The cellular phone is a magnificent invention that has become one of the most important gadgets in our lives. Although I started my travel career without one, I’m actually not sure how I did it! But it does open up a whole can of worms when it comes time to shop for the best international phone plans.
What happens when you have to travel internationally and need to use your phone? This is where is gets tricky – and if you don’t make the right choices, damn expensive. There are quite a few travelers that were shocked at their phone bills after coming back from their international trips due to a few phone calls or innocent texts.
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.
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 to family and friends back home while abroad.
Here’s everything you need to know.
This article will provide you with a list of the best international phone plans, international data SIM cards, international roaming options, online phone numbers, and a lot of things that you should be aware of.
You’ll learn 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, what kind of phone and phone plan you currently have, 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).
Table of Contents:
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.
As a traveler, there are multiple ways that you can use your phone internationally. Obviously you’ll want to be able to communicate with people back home. This can be done in a few different ways such as making international calls, sending international texts, or using international data. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
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.
Other ways that you can use your phone internationally include using apps, checking your email, using GPS for maps and other things, or even posting on social media. These apps uses can be extremely helpful while you’re trying to navigate a new city or country.
Here are some of the most commonly used apps for travelers and how I use my (data-enabled) smartphone while traveling now:
(See also: The Best Must-Have Travel Apps)
Uber – Many of us are already familiar with this ride-sharing app that is available in many different countries. With Uber, you can request a ride with just a few taps on your phone rather than hailing a taxi on the street.
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 – Of course, you will definitely need a map app while you’re traveling to help you get around. Google Maps is probably the most popular and widely used map app in the world. 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. It offers voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation in different languages, traffic conditions, public transportation options, and more. Other popular map apps that travelers use include Waze and Citymapper. 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 – When you’re traveling, there’s always a possibility that your flight might be delayed or canceled. To avoid any stressful situations at the airport, it’s always a good idea to have a flight tracker app on your phone. 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. Some popular flight tracker apps include FlightAware and FlightStats. These apps will provide you with up-to-date information on your flight’s status as well as any delays or cancellations. You can also use these apps to check the airport’s information such as terminal maps, parking availability, and more.
Translation – If you’re traveling to a country where they speak a different language, then having a translation app on hand can be extremely helpful. Google Translate is one of the most popular translation apps and it offers text, voice, and even handwritten translations in over 100 languages. It also has features such as conversation mode, instant visual translation, and offline 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 – If you’re the type of traveler who likes to spontaneously book a last-minute trip, then having a hotel booking app on your phone can be a lifesaver. 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.
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.
Locked phones are a pain, we know. You’re effectively leasing your phone from the carrier, and if you want to leave them, you have to pay a penalty. It also severely limits cost-effective options for using your phone internationally.
However, there are a few things you can do to get the most out of your locked phone while you’re abroad without racking up a huge bill.
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).
This will disable all data connections, so you won’t be able to use any apps that require an internet connection. However, your phone will still work if you’re connected to Wi-Fi.
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
If you prefer to use your phone while you’re abroad, then it’s important to find a good international roaming plan.
Many carriers offer international roaming plans, but they can be expensive. So, it’s worth shopping around and comparing different plans to find the one that best suits your needs.
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.
Some providers offer great international plans for their customers, such as AT&T and Verizon plans:
- AT&T International Day Pass: Pay $10 per day for unlimited high-speed data, text and call in over 220 countries
- Verizon TravelPass: For as low as $5-$10 per day in over 185 countries you can have unlimited calls, texts and a regular daily data allowance.
- Verizon International Monthly Plan: If you’re a frequent international traveler, this could be the best option for you. For $100 per month, you get 250 minutes of talk and 1000 texts with 5 gigabytes of data in over 185 countries.
Most plans will offer you a discount if you’re traveling to multiple countries. For example, T-Mobile offers a $5 per day international roaming rate in over 210 countries for their customers.
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. This can be a great way to save money if you’re planning on being abroad for an extended period of time. Just be sure to check with your carrier before you leave to make sure that this is an option. 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
If you’re planning on traveling overseas frequently, it might be worth your while to buy an international cell phone before you go. Factory unlocked phones can be used with any carrier, so you’ll be able to use a local SIM card without any issues.
