as low as $0.01 per MB with bi-weekly and monthly packages 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 the company’s SIM cards include a free $10 balance for talk, text, and data. However, you’ll need to pay for the card itself as well as for shipping if your total order doesn’t exceed $50. All the SIM cards come in three sizes — mini, micro, and nano — so it is practically guaranteed to fit your GSM-compatible phone.
The Universal SIM card is priced at $29.95 at the moment, with a usual price of $39.95. The Universal SIM card gets you covered in over 200 countries with 4G speeds in over 50 of those countries. This is the best option if you are traveling a lot from one country to another or if you want the top speeds available.
If you’re traveling to the old continent, the OneSimCard Europe & More might be a better option. What makes it different from the Universal SIM card is that it only works in 70 countries and you won’t get 4G speeds. The card itself is cheaper though, at just $19.95.
Finally, the Expedition SIM card gets you covered in over 200 countries but not at 4G speeds. This card is better suited for tablets, laptops, or other non-smartphone devices, as the Universal SIM will be better overall for smartphones.
WorldSIM’s business model is slightly different from OneSIMCard. The card itself is free of charge and you pre-load it with either $30, $45, $75, or $150 of credit, which you can spend on calls, text, and data. Your credit is valid for one year.
As with the Universal card from OneSIMCard, WorldSIM travel SIM cards work in more than 200 countries and offer 4G speeds in some of those areas. It comes with two free numbers (one for the U.K. and one for the U.S.), and you can also add your personal number or a local number as well.
Prices for calls, data, and text vary depending on the country you are in and the country you are contacting. For instance, calls from Spain to the United States cost $0.22 per minute and a text will set you back $0.08 each, while 1MB of data goes for $0.23. If you’re traveling to Australia, you’ll need 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.
Instead of paying for data as you go, you can add data bundles to the SIM card (up to 4GB), which are valid for a period of 30 days. These might be a cheaper option if you plan to use a lot of data. For example, if you are going to Greece, you can get up to 4GB of data for $45 with a bundle, whereas paying per MB would cost you $400 if you used 4GB during your stay. 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 or Facebook Messenger. The card retails for $10 and is easy to set up: insert it into your device, download the GigSky app to configure and activate it, and then 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.
Best international phone plans
Google Fi is a great carrier, even though it has a few limitations such as 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 which country you travel to, as long as that country is on Fi’s supported list of over 200 countries.
That means you’ll pay $10 per gigabyte regardless of where you go. Your phone calls are also automatically included, priced at $0.20 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. If you travel to a country other than Mexico or Canada, you will need to pay roaming charges.
To avoid those roaming charges, Verizon offers 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 five 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.
All Sprint plans come with a Global Roaming option which gives you texts and data at 2G speeds in over 200 countries 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 to which countries you’re traveling. For example, a roaming pass in Canada or Mexico only costs $2 per 24 hours or $10 per week.
The Sprint plan is nice because it doesn’t require much thought if you don’t need high-speed data. No matter where you are in the world, you’ll get free texts and all the low-speed data you need!
If you’re on one of AT&T’s Unlimited & More or Unlimited & More Premium plans, 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 for $10 per day per device. The second is called Passport and offers 1GB of data and free texting for $60 and up to 3GB of data for $120 per month per device. The plan is valid for 30 days and can be used in 200 countries across the globe. You’ll still need to pay extra to make calls, though, charged at $0.35 per minute.
Be careful with the Passport plan. If you go over your data limit, AT&T will charge you a whopping $50 overage fee for each GB of data you use after your limit. Ouch.
T-Mobile offers anyone subscribed to the T-Mobile Magenta and Magenta Plus plans unlimited data and texting in more than 210 countries. You still need to pay for calls, which will set you back $0.25 per minute. But keep in mind that the download speed is capped at 128Kbps for the Magenta plan and 512Kbps for Magenta Plus — hardly the high-speed LTE you enjoy at home.
Customers with qualifying plans can also buy an International Pass for $5 per day that will 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 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 4G data and 200 minutes of national and international calls for 20 euros (~$23) per month, 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 to sign up for most of these plans.
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.
If you're going to be in one place for a while, the local carriers will likely offer the best deals.
What is important here is to do the research beforehand. 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. If it doesn’t, in many cases you can order a SIM card online and have it shipped to your hotel or just stop by a local carrier store once you get out of the airport.
The bottom line is that international travel SIM cards like those mentioned above are good, and having an international roaming pack from your U.S. carrier 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.
Best travel SIM cards and international plans — You tell us!
You might be a frequent international traveler and have some interesting out-of-the-box ideas for how best to deal with smartphone data plans while you’re not at home in the United States. Hit up the comments below and give us your best tips!