And Wi-Fi dependence brings two more problems. First, availability varies greatly by country and region (you can check overall coverage on Wi-Fi finder apps or sites). Second, using public Wi-Fi can expose you to hackers; avoid it especially if you’ll be typing in banking and credit card information. If you want to eliminate much of that risk, read on.
T-Mobile and, since April, Sprint offer free 2G data service, free international text messaging and 20-cent-a-minute calling — with a couple of catches. First, it doesn’t work everywhere. Sprint’s plan currently covers just 22 countries, though that list will grow.
T-Mobile’s roaming is impressive if a bit overstated, covering 120 “countries and destinations” — not to be confused with 120 countries (Easter Island? Svalbard?) Check the lists to make sure your destination is included.
And, of course, that 2G connection can be painfully slow, though it is usually fast enough to use email and messaging apps. In my experience with T-Mobile, you’re frequently bumped up to 3G or 4G, but occasionally can’t connect at all. (If that happens, find free Wi-Fi and call your carrier through Skype for help.)
Upgrade Your Package
You can pay Verizon and AT&T for higher-speed international roaming packages, or pay Sprint and T-Mobile to upgrade to faster data. Some of those options are pretty good deals: Verizon’s monthly add-ons start with 100 megabytes of data for $25, and you can add 100 minutes of talk and 100 texts for an extra $15. (Again, check the list of countries.) AT&T has similar data packages, but they include unlimited texting. Both deals currently include free access to networks of paid Wi-Fi hot spots around the world. T-Mobile’s upgrade plans are more appealing than Sprint’s: 200 megabytes of high-speed data over one week for $25, good for a short trip.
You’ll also keep your own number, which means you won’t get a local number. But that is far less inconvenient than it used to be now that almost everyone abroad is using messaging apps.
International SIM Card
Lots of companies sell SIM cards that can be used in most of the world (or cheaper ones for Europe only): OneSimCard, Cellhire, Cellular Abroad’s National Geographic SIM, Telestial, the list goes on. Cards themselves usually cost about $20 to $30, often including some credit. And rates vary vastly by company and country, so make sure to check websites for details.
Pay special attention to the varied payment structures: You might prefer to prepay and let your balance tick down with use, buy a big chunk of data that will last for a while (but might go to waste), or pay per day for unlimited data. Also check if you can monitor your usage in real time, and take care if you choose to do automatic top-ups; it would be a shame if you were charged $79.99 for an extra gig as you waited in the airport for your flight home.
With a foreign SIM card, you won’t receive calls or texts coming into your home number. If that’s important, you can set up forwarding, which doesn’t always work, or frequently switch cards, which is a pain. You can get a dual-SIM phone (not for iPhones, though) or a two-SIM adapter, which can be awkward.
The smoothest solution is KnowRoaming’s international SIM “sticker,” which you attach to your current SIM card, magically turning it into two. The foreign SIM activates when you land in a different country, but you can manually flip back to your home SIM. It costs $29.95 plus usage, and rates are competitive.
If you’re headed to one or just a handful of countries, especially obscure ones not included in the above plans, consider purchasing a local SIM card.
The cheapest way to do this, at least theoretically, is to buy one when you arrive. This often costs just a couple of dollars (plus prepaid credit), but the ease of doing it varies greatly, depending on the registration process and access to English-language instructions.
Your other option is to order the country-specific SIM card before you leave, meaning it’s already registered and loaded when you land. Cellular Abroad, for one, offers a French card that gives you a month of unlimited calling and texts, one gigabyte of data and 110 minutes of free calls to the United States and Canada for $69.95 — not cheap, but perhaps worth it if it fits your needs.
Many of the same companies offer data-only SIM cards that are cheaper, generally, than those with a local number for calling and texting. They’re largely aimed at tablet users and are particularly attractive if you have T-Mobile or Sprint on your phone for cheap calling and free texting. Cellhire, for example, provides 200 megabytes of data for $25; it works across Europe and lasts 30 days.
