Don’t Take Your Regular Cell Phone Abroad
7 Cheap Alternatives to Handing the Phone Company All Your Money
by Tim Leffel
Some resources updated by Transitions Abroad 8/1/2023
When Eileen Kugler and her husband spent a month volunteering at a school in South Africa, they got a nasty surprise when returning home: a “staggering $440 bill” from AT&T Wireless. They thought they were being prudent. They spent extra on an international plan before leaving and occasionally used the phone to communicate with their elderly parents. Like most who tell a story like this, they are shocked that so little conversation time could result in such an outrageous cost.
However, running up a staggering bill doesn’t take much talking or data usage. In almost all cases, the cell phone you use at home is better left at home. It is commonly $1 to $3 per minute for calls from another country to the U.S., plus you’ll probably pay for every text message. The charges can hit $5 a minute in Russia and China. Forget getting a break in North America; cross the border between Canada and the U.S., and you’ll be paying sky-high international rates. On top of all this, you’ll pay extra taxes and often nefarious “connection fees.”
Many people return home from a one or two-week vacation to bills of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Las Vegas resident Mamta Odhrani had a typical reaction after her $400 surprise from T-Mobile following ten days in India and Hong Kong, “I felt like I hardly ever even used my phone.”
It might sound very convenient to carry a smartphone around the world, but data charges can be even more costly than voice calls. Every email, every map lookup, and every Google search can generate charges ambiguously billed as something useless like “0.016 per kb.” Some vacationers have learned the hard way that their phone was continuously downloading emails while sitting unused, to the tune of over $100 a day.
Unless you have an unlocked quad-band phone to swap out SIM cards and buy prepaid local minutes, you should not use your home cell phone abroad. Yes, that includes the fancy iPhone you own or are lusting after—unless you never even use the 4G or 5G connection and only use it when in a Wi-Fi hotspot. As it stands now, most of the U.S. and Latin American cell phone carriers will charge you a fortune to roam elsewhere. Most European phones are sold unlocked, but you’ll still pay a fortune in roaming charges if you don’t swap out the SIM card.
Note: For those who wish to bring their home cell phones along as an emergency backup, or for a sense of the familiar, T-Mobile has introduced a less expensive and flexible plan with far cheaper roaming charges and plans for cell phones internationally, but not all major phone companies have followed, and their plans usually provide small rations of data while usually costing more where 5G are even available. Check carefully with your carrier to see if they offer such international plans and what is included, and get their rates for comparison to the other options outlined below. Here are some of the better international cell phone plans.
7 Cheaper International Cell Phone Alternatives
So how do you stay in touch? Here are the best alternatives. Use these to avoid paying your predatory cell phone carrier a month’s traveling budget.
1. Skype, Zoom and Google Meet with Wi-Fi are Beautiful on Your Cellphone, Tablet, and Laptop
Some short- and long-term travelers go without a phone during their time abroad. For those backpacking around the world, Skype is a beautiful thing and one of the cheapest, while Zoom (which zoomed in use during the Pandemic) and Google Meet have also become very popular, and often cost nothing to use on WiFi. Many of the remaining Internet cafes have the services installed and headsets plugged in. If traveling with a laptop, iPad, or phone, you can use Skype at any of the many multiplying Wi-Fi hotspots, including your hotel room. Either way, you’ll pay pennies per minute to call anyone from your preloaded account. (Skype to Skype, Zoom to Zoom, and Google Meet calls are free, all with paid conferencing high-end options.) Skype even has cheap plans for setting up call forwarding and a voice mailbox using your choice of area codes, which can be very convenient for long-term travel in conjunction with a cheap cell phone package abroad.
2. Prepaid International Phone Cards
For a quick call when not online, it’s usually far cheaper to use a phone storefront, a calling card, and a pay phone, especially in Latin America. For example, a call from a Mexican pay phone or kiosk costs around 50 cents a minute to the U.S. Using your own cell phone will cost you two or three times that amount—with spotty coverage and call quality. In countries such as Peru or Panama, you can pop into any phone kiosk or Internet café and make an international call for 5 to 25 cents a minute, routed over a VoIP system. You can check your voicemail messages, respond to any of them that need a reply—and use the savings for a nice dinner!
3. SIM Card Swaps
Purchasing an unlocked international tri-band or quad-band phone is the best bet if you must make or receive many calls in a foreign country. When you arrive at a new destination, you switch out the SIM card for a local one at any phone shop (even at the airport) and pay local rates afterward. Once the minutes have expired, you can reload the card nearly anywhere, including convenience stores. A comprehensive list explains how cheap SIM card swaps work abroad by country and where to purchase them. Before leaving home, you can get an international SIM card from various sources.
4. Cell Phone Purchase on Arrival
If you don’t already have the phone, buy that on arrival as well. In Thailand, $100 will get you a basic unlocked quad-band phone, a SIM card, and around 80 minutes of talk time (at 60 cents a minute) to the U.S.—with free incoming calls. You’ll pay more in Europe, less in Latin America. Then the phone is yours to keep using elsewhere with a new card.
5. Phone Rentals
If it’s a short trip or you’re doing a lot of quick country hopping, your best bet might be a rental phone set up before you leave. You buy an iPhone for a long trip of a month or more or rent it from TravelCell for a short one. Either way, you pay for the days you use it and may have unlimited data. Incoming calls are free in some locations, with outgoing ones generally the same or lower than what your carrier charges. These services are usually “carrier neutral,” so they roam on whatever local network is the strongest, resulting in better call quality. These services work best in Europe and parts of Asia where competition and a common standard exist. For Latin America and much of the Caribbean, you will still pay dearly to stay connected no matter what. But, as always, shop around if this is your chosen option.
6. Wi-Fi Phones
IIf you have a new iPhone or another device that can make calls through Wi-Fi, adjust your settings so that you only use the data function abroad when you are in a hotspot. That way, you surf for free or whatever you pay for the wireless Internet connection. Whatsapp allows free conversations, chat, and more from any smartphone with the privacy of proper end-to-end encryption, often with astonishing sound quality.
7. Software Solutions
If you’re willing to work a little harder to get cheap calls, there are ways you can do it on your regular cell phone. With RebTel, you use an app with local routing to bypass international charges. These methods may add a layer of hassle but will route you away from the oligopolies.
Tim Leffel is author of several books, including A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. See more on his Cheapest Destinations Blog.