When I’m traveling to another country, I like to have a working cell phone with me. And if I’m going to let my kids wander off by themselves, like I did in Iceland, I like for them to have a working phone too!
Unfortunately, this can be a difficult process. You need to unlock your phone to put in a foreign SIM card. But your phone might not even be compatible with the cellular networks in another country! Here I break it all down so you can be confident that you’ll have a working phone– without breaking the budget.
Before we dive in, let me note that this information is specific to people from the United States. If you live in an EU country in Europe, there’s no need to keep reading: The new “Roam like Home” law implemented in June of 2017 allows you to use your plan in any EU country just as if you’re still at home. (No word on what will happen if the UK leaves the EU.)
Don’t forget that you’ll need a power adapter to charge your phone!
The four options for using your cell phone abroad
Here are the 4 major options you have:
Option 1: Becoming a Wifi nomad
First, you could disable roaming and just use your phone when you have WiFi; more and more hotels and restaurants will have free WiFi, though it will be harder to find when you’re driving. There are mapping programs that store all data on the phone (like Maps.me) you could use for navigation. Google Maps will also save portions maps for offline use. But you might have to pay a dollar or two a minute to send or receive phone calls, unless you call over WiFi, or use a service like Skype. Texts might also be expensive. And unless you know you have free international data on your current plan, turn off cellular data on your phone just to be safe. (iPhone: Settings–> Cellular. Android: Settings–> Data Usage) Your AT&T and Verizon plans won’t have free data; Sprint will, and T-Mobile might.
Option 2: Adding an International Data Plan
The second option is to pay for an International plan with your cellular provider, or use one is included with your current plan (Sprint and T-Mobile only.) Do not just start using data when you arrive. For example, in many countries AT&T will charge you $2.05 per megabyte of data you use while roaming internationally, unless you have an international data plan. How much is $2.05 per megabyte? Well, the homepage at icelandwithkids.com is about a quarter of a megabyte, so it would cost you 50 cents to load. Our article about planning your trip would cost about $1.50. If you’re browsing a lot of web sites and maybe doing some video chat with people back home, it would be easy to burn through a gigabyte of data in a week. Cost: over $2,000. Verizon charges the exact same rate.
On the other hand, if you have Sprint or TMobile as your carrier, international data might be free (depending on which plan you have) though at slow speeds. But that’s much better than an expensive bill. We’ll cover all of the specifics for each of the major carriers below.
Option 3: Buying a local SIM card
The third option is to buy a SIM card from a local cellular company. This will give you lots of high speed data for less money than just about any international plan (well, except for the free but slow ones.) The downsides: You need to have an unlocked phone, and you’ll have a local phone number instead of your own.
This doesn’t work in every country. In Canada, we were able to get prepaid SIM cards from Koodo, but it only worked because of a friendly salesperson. And in Italy you need to present your passport and register the SIM to your name.
Options 2 or 3 won’t work if your phone doesn’t work on the cellular network in your country. Most countries use the GSM network protocol, which is also what AT&T and TMobile use. But Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. Most modern phones (and all modern iPhones) can use both, but check your Verizon or Sprint phone at willmyphonework.net to make sure. An older phone like the iPhone 4S may not work if it was a CDMA model.
If you won’t have an unlocked phone that will work where you’re going, you can buy one for as little as $99.99. This new Moto E4 costs $124 if you have Amazon Prime, or $129 without. (As of February 2018, the Amazon Prime phones no longer have any ads.) That gives you a competent Android phone that is already unlocked. When you get back home, put it on Sprint’s 1 year free program, or T-Mobile’s low usage $3 a month plan as an emergency phone for the kids.
Look for the details below.
Option 4: Renting a Wifi hotspot
This is probably the simplest option you have, but only if you can find a good option. You can pay a daily free to rent a Mifi device from a local company; some rental car companies offer this as an add-on, or you can arrange for a rental yourself. Here you are paying for convenience. Your phone just sees the device as a Wifi hotspot, so you don’t need to unlock your phone, swap SIM cards, or sign up for international plans. (Phone calls and texts would still use your home cell phone plan, though.) And multiple people in the same family or group can share a single hotspot.
Let’s look at an example for Iceland. Trawire offers a device with unlimited data for $9 a day (with a minimum of 3 days.) And you can pick up the device from the airport when you arrive in Iceland. They will provide you with a return postage paid envelope; just drop the device in the mail on your way out of the country. You can connect up to 10 phones / tablets / laptops to the single Trawire device. The only downside is that you all have to be in the same place.
This is the gold standard for Mifi devices. Google “Mifi rental” for the country you are going to, and see how the offerings look. Here’s a checklist:
- Is there a fee to rent or buy the device, or just a per day charge?
