The Best Cellphone Service for International Travelers

Posted By Trav


The more I travel internationally, the more annoyed I get each time I return home and am faced with paying an exorbitantly large cellphone bill.  

Because I’m home often enough, I can’t just cancel the plan straight up.  A US cellphone, for better or worse, is necessary for me.

But after being away for a large chunk of the month, or sometimes even the whole month, why should I have to pay the same amount of money as someone else if I’ve only used my phone a fraction of the amount?

I’m throwing money down the drain, and it’s constantly irked me.  But unfortunately, because I needed to keep a US cellphone, I was stuck, a slave to Sprint.

Until now!

Enter Chris, the brains behind the terrific site Mr. Everyday Dollar and avid EPoP reader.  When he mentioned to me that there was a much cheaper, much better options, my ears perked up.  

As he began to give me more and more details, my smile grew wider and wider.  Chris had finally give me the answer to my “throwing money away” cellphone woes.

The best part:  while Chris’s “secret weapon” is especially beneficial for people who frequently travel overseas, it can actually save money for anyone, even people who never set foot outside of US soil.

I’ll let Chris take it away…


If you travel internationally you probably fall into one of two camps when it comes to connectivity.

The first camp – incidentally, my group of folks – is when you tell your friends and family, “I’m going on vacation, don’t contact me!” and power off your phone for two weeks on the way to the airport.

The second camp, increasingly popular, is when you find yourself breathing into a paper bag a few days before your trip, your mind racing with thoughts on how you’ll stay connected.

Suspending Service

If your preference is to tuck your phone away when you travel, you may want to suspend your service to save some dollars on your monthly bill.

The top three U.S. carriers – AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint – will allow you to suspend your service, but unfortunately it may not be worth it because they all charge ridiculous fees to do so.

Thankfully, there may be a better way.

Consider Switching to Ting

Ting is a wireless service provider that utilizes Sprint’s network. They’re unique because they allow you to pick your plan based on what “size” service you think you’ll use, from XS to XXL, as shown below:

The awesome thing about Ting is that they’ll automatically bump you up or down in “size” based on what you actually use during the month.  

Paying for what you ACTUALLY use; what a novel idea!

Many folks who sign up choose to pick XS across the board, forcing Ting to bump them up in size as they use minutes, messages and data over the course of a month.

Ting is a great option for travelers who don’t plan to roam with their phone abroad: because their usage will be lighter than normal they’ll automatically save money.

Additionally, if you’re traveling for months at a time and won’t be using any services, you have three great options with Ting:

  1. Suspend your device – the phone will be deactivated but the number will stay active, and you’ll only be billed an active device fee of $6 a month.
  2. Do nothing – if you really won’t have any usage, you’ll be billed the $6 a month for an active device.
  3. Cancel your account – Ting is a no-contract service so you can cancel your account at no-cost. The downside is that you’ll lose your phone number, which to some people might not matter.

Overall, Ting is a great service with awesome customer support, and many users would save money by switching. Swing on over to Mr. Everyday Dollar to learn advanced Ting techniques and to save $25 off new service or devices.

Staying Connected When Abroad

Now that we’ve figured out the best, cheapest cellphone option for when you’re home in the US, what about options for staying connected with friends and family (and possibly even work) while you’re abroad?

If you plan to stay connected while traveling abroad, there are a few techniques that will allow you to communicate back home and leave you with some extra money to enjoy your vacation.

Free WiFi

You’ll find you won’t pay a dime to talk to friends and family back home if you take advantage of free WiFi – available at coffee shops, hotels, and hostels, amongst others – and use apps that let you communicate over the internet.

Voice Calls

There are two great options to place voice, or video, calls for free over that free WiFi:

  1. Google Voice – allows you to make free voice calls to regular numbers. Calls can be made from a tablet or laptop through Gmail or the Google Voice website. You can claim a free domestic phone number and use it when you travel to call back home, or you can port your current number to Google Voice and then forward it to your phone.
  2. Skype –  offers the ability to make free calls from a phone, tablet, or laptop as long as both users are on Skype.


