International Travel and Cell Phones

When you have a cell phone, you feel a bit lost without it – especially if it’s a smartphone with a data plan.  So, what can you do when you travel overseas?

Pre-paid SIMs

If you have an MVNO (Republic, Straight Talk, Ting, etc), your best bet is to get a SIM card in the country you are traveling to once you get there.  I used to use to pre-buy my international SIM card for travel, but that’s more expensive than buying a pre-paid card when you get to where you’re going – I needed to give folks my phone number ahead of time, so the ekit route was best for me.  One thing to watch out for is that some countries require you to be a citizen to legally buy a SIM card (India), and you might not be able to get one at your destination.  It’s worth checking out before you go.

International Roaming

A second option, and one which I’ve used on short trips (2-4 days) is to just enable international roaming on your cell phone plan (free on AT&T), and pay per minute, per text, or per kb for what you use.  If you’ve switched your cell phone plan to an MVNO, this won’t apply to you, since you can’t roam internationally (and one reason I haven’t jumped the AT&T ship). In Europe, AT&T charges $1.69/minute and in Asia it’s $2.50/minute for talking – including a call going to voicemail! Everywhere I’ve been is $0.50 for an outgoing text message (SMS not MMS), and incoming text messages count against your domestic plan.  I generally encourage folks to text me rather than call me.

Data on international roaming is umm.. expensive to say the least.  I used my phone to check in on four-square once in Belgium on a per kb basis, and it ended up costing me almost $50 (and I had data disabled for that entire trip, except that one check-in….)  So, if you want to use data, I suggest you follow my next option.

International Data/Talk/Text Plan

With AT&T (at least), you can enable this for as little as a month, so if you’re traveling for 2 weeks or more and want data, I suggest you go this route.  I pay $30/mth for 120MB of data.  I was in Switzerland for 3 weeks last year, and didn’t use all of the 120MB I had available – and I used my phone for train tickets, GPS maps, etc.  I tried to keep the data usage down by turning off push, and forcing manual syncing of everything, but I certainly used my data.

I have this option enabled for September and my current international travel. The data you use internationally does not “count” against your domestic plan, so you basically get an additional 120MB above and beyond what you already pay for – as long as it’s used outside the US.  If you’re a very heavy data user, you can also pay for more, and as you go up in MB, the price per kb goes down.

In previous trips, I have not ever paid for an international talk plan, but on this trip I am.  A minute in Singapore and Malaysia is $2.50/minute without a plan, and I expect to spend at least 5-10 minutes on the phone while I’m traveling to sync up with folks I’m meeting.  AT&T offered a 15 minute plan for $30 – which works out to $2/minute, and any additional minutes are also $2/minute in Asia – and less in Canada.  I get to expense all this, so it’s not that big of a deal for me to add the 15 minutes.

The data plan, I’d add even if I weren’t traveling for business and getting to expense things.  I’d choose to pay for it myself, especially in Europe where a lot of things happen on mobile devices (train tickets, airline tickets/checkin, etc).  It was very nice buying my SBB tickets from the station platform!

2 thoughts on “International Travel and Cell Phones

  1. donebyforty

    My wife is about to go to Peru for five months so this is a timely post! We’re going to go with the option of simply plugging in an international SIM, as you noted, and talking mostly via Sykpe anyway. At least that’s the plan!

    1. Mom Post author

      I’ve never been on a trip that long, but I would think that a SIM card from Peru would be the best option, especially if most of the calls she’s going to make are local.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *