Using your phone internationally

When four of my family members traveled to Europe last month for seventeen days, they all traveled with their Verizon-enabled phones that are on my family plan. If they all chose to use their phones’ cellular service, even for a minute a day, the cost would have been $40/day x 17 or $560.

That’s because Verizon (and AT&T) charge $10 per each twenty-four hour period if the phone does anything over a cellular connection. The same is true even if you make a normal call over WiFi using your phone.

Instead of all using their phones, one of the four took out a different plan from Verizon, paying $100 for a month of international use that provides up to 250 minutes of calling, 1000 sent messages, unlimited received messages, and 5GB of data. These options are an improvement from the early days when we racked up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in calling charges while traveling internationally.  But they are still onerous and ridiculously expensive. 

There are a number of workarounds that they could have used, but didn’t because they decided to put their phones away and enjoy their travels, designating one person to do the research and navigation on their phone.  

Some of these workarounds were noted in a newsletter I highly recommend, the Advisorator, from Jared Newman. For five dollars a month you get useful tech tips from someone that lives technology every day.  Coincidently this week he talked about what he did on his own recent European trip.

He describes how you can unlock your phone to allow it to work with a SIM card you pick up in Europe. Most of our phones are either already unlocked after 60 days or can be done with a request to our cellular company. A few have restrictions, but it’s gotten much easier. Also, nearly all modern phones are designed to run on all cellular networks equally well.

Once unlocked we can purchase a local SIM card for about $30 and get 100GB data and unlimited text and phone calls. I’ve done this in the past, and it’s probably the most cost effective solution, but it’s often cumbersome to set up and you’ll have a different phone number and can’t use your normal number.

Another suggestions was one I was unaware of is: test-driving T-Mobile that offers free intenrational use of your phone:

 Last year, T-Mobile started offering a version of its “Test Drive” service for unlocked iPhones, letting you try T-Mobile’s data network for 30 days while still using your existing carrier for calls and texts. If you have an iPhone XS or newer, and are using a physical SIM card for your main carrier, you can just download T-Mobile’s app to start testing via the phone’s eSIM feature.”

And a reader suggested using Google Fi that offers attractively low rates that are the same for home and international.

Other options for staying connected are to use the Skype and WhatsApp apps to call over a WiFi connection and avoiding your carrier’s WiFi calling charges. During my recent visit to Paris, I found free WiFi in cafes, museums, restaurants, department stores and most everywhere.

It does seem unfortunate that after all these years Verizon and AT&T have still not adopted more reasonable data plans for when we travel, much as the foreign carriers have done for their customers. The phone today has so many more uses while traveling, including navigating, researching destinations, calling a cab and making reservations. But, unless we’re careful, doing what we do for almost nothing at home still costs a fortune when doing it in another country.

by Phil Baker