Like calls, there are a few awesome ways you can message your contacts completely free:

  1. Google Voice – allows you to send and receive traditional text messages through Gmail, the Google Voice website, or the app that’s available for iOS and Android devices.
  2. WhatsApp – recently acquired by Facebook, is the easiest messaging app to get started with. It works by scanning your contacts for others that use the service. Chatting is speedy, plus you can send short recorded voice messages, videos, and photos which is perfect for travelers! There’s other popular messaging apps – WeChat, Kik, Line, Telegram – but they’re underwhelming in comparison.
  3. Viber – has many of the same messaging options as WhatsApp but offers free voice calls if both users are on the app.

Using a SIM card

While using free voice and messaging apps over free WiFi may meet your connectivity needs, a nice complement is to buy and use a SIM card. A little chip that you insert into your phone when you’re abroad, they’re available for $5-$20 and usually include minutes and data.

Having a phone to use locally in a foreign country can be extremely useful to make calls for things like reservations and tickets, and to be able to use Google Maps to help navigate a city, although getting lost can be fun too!

The Bottom Line

If you are person that wants to disconnect from your normal day-to-day life when you travel, by choosing a flexible and inexpensive provider like Ting you’ll save money off your monthly bill.

If you choose to, you can still stay in touch with people back home by taking advantage of free WiFi and services like Google Voice and apps like WhatsApp.

Happy (frugal) trails!

What cellphone service do you currently use?  Are you eyeing a switch to Ting?  How much would it roughly save you?  It will most likely switch me at least $25 per month!

Chris runs the blog Mr. Everyday Dollar, which publishes practical articles for people striving to improve their personal finances. Individuals and families can use his tips, tutorials, and resources to make decisions on how to budget, save, invest and spend for the long haul. He’s also a big fan of Clark’s Desert Boots.  Connect with him on Twitter @MrEverydayDolla or Facebook.


  1. Jerry Mandel says:

    AARP will lend its members a cell phone to use in foreign travel.

    1. Trav says:

      @Jerry Mandel- Do you have to pay for this at all? Do you have a link where people can check this out?

      1. Interesting! I looked for information on AARP lending cell phones and couldn’t find it, please share!

  2. JJR says:

    I was struggling with this for years. Until last October when T-Mobile came out with their Simple Choice plan. You have unlimited roaming in over 100 countries. Free global texting and if you need to call local number it will cost you 20c/min. If I need to call US I just use WiFi calling (free). Or you could use any of the above mentioned free apps. The best part: free 500 MB data plan abroad. Comes with the cheapest plan ($50/mo). And I just got email yesterday that they are making the plan even better: free 500MB 4G tethering will be included in the plans. I am ecstatic to have this plan. I just came from Canada and was roaming for almost 2 months, using GPS, texting, calling local numbers and my T-Mobile cell bill stayed almost the same as if I was in the US. Read more here: http://www.t-mobile.com/simple-choice-international-plans.html
    Love this plan! The best plan for international traveler.

    1. Trav says:

      @JJR- So for unlimited texting and 500 mb of data, you pay $50/month? Also, my one reservation is that T-Mobile’s service in the US itself is pretty lousy, is it not? I had them a while back and ALWAYS had dropped calls. Maybe they’ve improved?

    2. With T-Mobile, if you text someone internationally (say US to Europe), isn’t it of limited use because the recipient would likely pay a high cost to respond with a text from Europe back to the US?

      1. Jerry Mandel says:

        So, only text information-not a question which needs a response.

        1. Trav says:

          @Jerry Mandel- That’s one option, but…how often does that happen? I’d prefer to have something where I could have some free reign and not worry about getting charged later.

  3. Tim says:

    or you can use Tmobile’s new plans where they allow you unlimited roaming for talk/text/data. Seems like a more convenient solution to me. I’m planning to switch to it when my contract ends

    1. Trav says:

      @Tim- Yeah, this is an interesting concept. It’s still $50 a month though, which is not bad, but depending on usage, Ting could be much cheaper. Also, how is T-Mobile’s coverage in the US and other countries, do you know?

      It’s definitely more convenient. I’m wondering how it stacks up with going Ting when at home and just getting a SIM when in other countries though.

  4. Ken says:

    Aww man, I was hoping you’d have tips for the best services to use while you’re actually overseas. I haven’t started researching that yet, but I know we’ll have to buy an unlocked GSM phone since ours are both Virgin Mobile phones that don’t work overseas. Still too busy trying to plan and book hotels right now though.

