How to Get International Cell Phone Coverage on the Cheap

Having a smartphone in your pocket while traveling abroad is like toting around a security blanket. It makes us feel safe in places where we're the stranger. Not sure how to find the hostel? Cue up Google Maps. Need to call a friend for advice? Open up your contacts. Have to check your work email? No WiFi necessary.

All of these basic but important tasks can become a hassle — or, at the least, more expensive than usual— if you haven't planned ahead. Before you leave the country next, consider ValuePenguin's steps and strategies for ensuring you can use your phone abroad, both economically and easily.

Strategies that Work Across All Carriers

First, remember that amid the sights and sounds of a foreign country, you’re unlikely to be buried in your phone’s internet browser. Therefore, it’s wise to disable international data roaming, which can increase your costs. 

Second, before leaving the country, determine if those you expect to call have an account with the popular WhatsApp service. If they're not familiar with this incredible all-in-one solution, ask them to take a moment and set up an account, as they'll need one for you to contact them with the app. This easy bit of technology works internationally. You can call or text family and friends using your phone’s Internet connection thereby circumventing expensive international call charges. The app operates on both Android and iPhone operating systems. 

Finally, turn off your 3G or 4G service and cellular data when you leave. Use only Wi-Fi services to keep costs minimal. If you plan on using an iPhone, consider the FaceTime feature. You can enable "voice only," which connects two iPhone users via the Internet. Coupled with a Wi-Fi location, this is an easy and inexpensive option for most of us. 

Carriers with Strong International Options

If you’re in a position to choose a carrier based on your penchant for travel, start with the T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan. This option offers simplicity and affordability.  Users can talk in 120 countries for 20 cents a minute. Texting and 2G data are unlimited, meaning that you can use the mapping function on your phone if you’re in an unfamiliar city abroad. Those anticipating high-speed data needs can opt for the added cost (though still reasonable) of additional megabytes. This plan puts users at ease by avoiding any international roaming charges.

For those who want to stick to a budget and use a prepaid option, MetroPCS is among the more cost-efficient options. Their World Calling option offers availability in most countries for just an additional $10 per month above the base rate. For this reasonable fee, users get 200 minutes of talk, 200 texts and 200 MB of data. The geographical coverage is substantial, but be sure to check that your particular destination is covered before committing to the plan.

The SIM Card Route

Opt for the SIM card solution if you're short on time or traveling to a country that isn't covered by other plans. You can pick one up at your destination in a vending machine at an airport or train station. In some countries, this is an affordable and fast option.

However, if you're not conversant in the local language or you don't want to start your arrival with a hunt, this isn't the best option. Additionally, those calling you will not be able to reach you. You’ll need to share your new local number with anyone who wants to contact you back in your home country.

To be prepared immediately in your new environs, consider purchasing a SIM appropriate before leaving. One easy way to do this is through CellularAbroad. For $29.95, you can buy a SIM card for your particular destination. You’ll pay approximately 24 cents per minute after exhausting the $10 initial credit. Incoming texts and calls are free and unlimited. Customer service is 24/7 and getting started is relatively easy. Doing all of this in advance allows you to test the setup and avoid headaches when you land.

Renting a Phone

Rent a travel-enabled phone if you want a no-fuss solution that's ready to go at the press of a button. Renting is a surprisingly good choice for those that don't want the hassle of understanding SIM cards, talking to customer service agents or signing up for new, confusing plans. This service also comes from CellularAbroad via The National Geographic company. A one-week and two-weeks rental will cost $56 and $112, respectively. When accounting for all the other expenses associated with the more involved solutions above, these are reasonable rates.

These phones work in 200 countries and offer free, unlimited incoming calls and text messages. Three plans are available, basic, deluxe and iPhone. Even the most tech-dependent user will find the basic model to be a suitable option. The flip-phone design is outdated but serves the purposes of anyone who wishes to keep in touch easily while abroad. There are no contracts or hidden fees, and the phone comes to you set up and ready for use as soon as you arrive. 

Like CellularAbroad, travel phone company Mobal offers a basic phone equipped for use in 190 countries for as little as $29. The site allows users to see what they’ll pay on a cents-per-minute basis for using the phone in whatever country they choose from the drop down box. For example, the "basic" European option will run you 80 cents a minute when calling from France. These rates vary significantly from one country to another. However, there are some great deals to be had. Mobal also offers SIM cards only for as little as $9.

Travel is meant to be relaxing and enriching. Don’t choose an option that is going to frustrate you or occupy much of your time. If a slightly more expensive choice offers a stress-free solution, go for it. In many cases, your use abroad will only be a fraction of what we’re accustomed to during the normal, ever-connected workweek. 

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