Cell Phone Travel Basics: International Phone Plans, SIM Cards, and More

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Cell Phone Travel 101: The first (and only) time I experienced roaming charges, I was aghast. Like most people, I figured a couple of texts and a quick phone call whilst on a short trip to the U.S. from Canada wouldn’t be that expensive.

Wrong.

The extra $150 tacked on to my cell phone bill helped me understand that when I started traveling full-time, I’d need to rethink my cell phone travel strategy.

Well. I found a gazillion other ways to travel with your cell phone and remain connected while abroad, from best international phone plans, to international SIM cards, data SIM cards, international roaming options, online phone numbers, and much, much more.

Here’s everything you need to know.

This article contains a ton of ways to use your cell phone while traveling. The best option for you depends on how long you’re traveling, where you’re going, and what your connectivity needs are.

I’ve included pros and cons for most options, along with who various options are recommended for.

I’ll also share my personal strategies (which have changed over time) so you too, can pay as little as $150 per year for your total cell phone usage. (Yes, you read that right).

This article will help you choose the best cell phone travel plan for you. Includes pros and cons of international phone plans, SIM cards, data packages, and more! #fulltimetravel #longtermtravel #roaming #cellphonetravel #cellphone #unlockedphone #internationalSIM #dataSIM #mobileWiFi #travelphone
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International Cell Phone Uses

First off, let’s examine how a cell phone (which these days, is almost always some sort of smartphone) can be used abroad.

I’m really late to the “data” game. 2016 was the first year I ever had a plan that included data on my phone, and I’ll admit, it was a game-changer. To that point I’d simply bought pay-as-you-go SIM cards, and to keep my costs low, I only used my phone for calls; I relied on WiFi connections for everything else.

Well, the constant connectivity of having a data connection was not only a revelation, but I quickly learned to harness it to make travel safer and infinitely more convenient.

Smartphone - International Cell Phone Uses
Photo Credit – pexels.com/@pixabay

Here’s how I use my (data-enabled) smartphone while traveling now:

(See also: The Best Must-Have Travel Apps)

Uber – Say what you will about Uber and other sharing-economy initiatives; it is a gazillion times safer (and more cost-effective) than using taxis abroad – something especially important to stay safe as a solo female traveler. Uber drivers have public profiles, and before I get into their car I can see how many rides they’ve given and read reviews from other passengers. The rate is set in advance, so I can’t get scammed or taken the long way around, and I don’t need to worry about having the right amount of cash to pay them. (Read about how this traveler got scammed for 500,000 Vietnamese Dong in a taxi because she didn’t have change). But in order to effectively use Uber, you need a data connection.

Maps – I like Google Maps because of the great navigation/directions features (including public transportation), and ability to explore an area for restaurants and other establishments. Many map applications have offline versions in case you don’t have data, but they’re limited in usability.

Checking Flight Status and Airport Information – Whether you’re checking flight times and gate/terminal information, figuring out how to get to the airport, or determining the best lounge to hang out in once you’re there, you need a connection.

Translation – While Google Translate has offline dictionaries available, some of the best features that support live conversations require a connection.

Finding Accommodation on the Fly – Twice in recent history I’ve found myself (for various reasons) sitting on my luggage and having to find last minute accommodation. In one case I was in Sri Lanka and used the free airport WiFi to find and book the place, but there was a snafu with the pickup, and once I left the inside of the airport (and the WiFi connection), I couldn’t go back in to touch base with the hotel. If I had a global data connection (read on for more about that), I wouldn’t have had that trouble.

Contacting/Staying in Touch With Locals – To use my strategy for renting apartments abroad – as I’ve done in places like Bali, Thailand, and Guatemala – you need to be able to connect with locals (with either a phone number or WhatsApp account; more on WhatsApp’s many uses later).

It’s also handy if you’re meeting up with somebody in a public spot and you’re running late or can’t find one another. I remember some stressful meet-ups with readers and colleagues in busy Tokyo train stations that didn’t go smoothly, mostly because I didn’t have any cell phone/data/WiFi connection.

Work on the Go – A digital nomad’s work is never done, and whether it’s sorting through emails or posting timely updates to social media, a connection on the go can increase productivity.

(See also: How to Go Location Independent – the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide)

Taking a Selfie - How to Use Your Phone Internationally Without Charges
Photo Credit – pixabay.com/users/rawpixel-4283981/


Options for Locked Cell Phones – How to Use Your Phone Internationally Without Charges

If you got your phone from your cellular provider, then it’s probably locked. In most cases you are in a contract (often about two years), and the cost of the phone is incorporated into your monthly payments. Unfortunately this means you don’t have the best phone for international travel.

Regardless, you’re stuck with it (for now). Here’s how to use your phone internationally without charges:

Airplane Mode/Turn off Cellular Data

To avoid roaming charges, you need to turn off your home cell phone plan before you leave the country.