    1. Trav says:

      @Ken- I just go with getting a SIM in that country.

      1. Ken says:

        Problem is we’ll be in 10+ countries this summer so buying SIMs for each one when we’ll only be in each country for 2 nights will likely add up fast, though I haven’t looked yet.

        1. Trav says:

          @Ken- Ah, yes, that will be a major drag. I had to switch SIMs between Portugal and Spain, and with 2 nights in each country, that will add up. Maybe it is time to look in to T-Mobile.

          1. Ken says:

            We tried Tmobile, but there is no service at all where we live. None. And sine we don’t have a landline that was a deal breaker. Denver has some stupid law where cell towers can’t be any higher than like 20 fet, so they’re all very low so coverage is awful if you don’t live in a densely populated area. We’re out by the airport in a newish area but it’s taken 8 years to get a grocery store so who knows when Tmobile will move in. I also had trouble with no service in buildings. Maybe we can do Tmo for just the 2 months we’ll be overseas though.

  5. kentymac says:

    I must admit, from the title I was hoping that Ting was a flexible plan that allowed for international roaming and data at reasonable rates. I guess picking up a SIM card is still the best option for that.

    1. Trav says:

      @kentymac- Yeah, that’s how I go about it still, although from some of these comments, looks like I may have to check out TMobile’s plan. $50 a month is pretty nice if the coverage is decent.

  6. Jason says:

    T-Mobile is the best deal. Free unlimited 2G data and texting and 20 cents per minute calling in over 100 countries. This article feels like you are trying get commissions for people to switch to Ting rather than actually providing a good solution for international travelers. And T-mobile is month to month, so just get their sim card for the month you are traveling if you dont want to switch providers.

    1. Trav says:

      @Jason- I don’t receive any commissions at all from Ting, I just think it’s a pretty interesting option. I absolutely love that you only get charged for the amount you use. That means that if I’m away for 20 out of the 30 days, I’ll probably only end up paying $10-15 a month for Ting and whatever the SIM in the other country costs.

      Definitely think this T-Mobile deal is an interesting one though. How is their coverage in other countries and in the US?

      Also, am I right in understanding that many US providers won’t unlock your phone for use with another US carrier? How do you get around this when you get a T-Mobile SIM?

      1. Gene says:

        Please find these answers and write another post about T-Mobile. I am sick of paying Sprint $85/person for our household of two. We’ve been with them forever, but the T-Mobile offer is tempting. We haven’t jumped ship because I hear they are pretty bad for US service.

        1. Ken says:

          If you like your service there are plenty of MVNOs (operators that run on Sprint’s service) like Virgin Mobile that charge roughly $35/month, you just have to buy your own phone. But, the phone will pay for itself in only a few months and you’ll save a lot over the year or two.

          1. I’ll echo Ken. If you’re not happy with Sprint, an MVNO like Ting or Virgin Mobile will save you money and give you the same coverage you’re used to. With Ting, you can even bring over your own phone from Sprint. Check out their savings calculator at https://ting.com/calculator to easily estimate how much the two of you would save.

          2. Trav says:

            @Mr. Everyday Dollar- Totally agree. If you’re out of your Sprint contract window, no reason not to switch immediately. Then, you can save money now and we can figure out the T-Mobile option as well. Since it’s monthly, it never hurts!

          3. Trav says:

            @Gene, @Ken- Yeah, the first thing I would definitely do is switch from Sprint and go to something that runs on their network. I can’t speak personally to Virgin Mobile, but if Ting and Virgin Mobile run on their network, and you already have your own phone, switching to them from Sprint will save you money right off the bat.

            And since they are on the same network, it shouldn’t affect performance. After hearing all these options (I’m glad I opened Pandora’s Box on this one, seems to be many more things than I was aware of), I will definitely try to do a roundup of all the options. I’ll also probably be asking people with actual experience using the options to give me some comments, since I haven’t used them myself.

  7. Mariah says:

    I now realize the problem with Ting – they are on the Sprint network. There are SO many places I have been stranded with no service back when we were on Virgin Mobile that also uses Sprint. Instead, check out Page Plus Cellular. Verizon network and you can keep your phone number for $10 every 120 days. Plus, you are charged $0.50/month, not $6/month for the service.

