Smart cell phones are one of modern life’s miracles but they also present multiple issues in international travel. U.S. based cell service is usually a costly option when traveling outside of America and, from experience, we’ve found it is often not the most reliable option. Before you leave on a trip, contact your carrier to find out what your options are and the potential costs.
CDMA vs. GSM, Prepaid vs. Contract Service.
There are three U.S. based CDMA providers: Verizon, Sprint and U.S. Cellular. While these companies offer international roaming, there may be countries where the service doesn’t work or is unreliable. It is also dependent on your specific phone (i.e. Verizon service is not available with iPhone 4). These providers offer special international plans but they are limited to specific countries and vary by cost. Again, we recommend that you find out your specific options before traveling.
All the rest of the U.S. service providers use GSM, as does the rest of the world. Because of this, phones from these providers are more likely to work reliably while traveling internationally. Their service costs can still be high so, again, we recommend that you find out your specific options and costs before traveling.
We would also recommend that you find out if your phone is unlocked or if it can be so that you can buy a sim chip from a provider in a country you are visiting. Often this can provide really inexpensive service for calling home. (See information on our Australia trips for an example of this).
Another recommendation is to buy an inexpensive dual-sim GSM phone. There are dozens of options for less than $100 and this would allow you to use your U.S. GSM service along with a foreign sim card in the same phone while traveling.
If you use one of the popular discount service providers (i.e. Straight Talk, Metro PCS) or use a prepaid phone plan, you really need to look into you options for using these services for international roaming. With a majority of these, international service just isn’t available.
International Service Providers
International cut rate cell service providers are also an option. They all work on GSM phones and most provide plans that don’t expire and only charge for actual usage. Some of the providers are Mobal, OneSimCard and Cellular Abroad. While all advertise free incoming calls in a large number of countries, they all require the person calling you to dial an overseas phone number. This shifts the cost to the person calling you. We have used One Sim Card service for a number of years and they offer the option of paying for a U.S. based second service phone number ($10 year) and than your account is charged 20¢ a minute for incoming calls. (See our article on our Asia trip for a review on this service as well as Verizon.)
T-Mobile service may be the one U.S. provider with the best international roaming service. This is probably because of T-Mobile’s international roots and the structure of their network. If you are a T-Mobile customer you can add international service for $25 per month (as of Jan. 2017) and your roaming becomes part of your regular service. That means unlimited text, calls and data for that one monthly fee.