There is also a free data-only SIM coming soon. It will be offered by Freedom Pop — which also provides free, but limited, domestic cell service — and includes 100 megabytes of high-speed data a month in a small but soon-to-grow list of countries.
For groups or travelers with multiple devices, a big money saver is to take those data-only SIMs and stick them in a Mi-Fi device — a personal Wi-Fi hot spot that is often less than $50. If your group is big enough and can live without a calling plan, that reduces costs significantly.
So, yes, it’s complicated; yes, you need to do your own research; and even if you’re thorough, there will often be hiccups on the road. Maybe we should try to get in touch with those aliens after all — if only we knew which SIM card has the best rates to the Andromeda Galaxy.Continue reading the main story
Obviously, staying connected primarily consists of two things: having access to voice communication (we'll bundle SMS into this) and having access to the internet at large (WiFi, mobile broadband, WWAN, you catch our drift). We'll start with a few basics on keeping a lock on voice communications while heading overseas, and while every situation has their own nuances, we're hoping to hit the high points here that'll at least aid everyone in some way or another.
First, a factoid: America and Canada are just two of an extremely small group of nations that support CDMA. For those unaware, Sprint (and it's MVNOs Boost Mobile, Assurance Wireless, Common Cents Mobile and Virgin Mobile), Verizon Wireless, US Cellular and pretty much every other regional carrier not named AT&T, T-Mobile USA or Suncom uses CDMA. Frankly, it works great, and VZW / Sprint have the subscribers to prove it. Unfortunately for those headed far, far away from North America, there's an overwhelming chance that your CDMA phone won't even get a signal in the nation you're landing in.
When it comes to global communications, GSM / W-CDMA is the surefire winner; there's not a semi-developed nation on the planet that doesn't support GSM (or iterations of it), so if you're looking to talk on your mobile while in a foreign land, we'd highly recommend toting an AT&T or T-Mobile handset with 3G support. We say "with 3G support" because a great many nations (Japan comes to mind) have moved well beyond EDGE, and their mobile towers won't support any technology that's older than what we know as 3G. To make a long story longer, if your device has a SIM card (which looks like this), and you can get a 3G signal in America, you're good to go.
Not an AT&T or T-Mobile subscriber? Not all hope is lost... yet. Select phones on Sprint and Verizon Wireless can be used internationally, even in GSM-only nations. If you've got a "worldphone" (enterprise BlackBerry customers would know best), there's a good chance that your CDMA handset has a SIM card in there as well specifically for times when you head somewhere that requires a jaunt through immigration. We'd suggest calling your carrier and having them double check to see if your handset is suited for international usage, and if so, you can continue right along reading. If not, we'll toss you a bone in just a few paragraphs.
Let's assume that your current mobile is equipped for voice communication overseas. Great. One hurdle crossed. If you think it's absolutely imperative that you be able to make and receive calls on your exact mobile number, you're going to be paying dearly for the privilege, no matter how you slice it. International voice minutes on a cellphone are absurdly expensive, even with prepaid global minute packs from your carrier. Here's a quick breakdown of what it'll cost you to make a minute-long call in France and Canda, just to give you a general idea of how bad an idea it is to use your existing mobile number to make / receive calls outside of the country. We also threw texting and pay-per-use data rates in as well. Mind you, all of these values can shrink (oftentimes dramatically so) if you purchase a monthly global calling plan or pre-pay for global data, but it's never "cheap" to roam.
So, you're essentially hosed if you need to make voice calls from your mobile while outside of the country, right? Hold up a second, vaquero -- don't go killing that Kayak.com window just yet. Thanks to a magnificent invention by the name of Skype, there's an infinitely more affordable way to make and receive calls when you're away from home soil. If you fully expect to be making and taking a slew of calls to your mobile, we'd buy up a pool of discounted global minutes before leaving the States (or your homeland, wherever that may be), and using those only as informational minutes. Allow us to explain.