    1. Trav says:

      @Mariah- Hmmm, interesting. Can you give us more details on the plan? How much it is per month, if you can use it overseas, etc.? Also, I don’t LOVE Sprint by any means, but I’ve found it to be ok. Better than when I used to have T-Mobile, although admittedly, that was 5 years ago.

  8. Barbara Crisler says:

    I’m on T-Mobile, have Viber and Skype, as well as Wifi calling. I’ll be out of the country for about a month this year. For the 1st time, I’m not worried about it.

    1. Trav says:

      @Barbara Crisler- So you have the T-Mobile Simple International Plan? PLEASE report back to us about the service when you are out of the country. Where are you going?

  9. Aaron says:

    Thanks, Travis for bring the Ting service to my radar. That is a novel concept.

    Would love to come across someone’s blog about their experiences using T-Mobile’s new international roaming service. It’s such a great deal, if so! TMobile is big in Europe (with Germany being its origin) so I bet their coverage is great.
    I thought you couldn’t get a month-to-month on their $50 a month plan that provides the free roaming. Again, if anyone finds a blog going into more detail about using this service for us mega-travelers, that’d be great!

    1. Trav says:

      @Aaron- I agree, I’m definitely going to try to find some more information on T-Mobile. @JJR seems to have some really good opinions and information on the T-Mobile plan in the comments below. Maybe he can be our point man on this!

    2. JJR says:

      @Aaron, I have been using T-Mobile for 10+ years and signed up for their Month-to-month Simple Choice plan last November. Couldn’t be happier. Yes, it is $50/month and comes with unlimited everything plus free global roaming in 120+ countries. It’s an amazing deal. Let me know if you have any questions.

  10. jollyannie says:

    You forgot the most important feature of free wi-fi spots is FaceTime from Apple………

    1. Trav says:

      @jollyannie- Ah, Facetime! You’re right, another awesome way to stay connected!

      1. I like the free video calling options as well, because you can actually show – in real-time – your friends and family your surroundings! FaceTime is great for iOS-to-iOS, otherwise Google, Facebook, and Skype are all perfect (and free) alternatives.

  11. JJR says:

    T_Mobile is the best! Period! There is no other carrier even close to their plan. For $50/month you will get a global coverage in terms of calls, texts, and data, period! This week, they increased their data from 500MB to 1GB!!! No additional cost!!! It’s hard to beat for $50. And it’s global. Unless you are traveling to Afghanistan or similar countries, it’s unbeatable. There is no contract, no commitment, no lock-in-terms. I just can’t believe my friends who can’t believe the terms of this deal. They are locked in the AT&T plans and are just unable to comprehend the deal T-Mobile is giving them! As I said before, I was roaming full time in Canada for 2 moths straight using GPS, sending hundreds of text messages, calling local Canadian numbers, using GPS, browsing webpages on my smart phone, and calling US numbers and my final bill was only $6 more than if I was doing the same thing in the US.!!! This is huge for me! I was doing the same in Europe and will do the same this summer. Unlimited calling, texting and 1GB of data roaming is unbeatable in today’s market! There is no other company to beat this at his time. Thank you T-Mobile!!! I hope no other company will acquire you anytime soon!!!

