Ask the helpdesk: how to use your phone when traveling abroad

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Even though we’re getting mixed signals, many Americans say we’ve turned the corner from the worst of the pandemic. So it’s no surprise that people are gearing up for a big travel season, even if it will cost more than usual.

For some helpdesk readers, in the face of this pent-up wanderlust, some wonder what they’re supposed to do with their phone when traveling abroad. And finding the right answer can be trickier than expected.

Why? Well, the best solution usually depends at least a little on your personality. And the roaming offers offered by American mobile telephone operators are not always straightforward. Don’t worry, though: we’ve prepared a brief guide to walk you through the options for staying connected.

If you have any valuable tech travel tips, consider sharing them with us in an email to [email protected] — we’ll update this article with your best suggestions. In the meantime, here’s where to start for aspiring globetrotters.

1. Find your mobile operator and plan

This should be easy enough, but it’s an important starting point: different mobile carriers offer different roaming options. tariffs and functionalities for the use of the international telephone.

If you have a plan with AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon, and you passed a credit check when you signed up, you have the most options available to you. Meanwhile, customers of prepaid services like Mint Mobile, Tracfone or others might not be able to roam at all with their phone numbers. (If this is you, skip to step 3.)

It’s also a good time to think about what you need from your phone when traveling. Do you want to be online all the time? Or does the occasional phone call really worry you? Some travelers may want to disconnect almost entirely. If this is you, consider leaving your phone in airplane mode, turning off data roaming, and hopping on WiFi networks when you can find them. (Just be careful what you’re doing while connected to them.)

2. Evaluate your carrier’s international options

If you get a monthly bill from Verizon and AT&T, you have access to a handy international roaming feature: daily plans. On Verizon, paying $10 a day per phone essentially lets you use your devices the same way you would at home. AT&T offers the same functionality but charges $10 per day for the first phone and $5 per day for each additional phone.

Earnings? You can send and receive calls and text messages with your existing phone number, and use your mobile data at reasonably fast speeds for web browsing and streaming.

The problem, as you may have noticed, is that these can get expensive quite quickly. I usually use this option myself because these companies stop charging for day passes after 10 days, or $100 for a single person. But if you have a whole family that wants to stay connected, prepare for the next bill to be a lot more. higher than usual.

That said, the alternatives offered by these companies aren’t much better. For AT&T customers who don’t want day passes, their only choice is to pay for every text and every minute of phone calls at obscene rates. Verizon works the same way, with one twist: It offers an “international calling” feature for $100 a line that gets you 250 voice minutes, 1,000 text messages, and five gigabytes of data. (In a word: ouch.)

In comparison, T-Mobile customers have it a bit easier – most of their plans come with free international features.

The company’s low-cost Essentials plans give you free unlimited texting abroad and charge 25 cents per minute for calls. Its Magenta plans offer the same but add unlimited 2G data for free. Meanwhile, customers on its premium Magenta MAX plans get the same features, but with slightly faster data service.

Even then, don’t expect to do much more than basic web browsing without getting frustrated — T-Mobile says standard speeds on these MAX plans are well under 1 megabit per second.

3. Consider using a local phone service

If none of your phone provider’s options work for you, consider purchasing a SIM card from a local cellular service provider once you arrive.

The biggest advantage here is the price: you will save a lot of money. In Hong Kong, a favorite location, $15 gets you 8GB of data to use for web browsing and calling through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram for eight days. Meanwhile, Orange in France offers “Vacances” SIM cards that give you unlimited calls and texts in Europe and buckets of data that you can still use if you’re heading to another European country. (Pro tip: buy them at a local carrier store instead of generic travel SIM cards at the airport.)

The only real downside is that you have to use a different phone number abroad. This could be confusing for the people you’re trying to contact, and you can’t easily access passcodes sent to your regular phone number via text message.

Still, these deals might be worth it to some. But taking advantage of it requires some prep work.

First, you’ll need to make sure your phone is unlocked, which means it can accept SIM cards from different carriers and work fine on their networks. Most US wireless carriers don’t sell unlocked phones, but if your account is in good standing, you can ask AT&T or T-Mobile to unlock a phone you bought from them. Verizon phones, on the other hand, are automatically unlocked after 60 days.

Alternatively, if your finances allow it, you can buy a separate unlocked phone for use while traveling.

If you’re using a prepaid phone service like the ones we’ve mentioned before, you can also buy an unlocked phone for traveling – after checking compatibility with your carrier, that is. Prefer to stick to your own phone? Your provider may agree to unlock it for you.

Mint Mobile will unlock a phone you purchased from them if you meet certain criteria. After meeting with the Federal Communications Commission a few years ago, TracFone Wireless is required to do the same. Since this company runs other brands like Straight Talk Wireless, Net10, Simple Mobile, and Tracfone, you can ask them to unlock a phone you bought from one of them.

Before you go, consider bringing a few of these items – they could help you stay connected in a heartbeat.

  • A power bank. Some people spend more time using their phone abroad than at home. A portable battery can help keep it running for as long as you need.
  • Paper clip. Seriously. If you buy a SIM card overseas, you may need to install or remove it yourself. Some phones require you to stick something in a small hole to do this and a small paperclip usually does the trick.
  • An international telephone card. Think of it as a bit of insurance. Keep it with you while you walk, but not with other valuables like your wallet – that way you’ll have a reliable way to contact people back home if anything happens.
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