How to stay connected while traveling abroad
What are the best cell phone plans for traveling internationally? This is a question many people are wondering, but there isn’t a whole lot of information about. So I decided to sign up for Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile while trading internationally to the UK, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland to figure out what the best options are for traveling abroad.
When you’re traveling abroad you have two questions: what works with my current plan and what are the other options?
It turns out you have 3 options:
- Do nothing
- Get an international add-on for your current plan
- Sign up for a plan from a local carrier when you arrive at your destination
Let’s break these down.
Option 1 - Do nothing
The first option is simple. Toss your phone into Airplane Mode to avoid any international roaming charges and use your hotel WiFi for staying connected. Cheap, effective, and it’ll work great with apps like WhatsApp, Messenger, and iMessage.
But let’s be honest. Hotel WiFi can be slow and unreliable, and sometimes you want cellular data while you’re walking around to look up restaurant reviews, get directions, or unlock one of those really cool electric scooters that are taking over Europe.
Option 2 - Add an International Add-On to your current plan
This brings us to option #2: adding an international add-on to your current plan. Keep your number, keep your plan, just pay a little extra to use it while traveling internationally. These add-ones are often more expensive, but this option can work great for short trips or if you need to be able to send or receive calls or texts from your personal phone number. Each carrier handles this differently, so please reach out to your current provider to find out exactly what their options are. My research indicates most people are using Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile, so I decided to sign up for all of these plans and compare their international offerings.
Here’s what I found and here’s what you need to know.
Verizon three types of international options:
- Monthly International Plans
- Pay As You Go
Verizon TravelPasses - TravelPasses are $5/day for Canada and Mexico and $10/day intentionally. Your current plan carriers over, so if you are on an unlimited plan you get unlimited internationally as well. Unfortunately data speeds are slowed after just 0.5GB of usage per day. What does this mean? Data speeds go from being fast, like really fast to borderline useless. Web browsing no. Music streaming no. Google Maps, no. Social media no. And video watching forget it. You can use it for light email use; iMessage and other text-based messaging apps; and if you have Google Maps data pre-loaded, for tracking your location. The good news is that most people will probably be fine with 0.5GB of high speed data per day, but when it slows down it is a real bummer. Five TravelPasses are included for free in Verizon’s Above Unlimited plan. Otherwise you’re paying $10/day, and this adds up quickly. A 10-day trip like ours would add an additional $100 to your plan (or just $50 if you’re like me and paying for Verizon’s $95 Above Unlimited Plan.
Verizon Monthly International Plans - For longer trips Verizon thinks they have the answer––Monthly international travel plans. Two options here: $70/month for 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 0.5GB of data or $130 for 250 minutes, 1,000 texts, and 2GB of data. Both plans allow you to receive unlimited incoming text messages as well. Now you may be thinking, okay, these are pretty low amounts of minutes, texts, and data... are they per day? Per week? No these are PER MONTH, and the monthly cost is in addition to whatever plan you have in the U.S. Verizon, first, who is going to use 0.5GB of data PER MONTH, and second, you’re going to charge me a total $165 per month for this plus OVERAGE CHARGES? I mean what the F#*!––
Verizon Pay As You Go - Moving on to Verizon’s Pay As You Go rates, which is their final option. These are expensive and will also add up quickly. Definitely not worth it.
Verizon Final Thoughts
All three of Verizon’s international options are only available for post-paid plans, and my take is this: Get the Above Unlimited Plan and enjoy the 5 free travel passes if you’re going to be traveling a lot, pay the $10/day for up to 3 days if you need more days or have a different plan, and avoid the monthly plan and pay as you go rates at all costs. If you’re going to be in a location for a longer period of time, consider signing up for a local plan. These are often way cheaper and give you way more data––more on these later.
AT&T has a two similar options to Verizon. The creatively named:
- AT&T International Day Pass
- AT&T Passport
AT&T International Day Pass - The day pass is $10/day and lets you use your whatever your current postpaid plan is and use it internationally. If you have an unlimited plan, you’ll be able to use unlimited minutes, texts, and data internationally too. Data speeds are fast, and the personal hotspot and WiFi calling features worked for me too.