You can do this by putting your phone on airplane mode (and turning the WiFi function back on so you can connect to local WiFi hotspots).

Beware of borders! An American friend of mine was driving across the Canada/U.S. border. While he was still on the U.S. side, he sent a few instant messages. Unfortunately he was close enough to the border that unbeknownst to him, he was picking up Canadian cell signals, and his instant messages resulted in an extra $40 charged to his monthly bill.

Pros: It’s easy. Just put your phone on airplane mode and you’re ready to go. Alternately, go into your settings to manually turn off cellular data. 

Cons: The problem with just using airplane mode and local WiFi hotspots is that it limits your usability abroad (eg: no Uber).

Recommended For: People taking short trips or organized tours where a data connection is largely unnecessary.

 

Get the Best International Roaming Plans You Can Find

Contact your carrier to see if there is an add-on or plan change you can make to include international roaming. This will enable you to make and receive calls to your home cell number while abroad, and usually to have a daily allocation of data usage.

If you’re shopping for the best international phone plans, U.S. customers can check T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T, which all have either add-ons to existing plans (eg: an extra $10/day while you are traveling), or dedicated international cell phone plans.

Pros: You can continue to receive and make calls with your home phone number, and you don’t need to switch carriers or plans.

Cons: At $10/day (as an example), the cost for international roaming adds up quickly. Also, data speeds can be slow, so check the fine print with your carrier.

Recommended For: People who take regular short trips, and who need to be able to receive phone calls to their home number while abroad.

Temporarily Suspend Your Cell Phone Plan

Some carriers allow you to temporarily suspend your home phone plan so you don’t need to continue paying the full monthly fee for a plan you’re not using. There’s usually a charge for this, but it’s comparatively minimal (eg: $5-10/month).

Pros: You can travel for a few months without paying your home cell phone bill.

Cons: Your phone is limited solely to WiFi functions abroad.

Recommended For: People going on a long trip of fixed duration (eg: 2-6 months) and don’t want to lose their home phone number and plan.

Buy a Cheap Factory Unlocked International Cell Phone (Before You Go)

International unlocked phones can be inexpensive, especially if you choose an older model or non-brand name. Then, you can use any of the unlocked phone options in the next section for full (cheap) connectivity abroad. Leave your regular cell phone at home.

Make sure the phone you buy is GSM unlocked. What does GSM unlocked mean? It stands for Global System for Mobile communications, and ensures that your phone can work with cell phone signals around the world.

Pros: Having an unlocked cell phone to travel with gives you way more cost-effective options. Also, if your cheap travel phone is lost or stolen, it’s not as expensive a loss.

Cons: Your travel phone will probably not have the same functionality and quality as your home phone. If it’s your only camera abroad, your travel photos/video may suffer. Also, you can’t receive phone calls to your home number.

Buy a “Burner Phone” Abroad

What’s a burner phone? It’s a cheap local cell phone you buy while abroad into which you can insert a cheap local SIM card and have full connectivity. Think of it as a disposable cell phone for international travel. Where to buy a burner phone? It depends on the country, but places that sell cell phones and accessories should be able to help you.

Pros: As above, you can leave your home cell phone at home, and take advantage of cheaper local connection options with your international burner phone.

Cons: Depending on the phone you buy, functionality will be minimal. In Thailand my boyfriend bought a $40 “smartphone” that he hated using so much, he eventually stopped taking it out with him and just used his locked home cell phone (on airplane mode).

Also, environmentally speaking, “throwing away” a cell phone is a big no-no. (See also: How I travel with zero waste)

Buy/Rent a Mobile WiFi Hotspot

Mobile WiFi Hotspots (like KeepGo and TEP Wireless, links below) are portable devices that harness global data to give all your devices (eg: cell phone, laptop) a WiFi internet connection, regardless of where you are.

With KeepGo, you buy your mobile hotspot ($99) and then pay for data on a pay-as-you-go basis. With TEP Wireless, you can rent the hotspot ($13/day including unlimited data) or buy it for $130 and pay $8/day for unlimited data – which pays for itself if you are traveling for 20+ days.

The best international wifi hotspot depends on your needs. If you use a lot of data (eg: 1GB/day), then TEP is the best deal with unlimited plans. If you’re more judicious in your data use, KeepGo is best. The more data you buy with KeepGo, the better the deal (eg: 1GB is $26, but 5GB is $88).

Pros: You can connect multiple devices to one hotspot. It’s also great if you’re traveling with others, because you can share the connection (and cost).

Cons: It’s not cheap, and although the mobile hotspot is pocket-sized, it’s an extra thing you need to carry around with you.

Recommended For: This is a great option if you’re traveling as a couple or in a group, because you can connect multiple devices and share the cost.