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/Rent a Mobile WiFi Hotspot
With a locked phone and roaming turned off, you’ll be beholden to WiFi connections, unless you buy or rent a mobile WiFi hotspot.
Mobile WiFi Hotspots (like KeepGo and TravelWiFi, 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 – the more data you buy in one go, the less it costs. Or you can sign up for a pre-paid monthly plan that costs less on a per-GB basis but is only good in USA and Europe. You can switch between plans whenever you like.
With TravelWiFi, you can rent the hotspot ($7/day including unlimited data) or buy a hotspot for $149 and then buy data packages depending on where you’re going and for how long.
The best international wifi hotspot depends on your needs. To me, the KeepGo website is a bit easier to understand with global data, but if you’re only going on one short trip, renting a hotspot with Travel WiFi might make more sense.
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.
Best Mobile WiFi Hotspot for International Travel
KeepGo (use coupon code PROFESSIONALHOBO for 10% off)
(Note, KeepGo is an affiliate link, which means if you make a purchase after clicking on it I will get a small referral fee. This doesn’t affect your price – and it helps me to keep this site running. Thank you!)
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.
But, what exactly is an unlocked phone? An unlocked phone is a cell phone that is not tied to a specific carrier. That means you can use it with any carrier, both in the US and abroad.
There are a few different ways to get an unlocked phone. You can buy an unlocked phone outright, or you can buy a locked phone and then unlock it yourself.
If you’re buying a new phone, then you’ll want to make sure that it’s “factory unlocked” before you leave. That way, you can use it with any carrier, both in the US and abroad. However, if you’re not planning on buying a new phone, then you can still unlock your phone yourself. It’s a bit more complicated, but it can be done.
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
If you want to use your phone with a different carrier, then you’ll need to unlock it.
There are a few different ways to do this, but the most common is to use an unlocking code. Unlocking codes are simple and easy to use. Just enter the code into your phone and it will be unlocked. The only downside is that you’ll need to find an unlocking code for your specific phone. But, there are a few different ways to do this.
First, you can try searching online. There are a number of websites that offer unlocking codes for a variety of phones.
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. This is the best way to use your phone while you’re traveling because it’s much cheaper than using an international roaming plan. Plus, it’ll give you a local number that people can reach you at.
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. Just be sure to buy a SIM card that is compatible with your phone.
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. That way, you can get online and start using your phone right away.
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.
However, if you’re not able to do that, then you can also buy SIM cards at many convenience stores and mobile phone stores. Just be sure to ask for help if you’re not sure which one to get.
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 an International SIM Card/Global SIM Card
If you’re going to be traveling to multiple countries, then it might be worth getting an international SIM card or a 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
Now that you know all about international SIM cards, you might be wondering which one is the best. And, to be honest, there’s no easy answer.
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.
It really depends on where you’re going and how much you’re willing to spend. However, we’ve put together a list of some of the best international SIM card providers to help you make your decision. 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 – Go-SIM offers international SIM cards that work in over 190 countries. They have a variety of different plans to choose from, so you can find one that fits your needs. Plus, they offer free shipping to anywhere in the world.
WorldSIM – WorldSIM’s international SIM cards work in over 200 countries, so you can easily stay connected no matter where you travel. With a variety of plans to choose from, you’re sure to find one that fits your needs and budget. Plus, WorldSIM offers free shipping worldwide!
One SimCard – One SimCard is a great option for international travelers. Their SIM cards work in over 210 countries and they offer a variety of different plans to choose from. So, whether you need a lot of data or just a little bit, you’re sure to find a plan that works for you.
BNEsim – The BNEsim international SIM card is a great option for those who need data while they’re traveling. With plans starting at just $9.99, you can get 1GB of data to use in over 70 countries.
Know Roaming – Know Roaming is widely known for their international SIM cards. Their cards work in over 190 countries and they offer a multitude of diverse plans to choose from.
