Having a working cell phone and data plan can come in handy when traveling abroad. You can find your way using Google Maps, pull up a hotel reservation over email or even use your phone to help translate the local language. In this post we will outline a few international cell phone options and highlight our favorite: Google’s Project Fi.

Extend Your US Plan: Not recommended unless you are going on a short trip where you won’t be using your phone much

All major cell phone carriers in the US (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) now have the option to add international coverage to your basic domestic plan. While it may be convenient, it will also be extremely expensive, we can promise you that. Stay away! We do not recommend extending your US provider’s coverage unless you are traveling for a short amount of time and do not plan on using your phone too much. If you do decide this option is right for you, make sure you call your provider and fully understand the costs, service quality and data speeds in the destination you are visiting. Also, while you are traveling internationally, keep your cell phone on airplane mode so you can avoid using data unknowingly.

T-Mobile: Best plan for a frequent traveler who takes short, intermittent, trips abroad

Although we suggest not adding international service onto your US cell phone plan, if you are a frequent, US-based traveler, it may be worth your while to switch to T-Mobile. While T-Mobile service can be slow in certain parts of the States (check domestic coverage map) the Simple Choice International Plan will give you unlimited data and texting in over 140 countries. While T-Mobile, is a great option for frequent travelers, it is not right for long term travelers like us. Since it is still a US network, you must use it primarily in the states. If they track you using it abroad for a few months in a row, they will shut off your service. That’s the fine print we almost missed! When we went to the T-Mobile store to consult with them about our 8-month trip, they didn’t tell us this so we were all ready to sign up for our around the world trip.  If you are a long term traveler, beware, T-Mobile will not work for you! If you are a frequent traveler who takes short trips and comes back to the states in between your journeys, this plan is a great option for you.

Local SIM cards: Best for an extended trip to one destination

If you want to use local SIM cards when you travel you will need to unlock your cell phone (here’s how) or buy a new unlocked phone here. If your phone is unlocked, you can buy a local SIM card when you arrive in your international destination. The SIM card is usually pretty inexpensive. Depending on where you are traveling to, it may cost anywhere between $3-$15 USD. While traveling, you can refill your SIM card with talk minutes or data at any point. A local SIM card is not our favorite option because they can be confusing to master in a new country. However, if you plan on being in one country for an extended amount of time, we recommend this option because it is affordable and you will only have to learn how to work the system once.

World SIM Card: Best for multi-destination travelers who don’t plan to use their phone too frequently

If you like the idea of the SIM card system, but you are traveling to multiple countries, you can get a world SIM card that will work in multiple international destinations. We recommend Mobal. Rates are pretty affordable but certainly not as cheap as a local SIM card. Think about how much you will be using your phone and crunch some numbers. Look at the call/text/data rates for the SIM card and estimate how much you would be spending before you commit. The cost can add up fast if you rely heavily on your phone when you travel.

Cell Phone Rentals: Generally not your best option unless you are traveling to a destination for an extended period of time

In some countries you will find companies that rent out local cell phones. For example, Cellular Abroad rents out phones in several countries. Generally the phones are very basic and the rates are somewhat high. We don’t recommend this option unless you are going to be in a country for a long period of time and you don’t want to deal with switching SIM cards out of the cell phone that you use in your home country. 

Google’s Project Fi: Best all-around international cell phone plan

Google’s Project Fi, is our top pick for an international cell phone plan. We are currently using Google Fi as we travel the world for 8 months.

The basic plan is $20 ($35 for us because we have two lines) and it includes unlimited domestic talk and text and unlimited international texting. Once you enroll in the basic plan you can choose how much data you want to include in your package. Data works in 135 different countries and costs $10 per GB  wherever you are in the world (as long as you are in a covered country). If you do not use all your data during a billing cycle they do not charge you for what you don’t use. If you use more data than you have on your plan, they do not charge you any penalties, they just charge you at the same rate of $10 per GB. So simple, that’s why we love it. Additionally, Project Fi will search for open WIFI connections wherever you go, so you end up using less data than you would on another plan. It is easy to track your data so you know how much you have used.

So far we have loved Google’s Project Fi international service. We are currently in South Africa and we are amazed how easy it is to use our data. We are traveling with someone who has the Verizon international plan and his data never works when ours does, and we are paying ¼ of the cost that he is for Verizon. A big win for Project Fi!

The one thing we have heard people don’t like about the service is that currently it is only supported on three different cell phones (the iPhone not being one of them). We purchased the cheapest option, the Nexus 5x, and while it takes a little getting used to, it is a solid phone.

If you are a frequent or a long-term traveler you will certainly will want to check out Google’s Project Fi. Even if you don’t have plans to travel in the near future, and you are just looking for a simple, more affordable plan, Project Fi could be right for you.

Click here for an interesting read about the typical Google Fi customer.

Some final thoughts:

While having a cell phone abroad can be extremely helpful and can be an important safety resource, it can also take away from your travels. Often we see travelers glued to their phones and instead of asking locals for some advice on where to go or what to do, they rely on Google. Make sure you take time to “unplug” when you are abroad. Don’t use your cell phone for everything as it can take away from authentic, adventurous experiences you will naturally stumble upon overseas. 

We want to hear from you! What cell phone plan do you use when you travel? Let us know in the comments below

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