Cell Phone Tips for International Travel
Cell phone service is often a last minute thought when planning international travel. You are so preoccupied with what to do and where to go, you forget to consider about how you will communicate.
Obviously, the strategy will be different for every destination and influenced by your needs. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method.
Start by asking: is there wifi internet widely available?
Follow up with – what do you need your phone for that the internet can’t provide?
Another question that may apply is if your cell phone is locked or unlocked. A locked phone means it is tied to a certain cell phone carrier (Verizon, AT&T, etc) so there is software that prevents compatibility of another cell phone carrier’s sim card. An unlocked phone is not associated with a specific carrier so allow for the swapping out of sim cards.
Depending on your answers will help dictate your cell phone service plan needs. There are generally three routes that you can go with:
- Paying for an international plan on your current phone carrier
- Getting a sim card in the country you are visiting
- Relying on wifi alone
Let’s break each option down with the pros and cons:
Paying for an international plan on your current phone carrier
- Pros: Convenience is really the winner here – you just tell your current carrier what you need and your done. If you do not have an unlocked phone, this is pretty much your only option if you need cell phone service.
- Cons: The is the most expensive option by far – like exponentially more. You are also at a higher risk of roaming fees which are even more ridiculous.
Getting a sim card in the country you are visiting
- Pros: This is a very cost effective option starting around from $20 to $30 that includes a plan with a set number of minutes and gig of data. These cards are usually valid for up to a month or more. Sim cards are also very easy to obtain. Airports, train stations, marts, and store fronts all sell local sim cards. Before you go, research which sim card is most reliable and where you will purchase it.
- Cons: Really no cons that I can think of, other than this option does not work for you if do not have an unlocked phone.
Relying on wifi alone
- Pros: This is the cheapest option – it is free! If you are leaning towards this option, make sure to research how widely available wifi is both in your accommodations and in destination itself.
- Cons: Well, if you have an emergency this is the least helpful method. In instances where you need to look things up or need to contact someone, you have to get creative or think ahead to where you can get wifi.
So which one do we use?
We use Option 3 Relying on wifi alone. Let me explain why.
We bought sim cards for our first trip to Italy. We assumed we would need them as novice international travelers and it was a good sense of security for our first international trip together. When the trip was over, we realized we barely used the plan we paid for as wifi was way more prevalent than we expected – even major cities were decked out in wifi.
Fast forward to the next several international trips where we tried the wifi only approach and we had no issues. Going back to those prime questions:
- Is there wifi internet widely available? Yes
- What do you need your phone for that the internet can’t provide? Nothing that we couldn’t figure out.
On our trip to Paris, we ended using ride share on one occasion as the train didn’t reach this area. We called the ride share from our Airbnb’s wifi and had no issue getting to our destination (ASPIC). At the time, the restaurant did not have wifi liked we hoped for – so we used our downloaded Google Maps to find a cafe that generously allowed us to use the wifi to call the ride share. Problem solving!
When we were in Galapagos, we knew the constant outdoor activity would not warrant us to be on our phones. That is one thing we both like about international travel and choosing the wifi only approach – it gives us that disconnect that we crave. Some people who hate this but for us I love nothing more than turning our phones on airplane mode and saying goodbye as we board the plane. The wifi at our Galapagos accommodations ended up being horrible but again, downloaded Google Maps was really all we needed.
Most recently, we traveled to New Zealand where we read that wifi is not readily available. We recently purchased Google Pixel phones and signed up for Google Fi cell phone plan that includes international service. However, when we arrived Google Fi did not work for either of our phones (a whole other story). Back to relying on the wifi! All our accommodations had great wifi and with downloaded Google Maps we had no problem navigating the entire country.
(UPDATE: We have since had success using Google Fi internationally – there are a bunch of settings that need to be adjusted in order for it to work)
Now, if wifi is not widely available and you need it, this will change your cell phone service strategy. If you are solo traveling, this can also change the narrative of needing a way to communicate in the event of an emergency. Do what works for you.
One thing I cannot stress enough is to download Google Maps for the destinations you are visiting. Add it to your to-do list before you leave. In the Google Maps App, hit the menu button (top left corner with the three lines) and chose the “Offline Maps” option. Then move the view finder to the area you want to download – and yes, you may need more than one map to get the entire trip downloaded. Test it out with cell service and wifi turned off to ensure you are ready to go. This enables access to the map, any favorited destinations, and directions without relying on wifi or cell service for your trip.