KeepGo Mobile WiFi Hotspot


Best Mobile WiFi Hotspot for International Travel

KeepGo 

TEP Wireless

(Note, these are both affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase after clicking on them I will get a small referral fee. This doesn’t affect your price – and it helps me to keep this site running. Thank you!)

Woman Taking a Smartphone Picture - Options for Unlocked International Cell Phones
Photo Credit – pixabay.com/users/quinntheislander-1139623/


Options for Unlocked International Cell Phones

Despite the availability of options above, if you plan to travel long-term or full-time, the best travel phone is an unlocked phone, for a variety of reasons, including:

  • It makes no sense to pay for a full-service plan in your home country if you’re not there to use it.
  • Even if you pay for international roaming, your home phone number is useless to people at your destination who would have to dial long-distance to reach you even if you’re down the street from them.
  • With an unlocked phone, you have the ability to insert other SIM cards, which includes various options listed below.

If you’re really attached to your home cell phone number, consider moving it to a super basic no-frills plan, or even to an online service, as will be discussed in a later section about how to maintain a local phone number in your home country (or abroad!) without paying for a full plan.

Also, consider why you really want to keep your number. Although a long-held phone number might be emotionally difficult to get rid of, it’s not that big a deal any more, with so many other ways to keep in touch on the road. I toiled in getting rid of my cell phone number when I sold everything to travel (and it was a really cool number too! 706-NORA!), but I saved many thousands of dollars over the years in cutting it loose.

Not only that, but who even remembers phone numbers these days? Most people have numbers stored in their contacts on their phone and dial by tapping a name. I can’t remember most of my friends’ numbers.

How to Unlock a Cell Phone

Regulations for unlocking cell phones are becoming more lenient, but on the whole, once your contract is finished with your carrier and/or your phone is paid off, you can unlock your phone.

Contact your carrier to do this for you; they won’t volunteer to unlock your phone, but they are legally obligated to after a certain amount of time has lapsed. It’s very easy; they can do it remotely, and in a day your phone will be magically unlocked.

And don’t worry: if you wish to continue with your regular monthly plan, unlocking it will not make a difference. It just gives you more options when you travel.

If you’re in the market for a new phone, do yourself a favour and just buy a factory unlocked phone. Sure, it costs a chunk of change, but whether you’re amortizing the cost of the phone over the life of a contract, or paying for it up front, trust me – you’re paying for it.

And having an unlocked phone opens up a world (literally!) of money-saving opportunities, which we’ll explore below.


Buying a Local SIM Card (and Where to Buy a SIM Card)

With an unlocked phone, you can change SIM cards as often as you change your socks if you’re so inclined. And it’s easy to do; in many countries you can buy a SIM card at the airport, and buy credit on a pay-as-you-go basis through an app or online. No plans, no contracts, no hassles. SIM cards are generally cheap, and in some cases, they’re effectively free with an equivalent amount of phone credit that comes with the card.

Where to buy a SIM card? At the airport is best. Look for a stand in the baggage hall, or just after you leave the baggage hall. They’ll even set it all up for you in minutes.

While I originally thought they’d cost more at the airport because of the convenience, they’re usually competitively priced. Also, once you leave the airport, buying a SIM card can be more complicated, as local shops aren’t always equipped to set up new plans for non-residents.

Pros: With a local SIM card, you get a local phone number and can make/receive calls at your destination for local rates. You may also have cellular data (depending on the plan you choose), which not only gives you great accessibility abroad, but if WiFi isn’t reliable (as is the case in many developing countries), you can make your phone a hotspot and tether your computer or tablet for internet access.

Cons: If you are only passing through, buying and installing a SIM card might be a hassle just to use it for a few days. (Note that some countries offer plans that are as short as a week, for this reason).

Recommended For: Travelers who are staying a few weeks at their destination and want to be accessible to locals. Also, travelers going to places where WiFi is unreliable and/or a data connection is needed.

To give you an idea of the cost, here is what I spent (in $USD) on local SIM cards in a handful of countries:

  • Ecuador: $10 (pay-as-you-go talk/text credit included, data package add-ons are cheap; you can get unlimited plans for abut $20/month)
  • Peru: Similar to Ecuador
  • USA: $40 (included 30 days unlimited text/data, 100 minutes talk time)
  • Indonesia: $10 (included 30 days unlimited talk/text and 4GB of data)
  • India: $15 (included 60 days unlimited talk/text and 1GB of data per day)
  • Thailand: $25 (included 30 days unlimited talk/text/data; renewal for another 30 days was $15)
  • Vietnam: $10 (included 90 days unlimited talk/text/data)
  • Australia: $40 (included 30 days unlimited talk/text, and 15GB of data)
Buying the best international SIM card
Photo Credit – pixabay.com/users/andrewbecks-2948170/


Buying an International SIM Card/Global SIM Card

How does an international SIM card work? An international SIM card (also known as a global SIM card) gives you connectivity in most countries with one SIM. It comes with a free phone number (usually based in the U.S. or UK) that your family and friends at home can call you on, and you can get foreign phone numbers (for example, maybe you want one at your destination) so you can make/receive calls with locals; foreign/extra phone numbers range from free to $20/month, depending on the SIM card and the country. If your home cell phone plan has forwarding services, you can forward those calls to your international SIM card number so you can continue to receive calls made to your home phone.

