[bluebox]Interested in saving money on your cellphone plan while at home as well? Check out The Best Cellphone Service for International Travelers. [/bluebox]
When traveling abroad, one of the worst mistakes you can make is paying way too much to use your cellphone.
This happens to many people because they think using their cellphone abroad is complicated, and therefore pick the easiest (and much more expensive) option.
So, what are the two main options?
Option #1: Global Roaming (The Expensive Option)
Cellphone companies will allow you to use your phone abroad and still get service. It’s called “global roaming”, and all you have to do is call up and ask for it.
However, it will cost you A LOT of money. AT&T, for example, charges $1 per minute in Europe, $2 per minute in the rest of the world, $0.50 per text, and $30 per 120 MB of data, with most other carriers being about the same.
This option is only good for people who are planning on using their phone very sparingly or who are in a country for a few days.
Option #2: Getting a SIM Card (The Cheap Option)
Fortunately, this being 2014, there is now a very easy and very cheap way to use your same cellphone abroad.
A SIM card allows you to switch carriers and use that carrier’s network.
So when you’re in Spain, you’ll buy a SIM card for a carrier that operates in Spain (such as Vodafone). You’ll then be using Vodafone’s network on the exact same smartphone that you typically use when at home.
And you’ll be paying much less than you would if you used a global roaming plan.
For anyone spending more than a few days in a country and who wants to be able to use their phone freely (especially as a GPS with data), this is the way to go.
And contrary to what many people believe, using a SIM card isn’t difficult. It can be broken down in to two parts; unlocking your cellphone before you leave and then getting and using a SIM card when you’re abroad.
Here’s how to do it in 5 easy steps!
Step 1: Unlock Your Cellphone
Yes, it’s LEGAL for you to unlock your phone for international travel, and yes, you should do this BEFORE you leave on your trip!
Here’s how to do it for each major US carrier:
- AT&T: Online Unlock Request Form
- Verizon: Most Verizon phones are already unlocked when bought.
- Sprint: Call 1-888-226-7212. More information can be found here.
- T-Mobile: Call Customer Service at 1-877-746-0909 . More information can be found here.
Step 2: Backup, Update, and Restore Your Phone
This step may not be necessary on all carriers, but it currently is with Sprint. Ask when calling to unlock.
Also, the process will look different on an Android phone, but the steps should be fairly similar.
2A) Backup everything on your phone either to a safe location (iCloud, your computer hard drive, etc.)
2B) Update Your Phone to the Latest Software
2C) Restore Your Phone From Your Backup
This will ensure that everything that you had on your phone previously (pictures, apps, etc.) are all put back on.
2D) Your iPhone is unlocked!
Now that your phone is unlocked, you can continue to use it as normal until you go away on your trip.
Unlocking it shouldn’t affect the way it works in your home country at all.
Step 3: Find a Place That Sells SIM Cards
In almost any country, this shouldn’t be a problem (I’ve personally done it in 10+ countries, even China).
Usually, you can find a phone or electronic store or kiosk in the airport or train station when you arrive.
When in doubt, just say “SIM” and everyone will know what you’re talking about.
Step 4: Pick Out the Plan That Works Best
There will most likely be a plethora of options, especially in European countries. I personally go for the plans that don’t include many minutes but are heavier on data.
I only need minutes in case of an emergency but I need data because I use my smartphone as my GPS.
Almost all plans will be prepaid, so you won’t have to worry about any crazy overage costs.
Even if you don’t quite understand all the ins and outs of what the person is telling you (and most of the time, this will be the case), your phone will just stop working if you run out of minutes, texts, or data.
Step 5: Pop Open Your SIM Card Slot and Insert Your New SIM
Some phones, like the iPhones, require a “microSIM” card. Just ask them to use their special tool to cut down the larger SIM card.
After inserting your SIM card, it may work immediately. On other providers, you’ll have to enter the PIN number from the package.
DON’T lose this package, as you may have enter the PIN each time you turn on your phone.
Now, you should be able to use your phone in the country you are traveling in!
Answers to a Few Questions
1. How much will it cost?
This will vary based on the plan you choose, how much you use the phone, and the country you are in. A rough estimate for if you are using the phone sparingly to talk and mainly for data would be $15-20 for 2 weeks.
2. Can I use the same SIM in different countries?
Most of the time, no. Most countries require you to get different SIMs when you enter that country. For example, when I traveled to Spain and Portugal, I needed to get a different SIM in each.
And if it does show you still have service when entering another country, it’ll be charging you international roaming and cost a fortune. Much better to get another SIM for that country.
3. Will I have the same phone number as my number at home?
No. When you buy a SIM card, it comes with it’s own unique number. That will be the number you’ll give people to call you.
4. Can I call my home country using my new SIM card?
Maybe, but it will probably cost a bunch of money. It’s much better to try to connect t0 Wifi and use a service like Skype.
5. If I use up all my minutes, data, or texting, can I add more money to the same SIM card?
Usually yes. You’ll just have to “top up”, which can be done for some providers online or through automated machines. For others, you’ll have to visit a store.
You’ll add more money to that SIM card and keep the same number.
6. Do SIM cards expire?
Generally yes. If you’re thinking about trying to use the same SIM card that you used last time you were in the country a year ago, you’re probably out of luck. You’ll most likely have to buy a new one.
7. Will I have any problems using my phone when I come back home?
You shouldn’t. Just pop the international SIM card out and you should reconnect with your regular provider. Do note that if your provider at home uses SIM cards, you’ll have to put that back in, so don’t lose it!
Don’t be caught paying a huge phone bill when you return home. Instead, follow these steps and get yourself a SIM card while you’re traveling.
Your wallet will thank you!
If you travel often, you may be able to save a ton of money on your cellphone bill while at home by switching to Ting.
Have you ever had a good (or bad) experience using your phone abroad? How do you use your phone when traveling? Let us know in the comments below!