Note that calls from International DayPass countries to non-international DayPass countries will incur an International Long Distance charge. This is in addition to the $10 DayPass charge. If your international usage exceeds 50% of your total usage for two months in a row, the feature will automatically be removed from your plan.
AT&T Passport - The second option is the AT&T passport. AT&T has two available plans here, and they are both ridiculous. Listen to this: $70 gets you 1GB of data for 30 days, $120 gets you 3GB of data for 30 days, you're charged $0.35 per minute for calls, and if you go over you over your data allotment AT&T will automatically add more data at $50 per GB. THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS. No. Just no. Don't even think about it. No. Moving on.
Sprint has different approach to international. Their Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Premium plans include Sprint Global Roaming at no additional charge. Enjoy coverage in 200+ countries with calling at $0.25 per minute, free unlimited texting, and free unlimited data at 2G speeds. From my experience, these speeds are slow. And we’re talking like, barely usable slow. 0.10Mbps down and 0.10Mbps up. Like Verizon, these speeds are okay for light email, iMessage, other chat apps, and tracking your position in Google Maps, but wow will they test your patience.
I think Sprint knows this. For those comfortable living off the WiFi at your hotel and coffee shops, you’ll be fine. But for those who want to throw your phone against a brick wall, Sprint has the answer in the form of international add-ons.
Sprint’s International Add-Ons - Sprint offers two international add-ons. $5/day gets you unlimited high speed data for a day, and if you need more $25 gets you high speed data for a week. Compared with Verizon and AT&T, these prices are very reasonable and the data speeds are great. You’ll be able to use your phone again.
Okay, so with T-Mobile you’re probably on the T-Mobile ONE plan. This plan includes 5GB of LTE data in Canada and Mexico, and unlimited 2G data in over 210+ countries. Keeping with the trend of Verizon and Sprint, T-Mobile’s unlimited 2G data unusably slow, except for iMessage, email, and tracking your location in Google Maps. So to fix this, T-Mobile has an onslaught of different options:
- T-Mobile ONE Plus
- Global Plus 15GB
- International 1 Day Pass
- 5GB International Pass
- 15GB International Pass
Let’s quickly breeze through these.
T-Mobile ONE Plus ($15) - Essentially the same as T-Mobile ONE but with 2x the data speeds internationally and unlimited in-flight WiFi on Go-go enabled flights instead of just 1 hour. For 15 extra bucks, this isn’t worth it.
Global Plus 15GB ($50/month) - Global Plus 15GB is essentially you signing up for an international plan along with your current T-Mobile plan. You get 15GB of LTE data in 210+ countries, unlimited calling and messaging, and 5GB of LTE hotspot data per month. A little expensive, but great when compared with Verizon’s and AT&T’s offerings and ideal for longer international trips, such as study abroad programs.
International 1 Day Pass ($5/day) - This is exactly like Verizon’s TravelPass, execept its $5 instead of $10. You get 512MB (0.5GB) of high speed data for a 24 hour period along with mobile hotspot capabilities and international unlimited calling in 210+ locations. It’s a small amount of high speed data, but probably worth it.
5GB International Pass ($35) - This gets you 5GB of high speed data, mobile hotspot, and unlimited calling for 10 days in 210+ supported locations. A great option for slightly longer trips.
15GB International Pass ($50) - The 15GB International Pass is basically a one-time payment version of the Global Plus 15GB add-on. For $50 you get 15GB of high speed data, mobile hotspot, and unlimited calling for 30 days in 210+ supported locations. Similar to the Global Plus 15GB option, this is great for study abroad programs or longer durations of travel.
T-Mobile Final Thoughts
For T-Mobile, basically everything is worth it besides their T-Mobile ONE Plus plan. It just depends on your use case and how long you’ll be traveling. For many people, the free included unlimited 2G data will be fine. You can send your iMessages, track your location in Google Maps, and send that out of office email you forgot about. When you need faster speeds you can use WiFi at your hotel or virtually any coffee shop. Otherwise consider one of T-Mobile’s International add-one to meet your needs.
