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International mobile plans and phones: Everything you need to know

No one likes to get home from an overseas vacation to discover a huge phone bill, but if you don’t plan ahead it could happen to you. From the provider point of view, using your phone internationally is a hassle: It requires a lot of data coordination and leasing required technology according to every country’s unique laws and varying data standards, which raises expenses. In the past, providers preferred to pass these expenses onto buyers by creating separate, higher fees for international use.

We’re seeing this trend die out as the competing U.S. phone and data providers look for new ways to appeal to customers. The result: More affordable international phone plans than ever before (although rates still vary based on your service and location). Let’s take a closer look at your options!

Canada and Mexico

Canada and Mexico typically have their own set of roaming/calling rules. Since they are adjacent to the U.S., it’s easier to build and lease cell towers and expand coverage in familiar ways. As a result, you may not need to pay any additional fees in these countries (and sometimes with extensions to the Caribbean and Central/South America). Here’s where the major providers currently stand with their Canada and Mexico plans.

AT&T: If you have Unlimited Plus or Unlimited Choice plans (among other qualifying plans), you have unlimited talk and text in all of North America, with no roaming charges. Otherwise you will need to get a $10 Day Pass.

Verizon: If you have an Unlimited Plan, you get unlimited Talk, Text & Data in Canada and Mexico without an extra charge. Otherwise, you will need to pay $5 per device per day, with your in-country data limits still applying. If you want to pay as you go, it’s going to be $1 per minute of talk and the going rate of $2.05 per MB of data.

T-Mobile: T-Mobile offers a unique Stateside International Talk plan that gives you unlimited calling and texting if you are calling from anywhere in North America (and calling out to any of more than 70 countries). You’ll also get discounted call rates to the other countries T-Mobile covers. This plan costs $15 per month, per line. Otherwise, you may be interested in sticking with your current ONE or Simple Choice North America plan, since they apply to Canada and Mexico as well as the U.S.

Sprint: For $5 per month, per device, you can get unlimited texting and calls to NA mobile devices at $0.17 per minute, with calls to a landline at $0.07 per minute. This service acts as an add-on that you can add to existing plans, which makes it a bit more flexible, but also significantly more expensive than other options. There’s also the Open World plan if you don’t mind making a bigger change for unlimited calling and texting in North/Latin America without the extra fees.

Global Plans

These plans apply to the world — or at least, to all the countries where the provider can offer services. This varies between 100 to 200 countries, so coverage to most popular travel spots won’t be a problem. However, it’s important to note any extra costs.

AT&T: AT&T started out 2017 by reducing roaming charges and generally making it easier to use your AT&T phone services abroad. You can now buy a “Day Pass” that allows you to pay $10 per day to access your normal, in-country calling, text, and data limits in more than 100 countries, which is an ideal option for shorter trips (calls back to the U.S. are free). If the Day Pass doesn’t work for you, there’s a $40 option for a month-long Passport that applies to over 200 countries. Otherwise, you will need to pay per use, which works out to around $1 per minute for most calls and a starting price of around $2 per MB of data.

Verizon: Verizon requires $10 per day per device for international traveling. If your stay is extended, you can arrange for a $25 per device per month package instead, which gets you a 100 MB allowance of data. However, talking is $1.79 per minute and texts are $0.50 for each sent, so there are a lot of costs to consider here. A $40 per device per month plan gives you more freedom to use your device without these extra charges.

T-Mobile: T-Mobile offers unlimited data and texting, plus very cheap talk, in more than 140 countries if you have the Simple Choice or T-Mobile One unlimited plans, making this one of the simplest options if you qualify. Otherwise T-Mobile’s options are highly stratified by country, with prices around $2 per minute of talk and $0.50 for most countries. There are some prepaid roaming options if you want to head a bit more off the grid and don’t mind paying for it.

Sprint: Out of the major providers, Sprint has one of the most traditional international plans. You can get a Call & Text add-on for around $15 per month, that allows calls to landlines in 60 countries and mobile in 35 countries without additional charges, plus lower rates for certain countries and unlimited (but not free) texting for more than 180 countries. Otherwise, it’s best to look at individual countries and check out rates based circumstances. Sprint tends to charge less for Cuba and more for China than other providers.

Prepaid plans

project fi

Prepaid plans focus on monthly fees with no contracts, and work with unlocked phones if you prefer one of these for travel. These services tend to be localized, but several offer advantages when traveling outside the United States.

Project Fi: Google’s Project Fi offers some of the most competitive international rates on the market. For $10 per GB (yes, GB), you get 3G-4G data with unlimited texting and calling at around $0.20 for most countries. The plan covers 135 countries and counting, and if you’re a fan of prepaid it’s probably your best choice.

MetroPCS: MetroPCS offers $5 unlimited Canada and Mexico options available for those who have a base rate plan of $40 or more (with some limits on the type of phone you use). There is also a World Calling Service for $10, which gives you 200 minutes for calling, 200MB of data, and 200 outbound text messages for all applicable countries.

GoPhone: GoPhone is an AT&T prepaid service with a number of plans to choose from. The Unlimited version includes coverage for Mexico and Canada. There are also a number of Long Distance calling options, including paying $15 for unlimited (but not free) calls to East Asia/India.

SIM cards

The SIM card is both the heart and brain of your phone—and it can be replaced with another chip. That means you can buy a localized SIM card or an international SIM card, replace your current SIM card, and transform your phone into a local model without associated out-of-country fees. A new SIM card typically comes with a brand new phone number too, which creates some complications (remember to update friends and family!), but it’s a viable strategy if you really want to keep your current phone model but also save money.

Note: A new SIM card requires an unlocked phone, or at least a whole lot of flexibility on the part of your provider. AT&T and T-Mobile are usually the best at supporting international GSM formatting and unlock options, but the other providers are catching up too, so you should first see how safe or easy it is to unlock your current phone. Otherwise, procure an unlocked phone for your trip.

Prepaid SIM cards in your destination country: These are SIM cards that you buy in the country you are visiting. They are sold everywhere from grocery stores to dedicated phone emporiums, so finding one shouldn’t be a problem. Choose a compatible card for your unlocked phone, plug it in, and get going with your new local number and rates. This is a country-by-country solution, so it’s most suitable when you’re primarily staying in just one country.

International SIM cards: International SIM cards are special chips specifically developed for global travel where you plan on visiting a number of different nations. These cards typically come with pre-programmed numbers for a country or region, and then allow you to add more regional numbers as needed, based on your travel plans. It’s a great customization option for complex travel plans, allowing free incoming calls for hundreds of countries around the world, and data rates as low as $0.03 per MB. Check out providers like One SimCard or WorldSIM to learn more.

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