How To Use Your Cellphone Abroad in 5 Easy Steps

Posted By Trav


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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:

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.)

iCloud Backup

2B) Update Your Phone to the Latest Software

Restore Iphone

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.

Restore iPhone after

2D) Your iPhone is unlocked!

iPhone unlockedNow 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

IMG_7789 cropped

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!

 Final Word(s)

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!


  1. Sam says:

    I travel to London a few times a year and have had an Orange SIM card for well over a year, almost two, that I pop in when I land. So far it has always worked and I have had the same number since I bought it. I use it in my BB, but I want to get a card for my Samsung, but it is 4G, and last time no one in London had a 4 G card. Does anyone know if this has changed in the last 6 months? Anyway, never a problem, even use the same card when I go over to Paris from time to time (Orange network in both FR and UK).

    1. Trav says:

      @Sam- That’s cool that it doesn’t expire and that you’re able to use it in France as well. Are you charged international roaming in France? Or is it exactly the same as using it in the UK?

      I’m not sure about getting a 4G card in London, but I’ll be there in May and will take a look for you!

  2. JB says:

    Good advice. a few thoughts.
    1) often you can’t get the mini (or mini-mini) sim cards abroad so get educated on how to cut them down or invest in a SIM cutter.
    2) Buy a data plan and sign up for google voice. Forward all voice messages to Google Voice, which with transcribe and send you a voice file via data to your unlocked/new SIM phone. Most U.S. based carriers charge you the international voice rate for messages left on your phone when you are traveling internationally – so it can get expensive even if you don’t answer the call.
    3) If you want to keep your same number, do the goole voice thing AND buy a prepaid world data package from your carrier. You can see the calls coming in, not answer, get the email with the message.
    4) get a prepaid international text package.
    5) Do all options by just getting an extra old school gsm phone (I use my blackberry). Now you have local calls cheap, international text from your own number, and GPS.
    6) you try phone calls via data on skype but usually there is not enough bandwidth, that’s what free WiFi is for.

    1. Trav says:

      @JB- Some great tips, thanks!. Hoping you can elaborate a little on a few points.

      1) I’ve always had the people who sold me the card cut them down. Have you had issues with this? Where can you by a SIM cutter?
      2) Great point with Google Voice. Is it free? If so, that’s awesome.
      3) The prepaid stuff can get expensive though, even if you are just using it for texting and data. That’s the “global roaming” option.
      4) Agreed that free wifi is best if you need to make calls. Usually data doesn’t give enough bandwidth.

  3. Tony C says:

    T-Mobile offers free unlimited international data (at 2G speed) and text at more than 120 countries. It’s only 20 cents a min to make calls from those countries to the US and within those countries. This seems like a better option for me as I don’t have to change my phone number so people can still reach me. I find the 2G speed fast enough to check email, search the web, use google map, and even streaming radio.

    1. Trav says:

      @Tony C- Yeah, I agree that T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan (JJR gave us a lot of information on it in the comments of this post, check it out) is the best option if you don’t want to go the SIM route.

      It’s still $50 a month though, which isn’t a bad deal if you want the convenience. But a SIM card and a cheap plan when at home (like Ting) will probably end up being less. Just a convenience vs. saving money issue.

  4. Eugene says:

    Never utilized a SIM card while traveling abroad. I usually just use Magic Jack to call US phone numbers for free over Wifi. Viber/Whatsapp/WeChat/KakaoTalk which pretty much covers all the messaging apps people use. Skype/Oovoo for video chat.

    I usually recommend a SIM card if your going to be living/staying in a single country for a good amount of time. But thanks for the post! Will definitely come in handy when I start living in China.

    1. Trav says:

      @Eugene- Yeah, you’re right, as long as you have Wifi, all those options are great. Honestly, I use the SIM mostly for data on my phone and use it as a GPS. That’s probably 70% of the reason I get a SIM, with the other 30% being that I can text and call my wife, who also gets a SIM, if we split up.

      And I definitely agree that the SIM should only be used really if you’re going to be somewhere for over 4 days. If not, it’s probably not worth it.

  5. MM says:

    Any suggestions for someone with an iPhone 4 and Verizon wireless? It doesn’t use a sim card. Thx.

    1. Trav says:

      @MM- Yeah, that will most likely be a problem. I believe that the iPhone 4 on Verizon doesn’t have a SIM slot. Same with my old Sprint phone. If it doesn’t, then you’ll have to go the global roaming route. Or, you could try to buy a cheap extra phone that does have a SIM slot and use that when you go abroad. I’d try Ebay or Craigslist for a phone someone is trying to get rid of.

