Travel

The Best International Phone Plans to Avoid Racking Up a Sky-High Bill

Here's what you need to know about international phone plans to avoid being hit with an unexpected bill.

A few years ago, Angelo Tan was on a business trip in Singapore without an international phone plan and in desperate need of getting in touch with a client. "I was in a foreign country with no access to a hotel business center," said Tan. "I also didn't know of any internet cafes in the area, so I did what I thought was the most convenient thing to do—switching on my mobile data to send the important message. It took less than 10 minutes."

Upon returning home, Tan got a $350 phone bill from his provider. "I didn't think I would need an international phone plan when I left since we planned on buying a SIM card in the foreign country," he said. "As luck would have it, I didn't have mine loaded at the time I needed it."

International cellphone bill shock, like the one Tan experienced, remains a problem, said Brandon Ackroyd, head of customer relations at cellphone comparison site Tiger Mobiles. "While frequent travelers seem to know the score on roaming fees, either through research or learning the hard way," he said, "infrequent travelers, especially those going on family holidays with children who are glued to their smartphones, are at risk of receiving an exorbitant bill upon their return." That doesn't have to be the case. Travelers these days have several options when it comes to international phone plans and calling options—the trick is knowing which one will work best for your situation without costing a ton of money.

Traveling abroad with your phone

For most international travelers, keeping their own phone while traveling abroad is non-negotiable. After all, did you really experience Grindavík, Iceland, if you didn't share a snapshot (or eight) of your trip on social media? Luckily, most traditional carriers offer a few international phone plans for existing customers, but you need to carefully read the fine print of what kind of coverage and data speed you get with each plan. "They often provide international service at slow 2G speeds—that means if you're uploading photos to Instagram, it will be painful," said Christine Gallup, founder of busygirltech.

Data can also add up quickly, especially if you're using social media or GPS. Gallup suggests using the Google-run Datally app on your phone before your trip to identify where you use the most data. Get a sense of how much data you might need, and plan to control your usage when you travel. Remember, texting using these international phone plans often refers to texts only, not texts with photo attachments (which will cost you more data). And be sure to turn off all apps after you use them so they don't continue to run in the background. You'll also want to make sure your device works abroad as most new phones do. If you aren't sure, call your service provider to ask, or check using the website Willmyphonework.net.

The best international phone plans

Assuming your phone is capable of being used abroad, here's what you should know about some of the best international phone plans provided by the major carriers.

Verizon TravelPass

Infrequent travelers on qualifying plans who own 4G LTE World devices can likely get by using Verizon's TravelPass.

Price:The monthly cost of your base plan, plus $5 per day per device for calls made in Mexico or Canada. For $10 per day per device, you'll get coverage in 130+ countries.

Talk: The number of minutes you can use on TravelPass is equivalent to the number on your domestic plan.

Text: The number of texts you can send on TravelPass is equivalent to the number on your domestic plan.

Data: High-speed data applies for the first 512 MB per day, with 2 GB of reduced speed after you reach the limit.

Learn more about Verizon's other international services and pricing here.

AT&T International Day Pass

AT&T customers with the Unlimited &More and Unlimited &More Premium plans already receive unlimited talk, text and data in Canada or Mexico. But the International Day Pass comes in handy if they want to travel outside North America.

Price: $70–$80 per month for the base plan; $10 per day for the pass in more than 100 countries where the International Day Pass is available.

Talk: The number of minutes you can use is equivalent to the number on your domestic plan, plus unlimited calls back to the U.S.

Text: The Day Pass provides unlimited texts anywhere in the world at no additional charge.

Data: The same rules and restrictions that apply to data on your domestic plan also apply on the International Day Pass.

Learn more about AT&T's other international services and pricing here.

T-Mobile OnePlus

Travelers who are T-Mobile customers can add unlimited calls to landlines in 70+ countries and mobile lines in 30+ countries, plus unlimited texting, at any time for an additional $15 per month, but the T-Mobile OnePlus plan members really get a chance to shine when outside North America.

Price: The monthly plan costs $85 a month.

Talk: Customers on this plan pay a flat fee of 25 cents a minute for calls in more than 210 countries and destinations where it's available.

Text: Customers receive unlimited texts.

Data: The plan allows travelers unlimited data of speeds up to 256 kbps.

Learn more details about T-Mobile's international plans and pricing here.

Sprint Global Roaming

This carrier doesn't provide a traditional international plan, but it does include Sprint Global Roaming for smartphones that are LTE/GSM-capable (which includes any iPhone after the iPhone 5).

Price: If you have a capable smartphone, Global Roaming is included for free. Customers with other devices, unfortunately, don't have a way to opt in.

Talk: While it depends on the destination, customers can expect to pay 20 cents per minute during a call.

Text: Global Roaming grants unlimited texts for most destinations.

Data: Customers get unlimited data at 2G speeds for free, but they can purchase a data pass to gain speeds of up to 4G. A one-day pass costs $5 in all locations except China (where it costs $10). Get a weeklong pass for $25 for 4G speeds except in China, where customers pay $50.

Learn more about Sprint's international services and fees here.

