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We’ve all been there, touching down after a magical experience of travel and exploration and settling back into daily life, only to be confronted with a massive phone bill full of excess data roaming and text message charges.
It's still one of the biggest pain points to international travel. Most countries we travel to have comparable 3G/4G networks with reasonable access fee’s on a local SIM, yet travelers using a U.S.-based carriers' roaming plan can still be whacked with fees in excess of $50/GB (when Google Fi charges $10/GB).
So, What Are the Options?
The options range from buying a cheap pre-paid SIM in your destination country, signing up for a Universal SIM, adding a data pack to your current domestic plan, or racking up massive excess data bills and dealing with it when you get home.
With players like Google in the field with Google Fi, the big U.S.-based carriers are in catch-up mode. And, although overseas data-roaming plans from domestic carriers are getting better, if you want high-speed data, you are still better off looking into carriers at your destination country as the minimal cost of data and voice/text overseas can be much more cost-effective than a U.S.-based data-roaming plan.
Moreover, as our lives become more digitized, and we rely more heavily on our mobile devices for travel, everything from ordering a driver (Uber or Lyft) to boarding a plane (with electronic boarding passes) requires internet connectivity.
Other things to consider are:
- Do you need to tether other devices for work?
- Will you be making video calls home?
- Will you need GPS?
- Will you be posting pictures online?
With all that in mind, below you'll find the current offerings from the major U.S.-based carriers and how they stack up. If we missed anything, or you have an experience you’d like to add, let us know in the comments. We'll do our best to update this list as new products come to market.
T-Mobile Simple Global
Offering one of the better international plans from U.S. wireless providers, T-Mobile customers on eligible Simple Global plans receive unlimited text and 2G data in 210+ countries as part of qualifying plans (T-Mobile ONE, Simple Choice, New Classic and Select Choice – see a full list in the linked FAQ below). Voice calls over Wi-Fi are $0.25/min (no charge for Wi-Fi calls to US, Mexico, and Canada).
If 2G is not fast enough for your needs, you can purchase daily high-speed data packs for a flat-rate of $5 per day which covers up to 512MB of data at 4G LTE speeds, and unlimited calling overseas.
- Voice – Calls over Wi-Fi $.25/min (no charge for Wi-Fi calls to U.S., Canada, and Mexico)
- Text – Unlimited free texting
- Data – Unlimited 2G data; speeds throttled to approx 128 Kbps
Customers should also note, traveling to a country outside of 210+ countries and destinations will incur text charges at $0.50 per text and will have the option to use Wi-Fi only for data purposes. Voice and data charges vary by country.
- Pros – Unlimited international text and data included with T-Mobile Simple Global plans, no data caps means no roaming charges for covered countries
- Cons – No tethering, throttled data is slow
See the Simple Global roaming FAQs for more details.
TravelPass℠ from Verizon is based on a daily charge for every day that you use your phone with the option of signing up for a monthly package while you are overseas. The daily $10 charge applies to 130+ countries and allows you to take your domestic voice, text, and data allowances with you overseas allowing for 4G/LTE coverage when available.
If you are only surfing the web briefly or receiving a few texts, $10 per day can be expensive and add up quickly. But having a set cost for every day you use your device gives you definition and allows you to budget costs. Having access to 4G/LTE overseas is also fantastic if you need data for work purposes.
The monthly plans are one-off purchases that offer two levels of access for 150+ countries. You can see a full list of tiered, monthly, and PAYG pricing on the Verizon website.
- Domestic allowance included with TravelPass℠
- $70/mo gives you 100 mins, 100 sent texts/unlimited received, and 0.5GB of Data
- $130/mo gives you 250 mins, 250 sent texts/unlimited received, and 2GB of Data
- Pros – Access to your domestic allowance over 3G/4G networks means you can work, stream media, and communicate at high speed and with a defined budget
- Cons – $10 per day can add up fast if you only use your device once or twice a day, PAYG rates are prohibitively expensive if not signed up to TravelPass℠
Sprint Global Roaming
Sprint Global Roaming offers great rates in 165 destinations worldwide at no added expense to your monthly bill, however, speeds are capped at 2G unless you splash out on a daily or weekly high-speed data pass. On the basic plan, you’ll receive $0.20/min voice calls, unlimited text, and free basic data. The High-Speed Data Roaming Pass is valid for either a single day or a week, and prices vary depending on the destination.
- Canada & Mexico: $2/day OR $10/week
- Most destination:s $5/day OR $25/week
- Other destinations: $10/day OR $50/week
Sprint will also text you when you touch down in a new country, notifying you what the rates will be in advance. This is a surprisingly handy feature that can be a real timesaver.
- Voice – $0.20/min voice in 165 countries
- Text – Unlimited texts in 165 countries
- Data – Free uncapped 2G with the option to purchase daily or weekly High-Speed Data Roaming Passes
- Pros – It’s free! Reasonable rates and an easy to understand plan/website, receiving a text to opt-in including rates is a handy feature
- Cons – Slow data
AT&T International Roaming
AT&T offers four international roaming plans, with the best value coming from the $10 per day International Day Pass. For the base North America plan, customers receive unlimited talk and text within North America, plus access to the same data plan you run at home with no roaming charges added. The $10 International Day Pass lets you take your talk, text, and data plan to over 100 countries for a flat daily fee, and the premium AT&T Passport provides 1GB of data, $0.35 per minute calls, and unlimited text ($120 plan gets you 3GB). With access to networks in over 200 countries, AT&T Passport℠ offers a substantial global footprint, but, unfortunately, it's prohibitively expensive.
Outside of the Day Pass, AT&T’s rates are high compared to Sprint and T-Mobile, and I can’t see where they would provide value except in very specific countries where other services are not available.
- Voice – Unlimited talk in North America and within the countries listed for the $10 Daily Pass, Passport $0.35/min
- Text – Unlimited across all plans
- Data – Take your plan with you in North America and on the $10 Daily Pass, Passport 1-3GB – Overage: $50/GB
- Pros – The $10 Daily Pass and North America plans allow you to take your plan with you
- Cons – High costs, very little flexibility
Project Fi from Google
While only officially available on a select range of Android handsets, Google Fi is an excellent all-round package when it comes to using data overseas. By far the least expensive, Google Fi has a single plan with a $20 base fee and $10/GB of data (capped at $60/month). The phone will work in 170+ countries, has no annual contract, cheap voice calls when traveling in a foreign country, and you can add up to 5 additional people to your account to share data for just $15/month per person.
The only downside to Google Fi is it will only officially work on select Android handsets. How to get Google Fi to unofficially work on other handsets.
- Voice – Call rates depend on the country you are in, but most sit around the $0.20/min rate over cell coverage
- Text – Unlimited
- Data – $10/GB capped at $60/month whether you are in the US or any one of the 170+ countries supported by Google Fi
- Pros – The cheapest way to access data while traveling overseas, flat $20/mo fee and $10/GB for data is fantastic, can be used as a personal hotspot for tethering laptops, etc.
- Cons – having to purchase a phone if you don’t already own a compatible handset is a significant entry barrier.
Unlocked Phone + Local SIM
Buying an unlocked phone on Amazon and purchasing a local SIM at the airport. If you are only traveling to one country or plan on spending anything over a week in a country, this is our go-to strategy. On average, we would spend $15/week each for voice/text/data using this method, even with very data intensive professions.
While T-Mobile is often touted as the best of the big four U.S. telco’s for traveling internationally, we think Sprint Global Roaming offers great rates and convenience. Neither comes close to Google Fi’s rates for long-term use, and it is by far the easiest plan to understand with its flat rates. The entry cost of a Google handset, however, is prohibitive for a lot of travelers.
If you don't mind the entry costs of a new handset, then Google Fi is a winner all-round.
What are your go-to strategies for phone and data when overseas? Let us know in the comments.
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