The last carrier I decided to test on my trip to Europe was Google Fi. Why? Because I had heard many people rave about its great international service on Reddit. And the truth is, they were right.
The way Google Fi works is you pay $20/month for unlimited talk and text, and then $10/month per GB of high speed data. If you hit 6GB of data, then everything after that is free and your plan essentially becomes an unlimited plan. You also only pay for the data you use. If you use 1.3GB, then you’d only pay $13.
What’s amazing about Google Fi is international coverage is included for free with their plan, and their rates remain the same. Not only that, but data speeds are fast. None of this slow unlimited 2G data nonsense. You get full, high speed LTE data all the time. I love it. You can see Google Fi’s full list of supported countries here, and similar to Sprint there are some international calling rates. Oh, and by the way, with Google Fi you can make and receive phone calls and texts over WiFi, so if for some obscure reason you don’t have service you can still use your phone as you normally wherever you can find a WiFi connection.
How do Verizon vs. AT&T vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile vs. Google Fi’s international plans stack up?
We covered a lot on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Google Fi’s international plans. So how do they really compare? Let’s find out.
The 10-day trip comparison
Say you’re like me and going on an international trip for 10 days. Here’s what each carrier will cost you (assuming you want fast data speeds and the cheapest price possible):
- Verizon: $145/month
- AT&T: $170/month
- Sprint: $100/month
- T-Mobile: $105/month
- Google Fi: $80/month
It’s pretty clear Google Fi is the hands-down winner for international traveling, however Sprint and T-Mobile are close seconds. In fact, I really like T-Mobile’s approach, as I think they do a better job accommodating different use cases including longer study abroad programs or shorter adventures.
But either way, these plans are EXPENSIVE. You’re adding $35-$100 to your plan just to use it internationally for a FEW DAYS.
Which brings us to the final option.
Option 3 - Sign up for a local plan at your destination
It turns out cell phone plans in the United States are expensive. Ridiculously expensive. So much so that literally anywhere else in the world you can sign up for a $20 plan and have all the data you could possibly need for your trip. Except for Canada. And Australia. I’m sorry to all the Canadians and Australians out there. You have it rough.
But literally anywhere else in the world and you can take your phone, sign up for a local plan, pop out your SIM card and pop in the new SIM card, and be good to go. All the data you need at a fraction of the cost.
Let’s take a look at some of these plans. When I was roaming internationally in Denmark, Sweden, the UK, and Iceland, these are some of the carriers my phones were connecting to. Here’s what they have to offer:
- $24 - 2GB LTE
- $40 - 6GB LTE
- $50 - 30GB LTE
- $60 - Unlimited LTE
- $27 - 5GB LTE
- $38 - 15GB LTE
- $48 - 50GB LTE
- $24 - 3GB LTE
- $29 - 8GB LTE
- $36 - 15GB LTE
- $41 - 30GB LTE
- $17 - 2GB LTE
- $19 - 6GB LTE
- $23 - 10GB LTE
- $28 - 25GB LTE
- $32 - 30GB LTE
- $24 - 10GB LTE
- $24 - 5GB LTE
- $32 - 15GB LTE
- $40 - 30GB LTE
To me, it is evident signing up for service from a local carrier in the country you are visiting gives you the most data at the best price. For a 7-10 day trip, paying around $30 for 10GB of LTE data from a local carrier is absolutely worth it over paying $5 to $10 per day for an international add-on. You’ll SUPERIOR speeds at a great price, and I think that’s what most people are looking for.
Paying $5 to $10 per day can make sense for some shorter trips, however it doesn’t seem worth it to me for longer stays. Opt for a local service plan, or save your money and mooch off of the free wifi at coffee shops and your hotel. You’ll be fine.
And of course, for those looking for definitive winners, I would say the best international plans are from Sprint, T-Mobile, and Project Fi. However, the best option for you will ultimately be the one that keeps you connected.