- How can you pick up the device? Do you have to drive somewhere without Internet service?
- How can you return the device?
- Is there a limit on data, or is it unlimited?
The best option depends on your current cell provider
Below you’ll find information specific to each of the 4 major carriers in the US: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and TMobile. After that, we’ll cover the details of purchasing a local SIM card, should you decide to go with that option.
Traveling with AT&T service
Will my phone work? Almost definitely. AT&T uses the GSM network, which is also what most other countries use.
How much will I pay without a plan? A lot. $2.00 a minute for calls, $0.50 for each text sent, and $2.05 for each megabyte used.
International plans: You have two options to add an international plan and avoid the outrageous data fee. First, you can pay for a Passport plan for a month. $60 gets you 1 Gig of data, or $120 gets you 3 GB. Calls would cost 35 cents a minute, and texts are free. You can make a one-time purchase of a Passport plan, which will be good for a 30 day period of your choosing; no need to worry about your billing cycle.
Second, you can purchase an international day pass. For $10 a day, you can use your existing plan as if you never left home. So if you have a good data plan and a trip that isn’t several weeks, this can be a good option.
Unlocking your phone: If you purchased your phone from AT&T, it is almost certainly locked. That means you can’t use the phone with another carrier until AT&T unlocks it. AT&T won’t unlock a phone until you have finished paying for it; your monthly bill may include an installment payment for the phone itself, separate from the cellular service charges. Once the phone is paid off you can request an unlock.
If you have a prepaid plan and purchased the phone from AT&T, you can unlock the phone after 6 months of usage on AT&T.
Recommendation: Unlock your phone if you can, or buy an inexpensive unlocked Android phone, and use a local SIM card. Or pay the $10 a day to AT&T and keep your current plan.
Traveling with Sprint service
Will my phone work? Probably, but you should check at willmyphonework.net, especially if your phone is a couple of years old and is not an iPhone. Sprint uses the CDMA network, but most countries use GSM. Most newish phones can handle both, though.
How much will I pay without a plan? Almost nothing! Calls are $0.20 a minute, and texts and (slow) data are free. But see the list of countries at that link as well.
Free international plan: Sprint’s Global Roaming plan includes free international data; texts are also free, and calls are $0.20 per minute. Sprint is clear that “all sprint plans include” Global Data, so this should work in a prepaid plan as well.
So what’s the catch? The speed is 2G; given that 5G is going to become more common in 2018, 2G is several generations behind. The speeds may be as slow as 64 kbps. Not only is that not fast, it’s probably about 15 times slower than something you would consider fast. I’ve seen mixed reviews from people who tried it; it’s probably enough to send and receive e-mails (and texting should be great), but it might be frustrating for web browsing.
You may consider trying it for yourself, and then purchasing a data plan if you find it unbearable.
Paid international data plan:
Sprint should send you a text when you first turn on your phone in another country. It will provide instructions for how to activate high speed data. (They assume you’ll hate the free plan, and will pay to upgrade!) But the price is very reasonable: Pay $5 a day, or $25 a week for unlimited high speed data. This is the best option you’ll find among the major carriers. Pay $25 for a week for unlimited data and texts; calls are 20 cents a minute. That’s often better than a local SIM card.
Unlocking your phone: You can of course still consider a local SIM card. Sprint has a baffling page describing their phone unlock policy. Fortunately, you can ignore almost all of it, because they have a special option for customers traveling internationally. “For Sprint customers traveling abroad for a short period of time, often their Sprint service can be provisioned to allow for international roaming.”
That sentence doesn’t use the work “unlock,” so be sure not to say anything about unlocking your phone if you call customer service! If your phone is paid off, sure, go ahead and ask for an unlock. Otherwise, ask if they can “provision” your phone to allow you to use an international SIM card. Anecdotal stories online suggest that it might be harder to get your phone provisioned, now that Sprint’s international options are much more attractive.
Recommendation: Pay Sprint the $25 for high speed data.
Traveling with T-Mobile service
Will my phone work? Almost definitely. TMobile uses the GSM network,
which is also what most other countries use.
How much will I pay without a plan? It depends. If you have a T-Mobile ONE, Simple Choice, New Classic or Select Choice plan, calls are $0.20 a minute, and texts and (slow) data are free. On any other plan, you’ll pay $1.49 a minute for calls, $0.50 per text sent, and $15 per megabyte of data; that data rate is so high that in my opinion, it should be illegal. Make sure you check which plan you have.