  6. jollyannie says:

    I spent a half day in a mall in Lyon France looking for a sim card and NONE of the phone stores wanted to sell me one without a monthly plan……….so if there was a website where I could buy a French Sim card for an iPhone then you would have my attention

    1. Trav says:

      @jollyannie- Really? That’s surprising to me. I’ve never had an issue in Europe, but I haven’t bought one in France before. I did have to sign up for a month plan in China, but it was only a 1 month plan. Cost about $20.

      Can anyone else help jollyannie out with finding a SIM in France?

  7. Rich says:

    Hey Trav, I just got back from Thailand/Hong Kong and went the SIM card route. I have Sprint and it was easy process to have them unlock and then I backed it up. I got a 7 day unlimited 3G card that came with 100 baht of local calling minutes through DTAC. There were several kiosks at the airport. It worked while in Samui and came in handy when I called Conrad about getting picked up from Chewang. At the kiosk you picked the plan and they inserted the card and made sure it was working.

    The Hong Kong experience was a bit different. No kiosks, just directed to the 7-11 at the airport and I explained that I was there for one day. I wanted the interest so I could explore around the city, but the MB for data were limited. I found out there is a tourist SIM that I should have gone with instead.

    After landing yesterday, I switched out the card for my sprint one and it worked immediately.

    Good post! It’s the little details like this that having some knowledge on really make trips/new places a heck of a lot less stressful!


    1. Trav says:

      @Rich- Thanks for all the data points, especially since I’ll be heading back to Thailand sometime soon and glad to know it was pretty seamless. And like you said, I’ve never had problems coming back and getting back on my home network.

      Glad to hear you had such an easy, painless experience!

      1. Rich says:

        Let me know if you have have any questions. Make sure to use the currency exchange on the ground level near the Airport Link, they have the bests rates.

  8. Sam says:

    @jolly. I found a website a few years ago that did nothing but UK SiMs. They were a US company. If I recall, I even called them and spoke with the owner. I am sure you can google it and find a similar US company. I have never had any place try to sell me a plan in the UK, not sure about FR though. I got my last SIM out of a vending machine at LHR!


    I am not sure what the coast were when in Paris. It automatically switched to the FR Orange network. I usually just top off with 10 pounds or so at a time and continue to do so until I leave. I always leave a few pounds on for return trips so I dont have to find a place to top off when I land.

    1. Trav says:

      @Sam- Great, thanks. Seems like if it switched to FR Orange, it probably wasn’t international roaming, and that you were just getting charged the regular amount. 10 pounds would run out pretty quick if you were on int’l roaming!

    2. jollyannie says:

      Thanks folks I will try the google approach……..can’t believe there is a well known vendor in this community that knows how to reach us………seems like a great opportunity for a capitalist wirehead!

  9. Geoff says:

    I have had no problems buying SIM cards in the UK and several countries in S E Asia. Only place I have been where it is not possible is Japan.

    The most valuable lesson I have learned while traveling is how cheap mobile phone service is compared to the outrageous charges in the US. I guess the phone company lobbyists in DC are doing a good job.

    1. Trav says:

      @Geoff- Yep, you’re dead on. Japan I’ve heard is pretty difficult, if not impossible. I’ve never needed a SIM in Japan because I lived there, but when I brought my Japanese cellphone back to the US, there was absolutely no way to use it here. The Japanese company would not unlock it, and I couldn’t find anyone who could figure it out. Moral of the story is that the Japan cellphone market seems to be pretty incompatible with most of the rest of the world.

      And I completely agree. The amount we pay for mobile is RIDICULOUS. Luckily, that seems to be changing due to companies figuring out better ways, like Ting, and T-Mobile really putting the pressure on the Big Three by actually be consumer friendly!

  10. meghanb903 says:

    Hey Trav, my husband and I use a super cheap Nokia phone that we picked up on Amazon to avoid looking too flashy with a fancy Iphone. Plus the battery lasts for 2 weeks!

    1. Trav says:

      @Meghanb903- Awesome. That’s definitely a good way to go about it!

  11. J&A says:

    Has anyone tried Truphone?


    We just heard about it and were curious how it might stack up to T-Mobile and the likes. Pros are having several numbers local to different countries, one plan, and one SIM. Sounds good so far…

    1. Heather says:

      Sounds intriguing – let us know how it works out! :)

      1. J&A says:

        It’s great but only for B2B, so not quite available yet for individual personal lines.

        We are now really interseted in the T-Mobile option mentioned in the podcast; didn’t see the link in the Show Notes to give you credit :) but will just check it out on their website!

        We also just found out about Google Fi, another cool new option (must puchase a relatively pricey phone, but otherwise looks impressive)

        1. Trav says:

          @J&A- Yeah, just found out about Google Fi ourselves. Seems cool.

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