How to Minimize Cell Phone Charges When You Travel Abroad


You can use your cell phone as usual when you travel abroad, but cellular providers charge outrageous fees for this service — and you can expect to find a huge phone bill in the mail when you get home. Instead, here aere are some economical ways for you to stay connected with your loved ones at home while traveling abroad. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

Know Your Roaming Fees

The simplest way to minimize your phone charges is to keep track of them. For a short trip, this is a great solution that doesn't require much time or effort.

Every cell phone provider has a different set of roaming fees, so contact yours before the trip. They usually have different rates for calls, texts, and data. Additionally, the rates may vary from country to country. There may also be special roaming phone plans you can get to lower your international phone rates.

Take note of all the rates that apply to every country in your itinerary, then keep track of your phone usage. You may have to use your phone less frequently to stay within your budget, but on the bright side, you can use the extra time to explore instead. (See also: Fantastic Phone Services for People on the Go)

Turn Off Data Roaming

This is a quick and easy trick, but it can save you a lot of money during the trip. Your phone may be consuming data even when you're not actively using it, especially if you use push notifications.

To completely stop data use while you're abroad, go to your phone settings and turn off data roaming. With data roaming off, you'll still be able to make phone calls and text. The phone will also retain the ability to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, which may be free at airports and hotels. When connected to a Wi-Fi network, you'll also be able to use a VoIP service like Skype to make calls over the Internet.

Alternatively, you can choose to turn off push notifications only. This way, you'll be able to use data roaming services without having to pay for superfluous automated data use. You can then choose to use data-heavy apps only when you're connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Turn on Airplane Mode

While abroad, you'll have to pay roaming fees when you receive phone calls and text messages, regardless of who's contacting you. Even if the phone call is from your gas company, you'll have to pay for every minute the representative blabs about the new green energy program.

To completely eliminate the risk of mounting roaming charges, turn on airplane mode. This shuts off data service, phone calls, and text messages. You can still turn on Wi-Fi and connect to the Internet, so your family and friends can contact you through chat apps, social media, and email.

Use a Local SIM Card

If you travel a lot, consider getting an unlocked phone. By placing a local SIM card in an unlocked phone, you'll be able to enjoy local rates. This is useful when you need to get online or call local contacts like hotels or airlines. You'll have to pay international call rates to ring home, though, so it's best to stick with VoIP services like Skype for that.

Use an International SIM Card

If there are multiple destinations in your itinerary, you can get an international SIM card like OneSimCard or Telestial instead of a country-specific SIM card. These global SIM cards are generally cheaper than if you were to use roaming services on your U.S. phone plan, but more expensive than if you were to buy a local SIM card every time you entered a different country.

Rent a Phone

If it seems like too much of a hassle to get your phone unlocked, you can rent a phone instead. Global cell phone providers often offer this service. You'll pay a daily or weekly rental fee, the company will deliver the rental phone to you, and you'll be able to return it by mail at the end of your trip.

A global phone rental usually also comes with a global SIM card and a short-term phone plan, making it an easy option for short trips. However, the call, text, and data rates with a rental global phone are higher than they would be if you used a local SIM card in your own unlocked phone.

If you'll be traveling to isolated areas with little cell phone coverage, you can rent a satellite phone instead of a regular phone. The rates will be higher, but you'll be able to use the phone in most open spaces.

In both cases, you'll get a phone number that your loved ones at home can use to contact you, wherever you are in the world. If you set your American home and cell phones to forward calls to your global phone number, you won't miss a call at all.

How do you use your cell phone or smartphone while traveling abroad — without incurring excessive fees? Please share in comments!

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Guest's picture
Ernest S.

I know it's not a solution for everyone, but I switched over to T-Mobile, largely to offset the cost and hassle when traveling internationally. Since late last year, they have offered free international text and data while roaming, while phone calls are a flat rate of $0.20 per minute (either locally or back to the US). It's worked great for me and is extremely convenient.

Guest's picture

Why not just bring along any old wifi capable phone and use Skype or iMessage / FaceTime ? Just about every hotel and coffee place has wifi, and even fairly ancient (Android 2.2) phones can run Skype. Viber and other services also work. So, turn off the wireless network connection, and check in with wifi. My wife and daughter did this in Spain last year. Madrid, Seville, Granada, Cordoba, all had plentiful wifi. We talked/videoed every night.