Pros: As a SIM card for international travel, you’ll save the hassle of getting a new local SIM card at each destination.

Cons: Not all global SIM cards are created equal, and you’ll need to spend a lot of time sifting through international SIM card reviews and fine print to find one that suits your needs. For example, one card gives you a free U.S. and UK number, but only gives you free incoming calls to the UK number. Depending on where you’re traveling, making a local call could cost a fortune (for example, $0.66/minute to make a local call in Peru). Other cards advertise free incoming calls, but the fine print reveals it’s not the case in all countries. Other cards yet charge connection fees (eg: $0.20) every time you make/receive a call. And many have complicated dialling procedures. While international SIM cards are cheaper than roaming, on the whole they’re not super cost-effective depending on your destination and needs. There are way cheaper methods of staying in touch with locals as well as distant family and friends (read on for more options).

Recommended For: Fast travel through many countries, where it doesn’t make sense to get a local SIM card or use one of the options below.

Best International SIM Card Providers

I’ve tried a few global SIM cards over the years, and on the whole I haven’t found them particularly user-friendly nor worthwhile. But they’ve come a long way, and perhaps you’ll find one that’s perfect for you. Here are some popular options (in no particular order; good luck finding one that suits your needs). Note that most of these companies also offer data-only SIM cards and packages – which we’ll discuss below. However in most cases, these companies aren’t nearly as competitive as dedicated Data SIM cards are.

Go-SIM

WorldSIM

One SimCard

iRoam

BNEsim

Know Roaming


Buying an International Data SIM Card – For Local and International Data Plans

When I first learned about data SIM cards, I lumped them in the same category as international travel SIM cards and treated them skeptically. I have since changed my viewpoint (dramatically), and my current cell phone strategy involves using a data SIM card all the time.

Data SIM cards can be offered in a few different formats, including regular SIMs, eSIMs, and SIM “stickers” or “microchips” which stick to your home cell phone plan SIM card. The idea with the stickers and eSIMs is that when you travel, you can turn off your home plan and switch over to your data SIM card all in your phone’s settings. It’s like having a dual SIM unlocked cell phone even if your phone only holds one SIM card.

A data SIM card offers you….you got it…..data. There’s no phone number associated with the SIM card, and in most cases you purchase data as you go through an app on your phone.

Data packages vary depending on the provider. Many offer packages based on geography; for example, if you’re going to Europe for two weeks, you can get a data plan that covers you in Europe for that time period. If your next trip is in South America, you can get a data plan specific to that area. Or, you can purchase international data plans that tend to be more expensive but cover you anywhere/everywhere.

Prices for data also vary depending on the amount of data you purchase and the expiry date. The longer it is to the expiry date, the more the data will cost (but the longer you can amortize that expense).

My advice? Look for deals. My data SIM card provider of choice is Flexiroam, and they regularly offer buy-one-get-one and even 70% off specials. I wait to buy data until they’re featuring this special, and then I purchase 5GB of data for under $40. I do this 2-3 times per year, which means my total global telecommunications costs are around $100….per year. (Read on to discover how I have a phone number without paying for a plan).

I like the flexibility of global data, but you can get even better deals if you buy local/regional data. Let’s say you’re going on a two-week vacation somewhere specific. With Flexiroam, you can buy 3GB of data that is good for 15 days and limited to just one country for as little as $6 (if you buy it at the 90-day advance discount rate). This gives you an idea of how much the cost of data can vary, and every data SIM carrier has their own pricing structure.

Pros: You have a data connection wherever you go, and you can customize your plan to each trip you take. With a data plan, you can also turn your phone into a hotspot to connect other devices if you’re in an area with poor/no WiFi. Having a constant data connection (when there’s no WiFi) has transformed my ease of travel (I can’t believe I only “discovered” data a few years ago!).

Cons: Every data SIM provider has a different system and pricing structure, so if you want the best plan for you, you’ll have to do some comparison shopping.

Recommended For: Honestly? Everybody. I am all about using data SIM cards, when paired with some of the communication options listed later.

I’ll also note that when comparing my data consumption with friends and colleagues, they don’t understand how I use 10-15GB of data per year; some of them go through the same in a month. I don’t know who is more out of touch – me or them! (Probably me).

But if you adjust your phone’s settings to ensure that things like automatic backups to the cloud only happen over WiFi, and you limit streaming and other optional internet activities while out and about, it’s more than achievable. This assumes I have a solid WiFi connection wherever I’m staying to do the “heavy lifting” online.