Let's say you get a call while trekking through Kenya on your standard mobile number -- the one that all 1,842 of your clients has embedded in their contact list. There's a smart way and a dumb way to handle this situation. The latter would involve you yakking away for an hour, while the former would be for you to take the call, inform him / her of your whereabouts and then tell them when you'll be able to return their call. Unless it's a dire emergency, the other caller can afford to wait an hour or two to chat, during which time you'll be finding yourself a WiFi hotspot.
At this point, we're going to assume you've equipped yourself with a smartphone capable of running Skype; the app is currently available for Android, iPhone OS, BlackBerry OS and Windows Mobile (this one's janky, though), so the vast majority of existing smartphone owners should be taken care of (webOS users notwithstanding). Before heading out on your journey, we'd suggest throwing a $10 or $20 (or more, if you're a heavy talker) credit onto your Skype account, which will allow you to make calls back to your homeland from $0.021 per minute (full rates are here). Notice how much cheaper that is than calling on a foreign cellular network? Oh, and just because some carriers will allow you to make a Skype call over 3G, doesn't mean you should. You don't want to pay Skype and data roaming charges for a single call, now do you?
Where this really gets useful is when you bring Google Voice into the equation. Skype users can already assign a dedicated number to their account so that their WiFi-connected smartphone will ring should someone dial in, but Google Voice enables calls to be accurately routed and voicemails left in a centralized location. Simply direct your Google Voice number to forward onto your Skype account, and your clients back home may never know you've stepped away from the office. We will say, however, that you'll want to think this over and get it sorted one way or another before leaving home.
If you've got yourself a CDMA phone that won't roam on a GSM network (hint: most won't), at least your options are narrowed to one. You'll be renting a phone once your reach your destination airport, but thankfully, most major airports in foreign lands make this surprisingly easy. Obviously, every airport is different, but most have a number of phone rental shops just before you head outside and hail a taxi. Aside from running into language barriers (though if you speak English, chances are there will be instructions there for you), the biggest pain here is communicating your temporary phone number to your loved ones back home, while simultaneously telling them that it'll cost them dearly if they need to dial up that international number. But hey, that's the price you pay for having the ability to make mobile calls on a whim while visiting somewhat far, far away from Kansas. One thing to be mindful of here, however, is that some nations do not allow for inter-carrier texting; for example, an NTT DoCoMo phone in Japan cannot text someone on SoftBank. If you and your buds are heading over someplace, it's smart to all rent mobiles / SIM cards from the same carrier. Here's an video explanation of how to rent a SIM card overseas from our good pal Nicole Scott at Netbook News.
We know, that's a lot to digest, and most of it may seem like common sense to the technophile. If you're looking for the quick and dirty recommendation list for getting connected overseas, you've landed in the right section.
- Almost always, it's cheapest to simply rent a SIM card or entire cellphone from the country you're landing in. It's not hard. In most cases, you don't even have to leave the airport. It's uncommon to pay more than $200 per week for unlimited local calls, text and data.
- If you must use your own phone internationally, buy a global roaming plan before leaving, and attempt to use Skype whenever possible. Just ring your carrier and ask about global roaming packs -- they'll be happy to oblige.
- Do not ever, under any circumstance, roam with your American mobile broadband card. You'll never pay off the roaming bill. Just rent an unlimited MiFi, SIM card, or entire WWAN card for around $20 to $30 per day in most places. Proactive users can rent one ahead of time to avoid the hassle post-landing.
- Don't be shocked if your CDMA phone won't work overseas. Consider it a blessing in disguise and follow the steps above.
- Stay in a hotel, hostel, resort or tent with gratis internet access, preferably WiFi so your Skype-enabled mobile can connect easily.
- Believe it or not, an old school calling card is also a great way to phone home so long as your hotel doesn't ding you for calling out to a toll-free number.
AT&T international roaming details: click here
Sprint international roaming details: click here
T-Mobile USA international roaming details: click here
Verizon Wireless international roaming details: click here