Skipping international phone plans

International phone plans through a traditional provider aren't the only choice when it comes to staying connected while abroad. Here are details on some other options to consider.

SIM cards

A SIM (subscriber identity module) is the small card that contains a chip that GSM phones need in order to work. You might be able to save money on international calls by swapping your existing SIM card with one from a local operator or one designed specifically for international calling. You can purchase a SIM card online in advance or in your host country.

Where it's popular: Throughout Europe and Southeast Asia

Keep in mind: To use a SIM card in your phone, you'll need a device that's unlocked, which in the U.S. means you own your phone outright, said Gallup. If you're paying it off, the carrier will likely have your phone locked, which means you can't just take another SIM card and use it in your cellphone without first unlocking it. If your phone is locked, you can go through the unlocking process specific to your carrier, or use a third-party service to do it for you. Most phones can be unlocked, but you'll want to do this before you purchase a SIM card. Assuming your phone is or can be unlocked, you'll also want to make sure you understand the regulations governing SIM cards at your destination. "For example, in Norway, you will need your passport to buy a local SIM card at a shop and have it activated," said Ackroyd. "You are best off doing this at a phone store rather than a convenience store, as staff don't always know how to process international customers."

Who it's best for: Only people with unlocked phones can use this option. Figure this out before your trip—as well as where you'll purchase your SIM card locally or if it's a better option to purchase one beforehand—to avoid any hassles.

Options to consider: Ackroyd recommends the OneSimCard International prepaid SIM Card, which starts at $29.95 for two numbers in Europe, the U.S., Canada, the U.K. or Australia, and it includes $10 for talk, text and data. The WorldSIM International SIM Card is another solid choice, as you can pick from four starting amounts of credit with the ability to add more as you need it. Travelers heading to Europe should also consider Lycamobile, which is widely available. "You will see signs in a lot of shops for Lycamobile, and getting set up is very easy," he said. "Even smaller towns and cities will sell them in convenience stores."

Pocket Wi-Fi

These portable Wi-Fi routers, often called a pocket Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi egg, are small enough to carry around and allow users to get a secure and fast connection on multiple devices from wherever they are.

Where it's popular: Ackroyd said this type of connection is often popular with travelers going on road trips who need internet access from anywhere while driving.

Keep in mind: Unless you're traveling with several people and everyone wants to split the cost, you likely won't get the best deal using this type of connection, Gallup said. You're also generally stuck with a specific carrier through the device you buy, which could be limiting.

Who it's best for: People traveling in groups or need to connect multiple devices.

Options to consider: Ackroyd likes Keepgo, which starts with a lifetime 4G LTE mobile Wi-Fi hotspot with 1 GB of data included for up to 10 devices for $99, and it goes up from there.

Free Wi-Fi hotspot

If you can stomach the idea of only using your phone at set times and places, using a free Wi-Fi hotspot on your travels can save you a lot of money.

Where it's popular: Across all of Europe and some places in Asia. "I traveled across Europe this summer, and virtually every café or public place I ventured had free Wi-Fi," Ackroyd said. "U.K., Norway, Denmark, Germany, Croatia, Prague, Lithuania, Switzerland—the availability was second-to-none."

Keep in mind: If you do go this route, remember to never share sensitive information over a public connection, which are unsecured networks, said Ackroyd. You'll also want to be careful, especially in tourist areas, of hackers who set up imposter Wi-Fi networks with names that are extremely similar to the actual one being provided in an effort to steal data. "Datally can help you find the nearest locations with free Wi-Fi and whether or not it's secure," said Gallup.

Who it's best for: People who don't need continuous Wi-Fi.

Options to consider: Often offered through hotels, hostels or internet cafes.

International cellphone rental

Rather than using your own cellphone on your travels, there's always the option to rent a used cellphone when you arrive at your destination.

Where it's popular: According to Ackroyd, this is a dying market with few options once you're abroad.

Keep in mind: Most people use their phones for social media when traveling these days, and if you end up renting an older model, it's likely your phone won't have the capabilities to provide high-speed access for those types of apps, said Gallup.

Who it's best for: People with locked phones who don't want to pay for international calling options through their provider, or people who are afraid of damage or theft to their own personal phone.

Options to consider: If you really want to go this route, Ackroyd suggests buying a smartphone from Amazon for anywhere from $20 to $100. "Why rent one for $5 per day when you can buy one outright for $50?" he said.

How to avoid data roaming

Even if you've picked an international phone plan, some of the most resourceful travel hackers still can get caught off-guard with the wrong phone settings. The best thing to do, if you're worried about data roaming charges, is to keep your phone on its airplane mode when you don't need to use it, said Gallup. Another alternative: Go into your network settings and turn off the roaming option.

Traveling is a wonderful experience, but it's often not without its stresses. Getting charged ridiculous fees for brief communication shouldn't be one of them.

Cheryl Lock

Cheryl Lock is a writer who specializes in personal finance topics relating to parenting, real estate and travel, among others. Her work has appeared online at Money, USA Today and Forbes, as well as in national publications like Parents, Woman's Day and Family Circle.