Buying an International Data SIM Card or Data eSIM – For Local and International Data Plans
When I first learned about data SIM cards (now substantially being replaced with data eSIMs), 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 an international 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 country-specific data packages, which are generally the cheapest. Or, you can purchase international data plans (global 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 – for global data – is Flexiroam, and they regularly offer 70% and 80% off specials. I wait to buy data until they’re featuring this special, and then I purchase 5GB of data with a 180-day expiry date for under $30. 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.
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 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 for, and I’ve been a paying customer of Flexiroam since 2017). HOWEVER I will note that Flexiroam is best for global data, and only if you take advantage of their regular (like, monthly) 80% off deals. My advice? Just get the data SIM and a minimal amount of data to start. Then you’ll have the app and will get notifications of deals, at which point you can load up.
KeepGo (A more user-friendly interface, but more expensive data on the whole. Use THEPROFESSIONALHOBO for 10% off)
Airalo – Airalo is the data SIM card darling of many of my traveling colleagues, but it’s only because they don’t know about Flexiroam – ha ha! It’s very user-friendly, I’ll give them that. But with limited global connectivity, and no ability to roll over unused data by topping up before it expires, it’s also the most expensive option.
Get Nomad – This is a new addition to my list here as of 2023, an I’m going to give it a shot. Their global data is horrendously overpriced, so if you want global data, stick to Flexiroam. But if you prefer to get larger amounts of regional/local data with shorter expiry dates, GetNomad looks like a great deal. The interface also looks very user-friendly. I will share an update here once I have personal experience with it.
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).
Best Phone Plan For International Travel 2022
These are the two most popular international phone plans available to U.S. residents. They are both used by many of my colleagues.
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).
ALSO: Google Fi is intended to be a plan that is used mostly within he United States. They have started cracking down on long-term travelers and digital nomads who are using it abroad more than “at home” by canceling their plans. I believe they will still honour the phone plan part, just not the international data. If this happens to you, you can complement the Google Fi phone plan with an international data eSIM like Flexiroam (see above for more info).
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.
T-Mobile is another great option for international phone plans for Americans. With T-Mobile, you can stay connected in over 210 countries.
T-Mobile offers two international plans: the Magenta plan and the Magenta Max plan. These two plans offer different features and benefits. The Magenta plan is ideal for travelers who want unlimited talk, text, and data. On the other hand, the Magenta Max plan is ideal for travelers who want unlimited talk, text, and data with no limits.
Cost for one line
- Magenta Plan: $70 per monthly cycle
- Magenta Max Plan: $85 per monthly cycle
- Magenta Plan: Free for up to 128 kilobits per second
- Magenta Max Plan: free for up to 256 kilobits per second
- 25 cents per minute
- FREE from more than 210 countries
One of the downsides of T-Mobile is that its international data speeds may be slower than other carriers. On top of that, there have been instances that T-Mobile shuts down travelers’ in the past for roaming excessively.
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
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.
The big question I get from people about online phone numbers like these is: can I get “short code” SMS for two-factor authentication? Well, yes and no. In some cases they come through no problem. In other cases, I need to choose the option to get a phone call with the verification number. And if there’s no option for a phone call, I need to either call the help desk (for the bank or whatever organization), or I need to have the text sent to somebody else’s phone and they send me the verification number.
BUT. I will also say that I have used Fongo as my ONLY phone number since 2017, and I have always been able to make it work one way or another.
Hushed – Best App For “Disposable” (or Not) 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.
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.
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.
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 $200 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.
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 is a cross-platform messaging app that allows you to text, call, and even video call others for free. WhatsApp uses an internet connection so it’s perfect for travelers who don’t want to rack up an international phone bill.
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.
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.
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.
With a Google account, you can access hangouts and do free audio and video calls with other Hangouts users.
The bottom line is that there are a lot of great options for international phone plans. It really just depends on your needs and preferences. If you need unlimited data, then T-Mobile or Google Fi might be the best option for you. On the other hand, if you’re only looking for a cheap way to stay connected, then an eSIM data plan might be the way to go. Whatever you decide, just make sure to do your research so you can find the best international phone plan for your next trip!
This post took many weeks to research and write (and many years of trial and error to come up with the best options)! And I’m constantly updating it. 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!