Best International Data SIM Cards

Flexiroam (This is my first choice, and I’ve been a paying customer of Flexiroam since 2017)

KeepGo

(These are affiliate links, and I’ll receive a small commission if you purchase these cards, at no extra cost to you).

It’s worth noting that some/most of the global SIM card companies in the prior section above also offer data SIM card options. On the whole I suggest using a company that specializes solely in data SIM cards, but feel free to check the other sites; depending on your needs, they may offer something competitive (but don’t hold your breath).


Google Fi

Google Fi is only available to U.S. residents. It’s compatible with most Andriod and iPhones, but only certain phones are equipped to make use of their unique network-hopping service, which uses whatever cellular network is strongest in that moment, as well as automatically connecting to secure WiFi hotspots (using their built-in VPN) to reduce data consumption on the go.

Data costs the same regardless of where you are in the world, and only costs $10 per GB. Additionally, there’s a price cap at 6GB of data per month, after which it’s free (though speeds slow down after you’ve consumed 15GB in a month unless you pay extra for an “unlimited” data option).

You’ll pay $20/month for unlimited calls and texts in the U.S. (including calls to the U.S. from abroad), with different rates for international calls depending on where you’re calling to/from and whether you have a WiFi connection. They get you when you make international voice calls when you’re not on WiFi, at $0.20/minute.

Pros: This is a (relatively) low-cost full-service phone and data plan that follows you everywhere you go in the world. Data pigs can rejoice in the capped rates for data and the special network-hopping service to ensure a strong connection (if you have a Google Fi device). You can receive calls to your home phone number anywhere in the world.

Cons: Anybody other than U.S. residents need not apply. Also, international voice call rates can be prohibitive if you’re not on WiFi. Lastly, GoogleFi won’t give you a local phone number abroad (but this can be solved using some of the options below).

Recommended For: Americans who want an easy to understand, capped rate, cell phone plan to follow them around the world, with the ability to receive and make and calls to/from their home U.S. phone number while traveling.

Man using phone in city - How to Use Your Phone Internationally Without Charges
Photo Credit – pexels.com/@matthew-rader


How to Maintain a Local Phone Number in Your Home Country (or Abroad) Without Paying for a Full Plan

If you plan on traveling long-term or full-time, it doesn’t make sense to continue paying for a “home” phone number and (often pricey) cell phone plan that you’re not using.

There are plenty of ways to have a local phone number for your family and friends in your home town to reach you on, without being beholden to a traditional cell phone carrier/provider. Many of the options below will also allow you to transfer/port your current home phone number over to their service.

Pair any of the options below with a Data SIM card (featured earlier), and you will be constantly connected, for a fraction of the price of most local home cell phone plans.

Fongo – Best Free Canadian Phone App

Fongo - best free Canadian cell phone app

This one is only for Canadians, but I mention it first because of it’s total awesomeness and low cost (as in, free).

Simply download the Fongo app to your phone, and you’ll receive a free Canadian phone number that allows you to make and receive calls to/from any number in Canada for free over data/WiFi, from anywhere in the world!

That’s right folks: I can be in Calcutta and make/receive calls to/from my mum in Toronto for free (and it’s a local call for her).

SMS and international calls entail a small fee. You can also port your existing (Canadian) cell phone number for a fee.

Hushed – Best App For “Disposable” (or Not) Phone Numbers

Hushed - Best App for Disposable Online Phone Numbers

If it weren’t for Fongo, Hushed would be my first choice. (So if you’re not Canadian, or heck – even if you are, read on).

Hushed originated as a tool for “disposable” phone numbers (for example, if you want to create a dating service profile or buy something on Craigslist without giving out your “real” phone number). Since then, ways to use Hushed have greatly expanded, and they report many of their users use Hushed for their primary phone number, which works over WiFi and data connections.

In the U.S. and Canada, you can choose from a few different plans; the most expensive plan (offering unlimited calls and texts) costs $5/month, allowing you to make/receive calls to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for free regardless of where you are in the world (as long as you have a WiFi or data connection). You can also port your existing U.S. or Canadian phone number to Hushed.

Where Hushed shines is in the ability to also get phone numbers in 45+ other countries (download the app for free to see what countries phone numbers are available in). So, if you’re headed to Australia (as an example), with a few taps on your phone you can get an Australian phone number and a plan that allows you to make and receive calls to/from Aussie phone numbers (again, regardless of where you are in the world).

From what research I’ve done, Hushed might just offer the best value out there as an alternative to buying SIM cards in every country you visit.

Skype

Skype - for online calls and phone numbers

You can buy a local phone number in 26 countries, including the U.S. but amazingly not Canada (that’s okay we have Fongo: booyah!). You can answer calls from anywhere in the world for free with WiFi/data, or you can forward the calls to a local number at your destination (at Skype international calling rates).

