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How to Keep Mobile Data Costs at Bay When Traveling Abroad

Illustration for article titled How to Keep Mobile Data Costs at Bay When Traveling Abroad

It’s hard to think about giving up any part of your phone when you are so used to calling, texting, and browsing. And think about how many times you take pictures/videos and share them with your friends. Now, think about losing a lot of this stuff when you travel abroad.


Going through Instagram withdrawal is just one thing though. A digital detox is a good thing to have once in a while. But failing to plan for international roaming can leave you in kinda awkward situations (e.g. running around a new city searching for free Wi-Fi to message an Airbnb host for directions).

So, what options do you have to get a good phone and data service abroad, but also to make sure that you get that service at the lowest cost possible? Here are several:

Option 1: Get a Roaming Plan from Your Provider

Most major phone plans will have an international roaming plan, so this should probably be the first step in your research. Roaming charges can range from $5 to $10/day depending on the phone and plan that you have and what services you want while abroad. 


T-Mobile and Sprint probably have the best plans. Both have unlimited texting and data in their regular monthly plans. Data is slower (2G) but can be upgraded by paying $15 more a month temporarily when traveling abroad. 

Verizon has a travel pass for $5/day if you go to Mexico or Canada or $15/day in about 130 other countries. With the pass, you get unlimited text and data and calls home to the U.S. AT&T offers a plan similar to Verizon’s.


Note: If you do not subscribe to a plan in advance, you can end up getting a “sticker shock”when you get your next bill.

Option 2: Get a Different SIM Card

Buying a local sim card is a popular option if you are traveling to Europe or Southeast Asia because they are inexpensive and may actually be cheaper than what your own carrier’s plan may be.


Depending on your trip, you may want to choose between a country-specific or fully international SIM card.

But here’s the thing: your phone must be unlocked to use a different SIM card. So, you might not be able to buy a local SIM card if you are still paying off your phone. In this case, you can also buy a temporary burner phone along with the SIM card – problem solved!


Local or International SIM Card?

And here’s the other thing: If you buy a local SIM card, you can get prepaid data but will not be able to use it once you leave that country. This is a good option if you are going to stay in one place for a while.


Of course, the other option for a lengthy stay in a country is to find a local phone provider with a good short-term plan. In the UK, for example, Smarty is a good choice. You get unlimited calls and texts and some fixed amounts of data (e.g., 5/10/25 GB’s). And if you don’t use all of that data, you will receive a refund or credit toward the next month. Their plan further extends to 31 European countries thanks to abolished roaming charges.

Heading to Asia? China Unicom – one of the biggest telecom providers in the region – offers attractive local deals (Thailand, Malaysia, India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam), along with cross-Asia deals. A 4GB data plan for 12 days will cost you $22.90.


If you are traveling to more than one country, though, you will want an international SIM card. The perk here is that for a fixed price, you’ll remain connected in every country you visit. Usually, incoming calls and texts are free, and you can also buy prepaid plans. In terms of international SIM cards, here are some of the most popular options:


Telestial has a global card for a base price of $19, and you can purchase a prepaid plan of your choice along with a sim card. You can get a global or a Europe-only card, plus there’s a toll-free number that friends and family can use to call or text you. 


While you prepay for a certain amount of minutes and data from Telestial, local rates can differ – for example, France charges a flat rate of $0.25, while Japan’s is $0.59.


With OneSimCard you can get 2 phone numbers for Europe and the U.S. Incoming calls and texts from those two areas are free. You can choose a country-specific or global plan. The base cost is $29.95. 


OneSim offers a type of a la carte menu, each with separate costs. This can be a bit confusing, so you’ll need to spend some time on the company’s website looking at what you may really want or need. But they do also offer discounts. 


WorldSIM does not charge a base sim card price, but you need to add a prepaid credit ranging from $27 - $135. If you pay more than the $27, though, you also get some months of free global Wi-Fi. Rates of usage vary by countries, so check those out too.



KnowRoaming’s global card is pretty cheap - just $9.99, but there are no pre-paid plans. You pay as you use. Unlimited data costs $7.99 a day, and minutes for calls and texts vary by country.


Option 3: Get A Pocket Wifi

In some countries, you can rent a portable Wifi router for a pretty good price, so that you can log into the Internet from all the devices you carry, not just your phone. Best of all, the connections are secure. Several major retailers sell them, and you can buy one in advance.


This is a great option for people who are working while abroad – freelancers and digital nomads who may work in a variety of places, such as hotels, hostels, and cafes.

You can either buy a pocket Wifi (prices range from about $50 - $400 in the U.S., but the cheaper ones will obviously not be international) or you can rent one. Rental is probably the better option because you can be certain that it will work in a specific country or multiple countries, depending on the vendor you choose.


Usually, you will want to make a “reservation” for a pocket Wifi and then pick it up at the airport or have it delivered to your hotel. Here are examples of just a few rental plans:

1. Wifivox

Wifivox offers coverage in over 165 countries and delivers the device in most major European cities. There is no deposit but a minimum of a two-day rental is required. Pricing begins at €6.99/day in Spain, for instance, and is generally under $10 in most locations. Battery life is about 10 hours, and daily use up to a max of 100 GB.


2. XCOM Global

XCOM global is a Japanese Wifi rental service, offering coverage in 200+ countries. Prices begin at $7.77/day. No deposit required and there’s no daily data usage cap. You can connect up to 10 devices with a battery life of 10 hours. Also, you can return the gadget by mail.


So, here are the three main options. One or more should work for you. Just make sure that you plan in advance, check all of the possible charges, and pick the best one for you. You can’t avoid roaming charges or costs of using local connections, but, with enough planning and research, you can keep those costs as low as possible!

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