Traveling overseas often used to mean being cut off from your mobile phone number because your handset wouldn’t work in another country — or because you didn’t want to pay exorbitant roaming charges just to check mail or take a call from a friend while you were on a foreign wireless carrier’s network. Remember all those early iPhone horror stories when users would come home from gadding about Europe only to find their phones had been automatically checking mail on international networks and racking up the charges? A $3,000 phone bill is not the “Welcome Home” notice most people prefer.
Thankfully, things have gotten better in the travel department. If you have a trip abroad planned and want to stay in touch with friends here and there via mobile device, you have more connectivity options besides clinging to hotel WiFi, swapping in SIM cards or investing in a cheap pay-as-you-go burner phone.
All four of the major US carriers have international plans for phones and tablets to add onto your current service. (International roaming, not to be confused with international long distance, means your device works when you are using it in another country, not using it to call another country from home.)
Prices and services vary by carrier, but check out the offerings from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon. On AT&T, for example, you can add 30 minutes of voice on one of the company’s overseas partner network for $30. Note, however, that you will typically get charged for incoming calls and those that go to voicemail, so your minutes may disappear more quickly than you anticipated.
As another example, T-Mobile’s aggressively priced $50 Simple Choice plan gives you unlimited talk, text and data on its own network and unlimited international text and data in 120 countries, with voice calls 20 cents a minute. T-Mobile, as they say, is bringing it.
Data plans are also available if you want to text or keep in touch through email. For example, if you have a cellular-equipped iPad and AT&T, you can get 120 megabytes of data on AT&T’s International Plan for $30 — which may be enough for a week’s worth of email service and Facebook check-ins between WiFi stops while you and your tablet are touristing.
Whichever carrier you use, check its website for information on global services; Apple’s site also has a list of suggestions for iPhone and iPad travelers. Some carriers make it easier than others to sign up, but most sites have data calculators and other tools (like Verizon’s Interactive Trip Planner) online to help you make decisions on what you need. Just remember, if you add services to your current voice or data plan on any device, check to see if you need to turn off those services after you get back — or if the travel plan self-terminates.
With AT&T, you can sign up for the international plan right on the iPad, although you need to do it before you go. If you are an AT&T customer, check out the company’s international travel guide and page of data roaming tips. Verizon Wireless has its own checklist (and info for iPad owners) and both T-Mobile’s page o’ roaming questions and Sprint’s FAQ on the topic might be helpful if you use one of these carriers. Depending on your contract, some plans also give you access to your carrier’s WiFi hotspot network too.
Keep in mind that some mobile phones may not work overseas, particularly those that only use the CDMA technology. While Verizon and Sprint have traditionally used CDMA networks, you maybe be able to get a loaner handset from either Verizon or Sprint for your trip. Modern smartphones that use the GSM standard, like those offered by AT&T and T-Mobile, usually get along quite well in Europe.
Fiddling with your phone bill is not for everyone and the previous options like getting a cheap road mobile still stand. (And some people rather like going off the grid for a week because: vacation.) Still, for a little more cash, getting a temporary international plan does help you keep in touch with the world when you and the phone are roaming the globe.