  12. JJR says:

    Trav; The T-Mobile service has been flawless for me for the last ten years. I am based in Minnesota but have travelled extensively and frequently over the US and internationally. T-Mobile is a German company so they have extremely good coverage in Europe. They also have extremely good coverage in Canada (Rogers roaming). And any country that uses the GSM cellphone technology which is most of the globe except the US. However, I never had a problem in the US with T-Mobile. I have been with them for the last 10+ years and never had a problem with signal, weather I was in the Midwest, Chicago, East Coast, Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona or New York. They are in every major metro area I care about. There is no way in hell I would switch to any other carrier just because they have weak coverage in the US in order to compensate for the features that T-Mobile offers abroad! The bottom line is: if you live in the US they have you 100% covered. And if you travel internationally, they have you 99+% covered, too. This is absolutely the BEST GLOBAL plan out there as of today. They went form 100+ to 120+ countries covered for free global roaming. It is simply unbeatable as of today. AT&T or Verizon would have to shoot themselves to their foot to beat this. And I doubt it will happen anytime soon. Do yourself a favor and sign up for Simple Choice plan with T-Mobile. There is no better plan than this. Period. (as of 3/13/2013) Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with T-Mobile. I am just a regular consumer who was extremely frustrated with roaming charges while traveling extensively for long periods of time and was billed exorbitant sums of money for a few minutes of talk time!!! T-Mobile’s Simple Choice is the best answer to this problem. And the best solution! Do yourself a favor and use this plan. You will NOT be disappointed. I promise.
    As an example: I used to have a plan for $40/month that included 1000 unlimited minutes and no text messages and no data plan. When I traveled, I ramped up my bill to $80+ dollars for sending few text messages and 2+MB of data while in Europe. Today? There is no difference!!! I can send 10,000 text messages while in Europe and browse the web, use GPS, use all kinds of apps, including 20+ hours of Candy Crush:-) And my bill comes to what? $56!!! that’s all! As if I never left the US!!! Can’t beat that in no way in hell!
    Please, keep the Simple Choice plan around for as long as you can! Your satisfied T-Mobile Customer. JJR

    1. Trav says:

      @JJR- Thank you soooo much for all the information. I’m really glad you have made the terms and conditions clear and have given us firsthand knowledge of the product. It looks like I may have to give it a try myself and test it out.

      Three more questions I have for you:

      1. Can you bring your own phone over? If not, what phones do they have available?

      2. When in the States, do you have unlimited talk? And when you are abroad, do you have to pay for each minute? It seems to me that the texting and data abroad is part of the plan, but the talk part is a bit confusing. Can you clarify?

      3. You say there is no commitment, so you can drop it anytime. Do you have any idea on if you can downgrade if you aren’t going to use it much. Let’s say I’m going abroad for a month and really don’t plan on using my phone at all, or I am going to some crazy country they don’t cover (like Afghanistan). Can I downgrade to something like $6 a month to keep it active?

      Thanks again for all the info JJR. This has been super helpful!

  13. JJR says:

    @Trav: To answer your questions:
    1.Yes you can bring your own phone. I have a cheap 4G Samsung smart phone but it has 4G data speeds. But it has to be GSM phone (T-Mobile has GSM network) which is a good thing since most of the world works on GSM network. You could look at T-Mobil.com, or Amazon or even on Walmart – they offer prepaid T-Mobile plans in Walmart where you can buy 4G unlocked phones but the phones work with postpaid plans, too. Mine was like $150 and bought it 1 year ago.

    2. When in state I do have unlimited talk, text, and data. The first 1GB of data is at 4G and after that @ 3G. When abroad, let’s say I’m in EU, it depends where you are calling. When I call local numbers (EU-to-EU) it costs 20c/min. It’s similar to what I would pay if I bought a local SIM although you can find plans for much less, more like 5c-7c/min. But I like the convenience of having the same phone, same SIM, and same phone number. When I call US I usually use a feature T-Mobile has on most of their plans called “WiFi Calling”. It’s a VOIP app on the phone so you need to be near a WiFi hotspot. But the minutes are free so I can talk for hours.

    3. Yes you can drop them anytime, as long as you don’t sign up for their phones. Bring your own phone and you can drop them anytime. If you have a phone payment then you would have to buy out the phone. I don’t think you can downgrade since their $50 plan is the cheapest option. If you are not going to use the phone much for a long time then Ting seems to be a better option. But as I found out in foreign countries, it’s really nice to have a GPS handy anywhere you go, especially when driving with a rental car or even walking. My phone is now my GPS. And if you need to make an emergency call it’s worth the 20c/min.

    Hope this helps.

  14. Kim says:

    Doesn’t T-Mobile have a limit of how long the international features can be used, like 6 weeks at a time, or something like that? Just to make sure that that most of your minutes are stateside? I am having a hard time finding that info on their site, but have read about it elsewere…something about them not wanting non-US customers getting the deal.

    1. Trav says:

      @Kim- Yeah, they had some strange wording about that when I was reading through the Terms and Conditions. Hopefully @JJR can weigh in on this, as that could be a major deal breaker.