Free International Plan: Included ONLY with T-Mobile ONE and Simple Choice North America plans. If you have one of those, you get free sow data (though at 128kbps, it’s not as slow as Sprint’s free offering.) Otherwise, you pay the absolutely outrageous cost of $15 per megabyte. Make sure you are absolutely certain you have the right plan!
Paid international data plan: You have one option for a modest speed boost. For $10 a month, you can pay for T-Mobile One Plus. One of the features included boosts your international service to 256 kbps. Let’s not call that fast, but rather less-slow. You’ll have to add this to your plan and then remove it once you get home.
You may have the option to pay to boost your speed even more. See instructions for adding high speed data passes and see what your options are for the country you are visiting. Some countries don’t allow for data passes, and so you are limited to 256 kb.
Unlocking your phone: In general, a device you bought from T-Mobile is probably locked. Once your phone is paid off (or after 18 months of service under some plans) T-Mobile will unlock it for you. You’ll have to contact support.
Recommendation: If you’re not a heavy data user, and just want e-mail and occasional web browsing, try the 128 kbps data for free and see what you think. Otherwise, use a local SIM card; unlock your phone or buy an inexpensive unlocked Android phone.
Traveling with Verizon service
Will my phone work? Probably, but you should check at willmyphonework.net, especially if your phone is a couple of years old and is not an iPhone. Verizon uses the CDMA network, but most other countries use GSM. Most newish phones can handle both, though.
How much will I pay without a plan? A lot. Calls are $1.79 a minute, sending a text costs $0.50, receiving a text costs $0.05, and data costs $2.05 per megabyte.
International plans: Just like AT&T, if you don’t sign up for a plan, you’ll pay an offensive $2.05 per megabyte used. And (again just like AT&T) you have two options here. First, you can add an International Plan. $40 a month gets you 100 minutes, 100 outgoing texts (incoming are all free) and 100 MB of data. Or pay $25 a month for 100 MB, but no voice minutes.
A second option seems better to me. You can pay $10 a day for a TravelPass, and use your data allotments from your regular plan. The first 512 MB per day will be at 4G speeds. You’ll be downgraded to 2G after that. But 512 MB is a lot of data per day, unless you’re streaming lots of video.
You need to activate TravelPass on your account; log in online or use the Verizon app. You’ll only pay for days you use data in another country. It might be best to just leave it active on your phone to avoid the possibility of a huge data charge in the future.
Unlocking your phone: Some good news for Verizon customers: Your phone is probably already unlocked. Which means you can pop a SIM card in it once you are in Iceland it will work. Verizon generally doesn’t lock devices. If you have an older Verizon phone and you are prompted for an unlock code, it’s either 000000 or 123456. If you have prepaid service, you need to call Verizon after 12 months and they can unlock your phone.
Recommendation: Buy a local SIM card, since your phone is likely unlocked. Check to make sure it handles GSM by looking at willmyphonework.net. Or pay $10 a day for TravelPass.
Icelandic SIM Cards
Let’s take a look at the logistics if you’ve chosen to purchase a local SIM card to use in your unlocked phone. Make sure you know how to remove and reinsert a SIM card into your phone. Most iPhones require a small paperclip (or SIM card removal tool, which is just a thin metal rod, like a paperclip) to be inserted in order to pop out the SIM card slot.
All SIM cards kits from all companies here can be adjusted for the size your phone needs. So don’t worry if you need a micro or nano-sized SIM card. The cards in the kits are perforated so you can “punch out” the size you need. Take the card out of your phone to see what size you need; then be careful to create that same size with the Icelandic SIM card.
- How to pick up? (No need to return a SIM card, which is good! You can keep using it clear up until your plane departs.)
- How much data, and how many call minutes and texts do you get? It’s nice to have enough that you don’t have to think about it. 1 GB of data is good, but even more is better.
Problems with your local SIM card
When you put in a local SIM card, your phone should just work. If your phone doesn’t connect, you may need to update your settings manually. Check out the APN Settings web site for your country. Click the country name on the left hand side of the page, and then choose your carrier. You may wish to save the instructions to your phone, or print them out and take them with you. Anecdotally, Verizon phones seem to have more issues with updating the APN settings.
There’s a lot to consider here. I generally choose a local SIM card, to give me the most data at the cheapest price. But all of the major US carriers have improved their offerings for international travel. On Sprint in particular, I think I would pay the $25 for high speed data. If keeping your phone number during your vacation is important, you now have options.
Finding a good MiFi rental option isn’t too common, but if you find a reasonably priced and convenient option, it’s a good choice that doesn’t involve messing with your phone.
Let me know what you think in the comments! Do you have a different cell phone provider? Do you agree with our recommendations?