The cost for a phone number varies depending on the length of plan you sign up for, but it’s about $5/month. No porting services are currently available. And in my experience, the connection quality with Skype can be unreliable.

Google Voice

To be honest, in researching Google Voice for this article, I found the system convoluted. But as far as I can tell, here’s the scoop.

You can only get a Google Voice number if you are located in the U.S. and have a U.S. phone number to set the account up. (After setup I believe you can terminate the U.S. number). For $20, you can port your existing cell phone number to Google Voice.

While you are in the U.S., you can make (and I assume receive) calls to the U.S. and Canada for free.

While you are traveling, you can use Google Hangouts (a related app) to make (and receive?) calls. Calls to the U.S. and Canada with Hangouts are free; per-minute rates apply to other countries.

Smartphone picture of plane propellor - Best Cell Phone Plans for Digital Nomads
Photo Credit – unsplash.com/@impatrickt


Best Cell Phone Plans for Digital Nomads and Full-Time Travelers

If you’ve read through all these options, you’ve probably already figured out what will work best for you. Here are some recommendations:

Online Phone Number and Data SIM Combo

This is my current strategy, both abroad and at home in Canada. I use Fongo for my Canadian phone number (but depending on where you live you can use Hushed, Skype, or Google Voice), through which I can make and receive calls to/from Canada regardless of where I am in the world.

To ensure a constant connection to make/receive calls and perform any other data-related functions (like using Maps and Uber), I also have a Data SIM card (eSIM) with Flexiroam.

Using this method, my total telecommunications costs are less than $150 per year, I am constantly connected, and I have an official number in Canada for residence/legal purposes.

While I rarely need a local phone number at my destination (see “other ways to stay in touch” for alternatives), if I do need one, I either buy a local SIM card or use Hushed.

Ditch the Home Number Entirely and Buy Local SIM Cards

This is what I did for most of my 12 years of full-time travel. I had no phone number in my home country for friends and family to reach me on; instead we relied on other ways to stay in touch which were all free (we’ll address these methods shortly).

To have a local number (and optionally, data) abroad, I would buy a local SIM card – preferably at the airport for ease of installation/connectivity and a good price.

Woman talking on phone - Ways to Stay in Touch While Traveling
Photo Credit – pexels.com/@kaboompics


Other Ways to Stay in Touch While Traveling (With Both Locals and Family/Friends Back Home)

In many countries I haven’t had SIM cards at all. I’ve either been passing through too quickly to bother, or I’ve had sufficient WiFi (and in recent years a data SIM card as well) to take care of all my communications needs with locals using the methods below.

And through all my travels, I have exclusively used these methods to stay in touch with family and friends back home.

Here are some ways to stay in touch with people around the world without needing a phone number. All of the options below are free to use with WiFi and data.

WhatsApp

WhatsApp - great for staying touch while traveling

WhatsApp can be used for instant messages, voice calls, and video calls. Both users must have WhatsApp installed.

In many parts of the world, WhatsApp is the standard for daily communication.

In Bali for example, because almost everybody uses WhatsApp, I was able to negotiate a place to rent with some locals there (who didn’t use email; we exchanged free voice calls and messages) while I was still in Japan!

In other countries (like Peru and Ecuador for example), pay-as-you-go phone plan top-ups include unlimited WhatsApp usage. Thus, some locals will put a dollar or two on their phone and exclusively use WhatsApp.

Also, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need an active phone number to use WhatsApp. You only need it to initialize your account and/or to change the phone number on your account. For example, I installed WhatsApp when I lived in Grenada and used my Grenada phone number to set the account up. After leaving Grenada, I continued to use WhatsApp seamlessly around the world. For new contacts to add me, I gave them my (discontinued) Grenada phone number, no problem. Years later, when I got a phone number in Thailand, I changed my WhatsApp contact number to the Thai phone number. I did it again with my Canadian number, just because it’s easier to have others in Canada add me as a WhatsApp contact if I’m not giving them some random foreign phone number.

FaceTime / iMessage

iMessage is for instant messages, and FaceTime is for audio and video calls.

This one is for Apple (iPhone/Mac) users only, but is a very user-friendly and reliable way to stay in touch, with a sleek interface and relatively stable connection.

Facebook Messenger

Almost everybody has Facebook these days, and their messenger app has functionality for making audio and video calls as well as sending instant messages. Connectivity is pretty good.

Skype

A free Skype account allows you to do audio and video calls with other Skype users. You can also load money on your Skype account and use it to call land lines and cell phones anywhere in the world. You can also buy a local phone number in a variety of countries, as mentioned earlier in this article.

Google Hangouts

With a Google account, you can access hangouts and do free audio and video calls with other Hangouts users.

This post took many weeks to research and write (and many years of trial and error to come up with the best options)! Did I miss something? Do you have another way to stay in touch that you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments below!