      1. Kim says:

        For short-term travel, T-Mobile might be the way to go. But for more long-term, Ting might make more sense. I have also been looking at parkmyphone. The rates are similar, but they do have a bare bones option at $3/mo if you just want to keep your number parked while you travel, and the $5 option allows you to get voice mails e-mailed to you.

        1. Trav says:

          @Kim- Interesting, send us any more info you find on them. Yeah, I think it comes down to what you want. If you are staying in a country for a while, and don’t mind SIM cards, Ting might be best because it will be cheaper than $50 a month for SIM and Ting. But T-Mobile is certainly easier and less hassle, that’s for sure.

          Either way, both options seem better than what I’m currently paying with Sprint…and are probably better than what most people are using!

          1. Kim says:

            It’s at parkmyphone.com — I found them recommended somewhere and thought it might be useful…

  15. JJR says:

    @Kim – Yes, you are right there were some rumors on the forums about a 6-week limit when the new T-Mobile plan first came out last October. I, too, was concerned about that because when I travel, I usually go for 2-3months at a time. So I called the Customer Service and they didn’t know what I was talking about. I called again and again and asked them the same question: Is there a time limit how long you can be out of the country in order to use the free roaming? The answer was always no. I also called the sales people in order to confirm this and the sales lady was reassuring me that there was no limit. She was shocked to hear that and was curious where I heard this rumor. Anyway, since even the sales people have no clue what I was talking about my conclusion is there is no limit. You can stay probably safely at least 2 months if not more. The sales lady said I can stay 6+ months without worry. I say 2 months safely because I was in Canada for two months this winter and had free roaming without any problems until the very last day. I will verify it this summer when I go to Europe for 2+ months.

    1. Trav says:

      @JJR- Hmmm, good to know. Hopefully it’s longer than 2 months, which it seems to be if no one knows what you’re talking about!

  16. Kevin says:

    Hey Trav,

    I made the switch from Verizon to T-Mobile for the Simple Choice plan a few months ago. I haven’t had any issues with coverage that I didn’t also have with VZ so I’m happy with the switch. I actually went one higher so I have the unlimited everything plan for $70/month (which is still about half of what I paid for the same plan with VZ).

    I’ve only used it in Boston and South Florida so far, but I definitely switched with the international features and no contract in mind – not to mention traveling internationally with VZ was a bit of a pain. I brought over my own unlocked Nexus 5 that I got directly from Google and there were no issues there.

    This Ting service looks like it could be useful too so I may check that out. Thanks for the tip!

    1. Trav says:

      @Kevin- Good to know you haven’t had any major problems with T-Mobile. And yeah, the international travel/no contract thing is awesome. I’ll have to check it out.

  17. Daisy says:

    I have heard SO many good things about Ting. I don’t travel enough to actually switch, but I will have to suspend my service when I go on my honeymoon in the fall, because we’ll be gone for well over a month and I just cant imagine paying for it. We will bring an iPad to Facetime with our families while we are at Wifi, but that will be the extent of our cell phone usage. It will be hard for me to leave it behind, though.

    1. Trav says:

      @Daisy- I’m sure it will be a blissful month. I just went 3 weeks in China without Facebook and Twitter, and man, it’s strange how you don’t miss things when they are gone, but when you come back, you need to have them again!

      I’m definitely going to try to switch to Ting once I can get out of this Sprint contract!

  18. pamalani1 says:

    On the TMobile website (at the bottom in fine print) it states that service will be slowed or terminated for ‘excessive roaming”. I got the same run around answers as above from 7 confused reps before a supervisor confirmed that one month is the official limit for international use.
    Accounts will be closed if there is no activity on TMobile U.S. towers for long periods. That said, some people have reportedly been able to get 2-3 months of service while outside U.S.

    1. Trav says:

      @pamalani1- Thanks for the info. If that’s the case, then this isn’t a good option for long-term travelers, like myself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like anyone has a definitive answer, as you found out by be re-routed to tons of different people.

      Hmmm…I’m really hoping that the rep is wrong, or that they don’t enforce it!

      Do you have T-Mobile at the moment?

  19. TLBEST says:

    Best suspension plan for frequent traveler?
    Which carrier offers the best suspension plan to international travelers while being able to maintain the same number?

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