Young woman in plaid shirt uses a cell phone
Having a phone plan with data ensures internet access wherever you go — but how does this work when you're traveling?
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / martin-dm

Staying Connected: How to Use a Cell Phone While Traveling Internationally

Don’t Pay the Price for Staying Connected

Sharing your travel stories used to be done on the back of a postcard, or in an airmail letter. These days it is done in Snapchats, Facebook posts and Instagram photos.

Many travelers want to share what they are doing as they are doing it, making using a cell phone overseas close to a necessity these days. After all, how will your friends and family know you are eating pizza in Rome if you don’t check in on Facebook? And how will you check in if you don’t have data?

Sure, WiFi is plentiful and only becoming more accessible, and there are many fun ways to keep in touch with family and friends, but having a phone plan with data ensures internet access wherever you go. Plus, the days of phone booths are nearly over, so if you have an emergency and need to contact your family, your bank or even the next hotel you’re planning on staying at, having a phone plan can make life a whole lot easier.

Purchasing a Roaming Package

One option for using your iPhone abroad is to contact your home phone plan provider and inquire about purchasing a roaming package. This package will allow you to keep your existing number and use a certain number of texts, minutes and data while traveling.

It pays to go over what you will get and how much it will cost before you leave home. Unless you are totally confident with what you will be charged, you should always make sure you turn off your mobile data before traveling abroad, and be careful about replying to text messages and taking calls.

If you are still on your home phone plan, you could be charged huge sums of money for using your phone abroad, and you wouldn’t be the first traveler to be caught unawares.

Although the rates for roaming plans are getting more competitive, they can still be more expensive, or simply more inconvenient, than getting a phone plan while you are abroad.

Of course, deciding whether you need a phone plan abroad depends largely on the kind of travel you plan on doing. If you are going away for a one week vacation, you probably don’t need to worry too much. Between free WiFi, apps that work offline and having a great time, you won’t have time to think about a phone plan, or notice you don’t have one.

If you are going abroad for a longer period, staying connected becomes more important. If you’re traveling, studying or volunteering abroad for a month or more, having the ability to use your phone becomes almost essential.

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Getting a Local Phone Plan

The other option for using a cell phone in Europe or wherever you might be traveling is to purchase a local phone plan. Having a local number is the best way for people within the country to get hold of you. In turn, you are more likely to be calling more local numbers, which can add up to be very expensive unless you are on a local phone plan.

The good news is, phone plans are typically cheap and easy to get hold of. Prepaid phone plans are the best option for travelers. You can typically buy a SIM card for a local phone plan provider in most supermarkets and malls. They are usually very cheap, and once you have one you can just add credit as you go.

Most prepaid phone plans will do bundle deals, giving you texts, calls and data, usually for between $10 to $20 a month. There are almost always a range of providers to choose from, so if you are unsure which plan to choose, ask a local for their advice.

They will be able to point you towards the phone plans with the best deals and reception coverage.

You might just be grabbing one of these phone plans for a few weeks, or a month, but it can still be worth doing a little research into what comes with your new phone plan. Some phone plans in Europe, for example, will allow you to make free calls to landlines in more than 100 countries around the world: so there’s a good chance you will be able to phone home.

Being able to call home for free is enough incentive in itself to pick up a phone plan abroad, even if you scarcely use it for anything else.

Last Minute Tips

There is only one major hurdle when it comes to getting a phone plan abroad. If you are planning on using your phone while abroad, the most important thing to do is make sure your phone is “unlocked.”

You might not have realized this, but if your home phone plan provider has locked your phone, you won’t be able to use it with any other provider while overseas. The idea behind this is to stop you switching from one mobile phone company to another.

This might make sense on some level in your home country, but it can be a major problem if you want to use another provider while overseas.

If your phone is locked, getting it unlocked and travel-ready is fairly straightforward. In most cases you simply need to contact your phone plan provider to request you phone be unlocked.

Your phone company shouldn’t have any reason to protest, as long as your account is paid in full. Just be sure to do this unlocking process at least a month before you travel. Sometimes it can take a few weeks for the “unlocked” status to come into effect.

Once your phone is unlocked, buy a SIM card anywhere you are in the world, pop it in your phone, and away you go.

One final tip: just make sure you keep your home SIM somewhere safe, so you can pick up with your old number as soon as you get home!

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