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34 thoughts on “Cell Phone Travel Basics: International Phone Plans, SIM Cards, and More”

  1. Hi Nora,
    thank you for mentioning Keepgo products in your guide. It is really clear and for sure should be helpful for a traveller of any kind.

    Reply
  2. Whoa 150 smackers Nora. That will wake ya up LOL. Big time charges on roaming I see. We have a phone, grab minutes and pay no more than $40 a month, usually $30 or so. Not big phone folks though. I wish to be looking up at the world not down at the cyber world. Super post, really helpful.

    Ryan

    Reply
    • Hey Ryan,
      Yeah, I’m not a huge phone person either. I prefer to work on my laptop and use my phone for incidental things. At $150/year in total phone expenses, I think I’m doing pretty well!

      Reply
  3. Very good article Nora. I shared it to a couple international travel facebook sites. I hope that’s ok. Thanks for publishing a practical guide free of the techno mumbo jumbo. Techno babble’s details are important, but often not required for a lay person to make a decision. Thanks and be well!

    Reply
  4. Hi Nora, thank you for this important resource that I will be bookmarking! I will add that in the U.S. my provider at the time (AT&T) has unlocked my phone *for the duration of my trip* while I was still under contract with them, which was super helpful as that means I was able to put in a new SIM while traveling in China.

    Now I have T-Mobile, which of course means I can get free unlimited data and SMS in many countries. I’m on a family plan and with 5 of us splitting costs, I end up paying USD $25/mo. for my day-to-day use in the U.S. (INCLUDING overseas internet & SMS in many countries).

    Reply
    • Hi Wilda,
      Great news on both fronts! I’m fascinated that AT&T temporarily unlocked your phone for your trip.
      And that’s a pretty snazzy plan you have with T-Mobile. Family plans can be very cost-effective that way.

      Reply
  5. Very interesting article. I would like to add that, some apps won’t be used at some countries and instead you’ll need to get that country’s equivalent. Some examples are: VK in Russia instead of (or together with Facebook), Viber instead of Whatsapp in the Balkans, Grab instead of Uber in Vietnam, 2GIS instead of GoogleMaps in Central Asia, Yandex Taxi instead of (or together with) Uber in Russia and other former USSR countries, WeChat in China (for everything you need), etc.

    Reply
  6. So, what I’m wondering is, if I don’t have a data plan with one of the big providers in the US, T-Mobile, ATT, Verizon, etc. what happens to my cell phone number? I’ve had it forever, so I don’t want to lose it.

    Reply
    • Hi Penny,
      You can port your existing U.S. phone number to Hushed or Google Voice (profiled in this post).
      This would allow you to cancel your U.S. plan altogether and just use a Data SIM card, which works anywhere in the world. This is exactly what I do, in my home country and abroad!

      Reply
  7. Hi Nora,
    Kim from Canada. My bank, every so often, sends a text to my phone with a code to input before I’m allowed access to my account.
    If I cancelled my Bell Canada account and got a telephone number from Fongo or Hush, would this authentication process work the same way? Can you still receive texts on phone numbers from either Fongo or Hush?

    Reply
    • Hi Kimberley,
      GREAT question! Here’s the deal: yes, and no.

      With Fongo, I have received authentication/verification codes via text. BUT….in some cases they don’t come through. PayPal is an example; I can’t verify my account by text with them. However they also provide an option to receive a phone call with the verification code; I can always receive those!
      My suggestion: Before you get rid of your Bell number, try changing your bank phone number on file to Fongo and see if you can either receive authentication texts or phone calls. Once you get that sorted, you can cut Ma Bell free. 😉

      As for Hushed, I’m not sure if they have the same challenges regarding verification texts. They have a pretty slick help service (I emailed them with various questions I had while researching for this article, and they were very helpful)!

      Reply
  8. Hi Nora, I’m interested in a Flexiroam data SIM plan. I checked out their website and I saw different plans. The one I was looking at offered a SIM and a microchip. What is a microchip? I’m not familiar with that term. Does it work like a SIM card? Thanks for all you do!

    Reply
    • Hi Heidi,
      A michrochip is actually a wee little sticker that sticks on to your existing SIM card. When you leave your home country, you just change a few settings on your phone and then you’ll have turned off your home cell phone plan and turned on the microchip (also called a SIM sticker) with the Flexiroam data plan!
      (Note: even though you still have your home SIM card in the phone, you won’t have access to your phone number. It’s like you’ve switched SIM cards without actually switching).
      The microchip is handy because you can use it whenever you leave your country and you don’t have to bother switching out SIM cards.

      Reply
  9. Hi Nora,
    Kimberley again. This info may be useful to others going this route. So, my Flexiroam X Sim card arrived and I installed but I couldn’t get it up and running at first……then I realized…..it was my VPN that was stopping the Sim Card from working. As soon as I shut the VPN off…..Flexiroam started working!

