Travel Gear: Roaming Abroad

Five smart ways to use your cell phone when you're far from home.

By Tom Samiljan

Using your cellphone while traveling internationally used to mean racking up astronomical bills. In the past two years, however, a combination of carriers’ lowering their roaming rates and a plethora of new third-party services that provide inexpensive calling and data across the globe have made staying in touch cheaper and easier than ever. Read on for five savvy, up-to-the-minute strategies for affordably roaming abroad.

Get a plan

Today prorated roaming plans are affordable, comprehensive and flexible: You can just add them to your existing plan, and you can start or stop them at any time. (Since they’re prorated, though, consider keeping them for 30 days in case you use up the full data allowance.) AT&T Passport gives you 120 megabytes of data, unlimited text messages and reduced-rate phone calls for as little as $30* a month, while Verizon Wireless and Sprint offer separate roaming plans for calls, texts and data, though these cost a bit more. T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan is also worth a look. Unlike the other add-on, prorated plans, this is a regular plan that happens to include free unlimited data roaming, though you’ll have to purchase a separate plan for roaming calls.

Going over your data allowance is expensive, but you can track data usage in your phone’s Settings area, or download an app such as My Data Manager (free), which will notify you and even shut off your data as soon as you hit a certain limit.

Flip your phone

Beyond roaming plans from your carrier, there are now even more ways to use your existing phone or tablet while traveling internationally. Third-party services, such as KnowRoaming (knowroaming.com), offer a special sticker that you put on your existing SIM card and that in combination with the KnowRoaming app will automatically switch your phone to a local network as soon as you land, providing you unlimited roaming for as little as $8 a day, as well as discounted rates for local and international calls. If you have an iPad® Air 2, opt for an Apple® SIM, which can automatically be switched to a local prepaid carrier without your having to change cards.

Prepay

Sometimes having a local phone number is better, especially if other people are going to be calling you, since you don’t pay for incoming calls. You can usually buy a flip phone with a prepaid SIM card from a local phone carrier for as little as $30, then simply add credit whenever you need it. SIM cards are also sold separately; these you can just slip into any unlocked phone you bring with you. And in some countries, such as Japan and Korea, you can rent local phones with high-speed access starting at $34 a week.

Make the most of Wi-Fi

Even if you have a generous data-roaming plan, it’s best to do major data-hogging activities—like Skype and Facetime calls, emailing, downloading apps and watching movies—while in a Wi-Fi hot spot. Boingo Wireless (boingo.com; $10 a month), FON ($49 one-time fee) and other services give you access to thousands of free and paid hot spots across the globe. And apps, such as JiWire’s Wi-Fi Finder, give you location-based addresses with directions of the nearest paid and free hot spots. Don’t feel like hunting down a hot spot? You can also purchase or rent a pocket-size MiFi hot-spot device that uses mobile broadband networks to give your device (and as many as 10 others) Wi-Fi access wherever you are. XCom Global’s for-rent portable hot-spot devices cost $15 a day for unlimited data in more than 195 countries (xcomglobal.com). And in many countries, such as Spain and Japan, high-speed MiFi hot spots with unlimited data are available for rent for around $80 a week.

Adjust your settings

The best way to avoid roaming charges altogether is simply to not use your phone outside a Wi-Fi network. To make sure you don’t, put your phone into airplane mode before you depart and then just turn on Wi-Fi whenever you’re in a hot spot. If you’re on a plan, make sure to shut off the Background App Refresh in your phone’s settings so your allowance isn’t used up without your knowing it. And remember to download any navigation or other maps before you leave a hot spot; that way you can just use your phone’s GPS, since it’s usually separate from the mobile network and exempt from roaming charges.

  • *All prices are in USD.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: March 2015