    I know you are BIG on always using a VPN when traveling. Which VPN do you use that can be enabled while using Flexiroam? Or, do you turn the VPN off when accessing data?

    My new Fongo telephone number is working beautiful and I’m receiving texts from my bank to confirm my ID when I log in so that is all working well.

    This article is one of the best you have writen. Thanks so much. I’m going to test Flexiroam for a couple of weeks and then…cut Ma Bell loose!

    Reply
    • Hi Kimberley,
      I’m so glad this system is working out for you!
      I’m on a mission to help Canadians change how they use their phones – at home and abroad!

      No, I never use a VPN with a cellular data connection; only with insecure WiFi connections.

      Reply
      • That’s very interesting. May I ask why you don’t use a VPN with a cellular data connection? Just wondering…..

        If you need a poster child for a Canadian switching over to Flexiroam…just let me know :0)

        Reply
        • Hi Kimberley,
          My understanding is that cellular data connections are already encrypted. The only reason you would use a VPN with a cellular data connection is to hide your activity from your cellular provider.

          From an identity theft/nearby hacker point of view, WiFi connections are where you are vulnerable and need a VPN.

          Reply
          • Hi Nora,
            Thanks so much for this information. Today I purchased 2 GB of global data using their Promo Code and I cancelled my Bell Account….I am now free of Ma Bell. Thanks for all the work you put into this article. I’m thrilled and ready for my next adventure!

  10. You have great articles and content on your site. I really appreciate finding info of particular use to Canadians – like this article. Thanks for sharing your travel research and wisdom!

    Reply
  11. This was so helpful! I had no idea I could get my phone unlocked now that it’s paid off and my carrier took care of it with no issues. And I’ll flag this for down the road when I’m traveling more frequently. It includes more information than many other posts I’ve read about long-term travel phone options. Thank you for sharing this!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Sam!
      Indeed, I couldn’t find any comprehensive articles on the topic, so I created one myself!
      I would appreciate it very much if you could share this article, since you found it helpful. Thanks!

      Reply
    • Couldn’t agree more – I’m planning to travel long term shortly and after worrying about tax residency, one way insurance, COVID issues around visas/entry and backing up passwords and docs, I woke up one morning and thought Oh God – 2FA! How is that going to work when I’m changing SIM cards in each country and no longer have the old number when the online log in is sending the code to it? Aaagghhh. 2FA is a pain when you’re not travelling and change devices etc let alone gallivanting the world! I think the trick is to set it up before you go, test it out as mentioned here then try and swap device – use another phone, a library PC or something and really reassure yourself that it’s covered. Also, I’m planning to have corresponding apps loaded for every important service like bank, gov etc and all the customer service numbers in a few places so at least I have multiple access portals if the worst happens. I was delighted the other day when I realised I could switch off 2FA on FB but then got a stern email from them saying turn it back on or your business ads and line of credit could be compromised. I guess FB is easily hacked as well. Information in here is invaluable and has probably saved many people from getting in a sticky situation

      Reply
      • So glad you found this post useful, Trudi! I know you’re “in the weeds” of travel planning at the moment, and it’s amazing how important it is that we have the right setup for phones etc these days – for 2FA among many other reasons!

        Do you have LastPass? There is a way to use it for 2FA. I haven’t set it up yet myself (I have LastPass though, and am a huge raving fan lol), but there may be a way to circumvent the requirement to get phone calls / SMS messages for 2FA.

        Reply
        • Hey

          I have to read up thoroughly on Last Pass and Hushed – on my list. I really underestimated how much time I would need to set things up before going – I was obsessed with paying down, selling off, getting rid. Some good reading yesterday about digital bank cards in banking app – not phone related but you need your phone for it and solves the problem of expiring plastic cards and getting them sent out to you. I don’t think people are being notified that you’ve replied to them in the comments? I just saw that you had by chance as I came back to look at Hushed info again – maybe need to adjust notification settings? Sometimes comments sections are so useful for leads and tips from people’s experience 🙂

          Reply
  12. Hello Nora,
    Just came across your website and am thrilled at the valuable info you share so freely with us.

    I am relocating to Mexico from Canada this summer and need to purchase a new cell phone. I love your advice “If you’re in the market for a new phone, do yourself a favour and just buy a factory unlocked phone.” Can you please provide some safe and reliable options for purchasing an unlocked phone in 2021? The google search responses give me a headache and are overwhelming since I have never purchased this type of phone before.

    Many thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Iris,
      Once you know what phone you want, you can probably buy it direct from the manufacturer (eg: Apple, Samsung).
      But basically, as long as you aren’t buying the phone through a telecom provider and signing up for a plan concurrent to buying the phone, it’s pretty safe to assume the phone will be unlocked.

      Reply

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