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How to use your existing phone overseas

With a little planning, you can enjoy normal mobile service almost anywhere you go.
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Ed Jones/Getty Images

By Geoffrey Morrison

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commission. Read the full blog here.

Having a phone that works just like it does at home when you're traveling internationally is probably the best thing you can do to reduce stress and maximize your ability to enjoy wherever you are. Being able to use Google Maps and Translate, staying in touch with friends and family at home, having easy access to booking sites like Orbitz and Expedia in the event of delays—these are only a few of the ways Internet access is invaluable while overseas.

But depending on your carrier, using data outside the US can be costly. The dreaded roaming fees alone can cause stress, with every moment you spend online potentially racking up budget-destroying bills.

It doesn't have to be that way. As someone who's traveled to 12 different countries in the past year alone, I've learned many ways to travel with your current phone cheaply—or at least for cheaper than you might think.

If you travel outside of the US regularly, check out our Best Cell Phone Plan for Frequent International Travel guide. Changing carriers (and maybe phones) can save you money in the long run.

Option 1: Do nothing (or almost nothing)

Every major cell phone company has some sort of international roaming option. These range from excellent to extortionate and are your easiest (though not often best) option.

If your carrier is T-Mobile, Sprint, or Google Project Fi, you're covered with some kind of unlimited data in most countries around the world. It's hard to beat that for easy. With T-Mobile and Sprint, you get unlimited—but relatively slow—2G data. It's fast enough for most messaging apps, translation tools, and maps (just be sure to download offline maps on Wi-Fi). But it's too slow to easily use image-heavy social media like Instagram or Snapchat—check out Options 2 and 3 below for ways to get faster service, if that's a priority. With Google Project Fi, you get pretty much the same high-speed 4G you have at home.

For the most part, for any of the three aforementioned carriers, you simply enable "roaming data" in your phone's settings to start using the data. But it's best to check with your provider to be sure.

If you have AT&T or Verizon (PDF), make sure roaming and mobile data are turned off. The pay-per-use international roaming rates for both companies are exorbitant. These companies offer temporary data packs, but they're also expensive. We'll cover those in the next section.

Fortunately, if you're on AT&T or Verizon and don't want to pay their rates, it doesn't mean you're cut off from the Internet entirely while you travel. Public Wi-Fi is everywhere, and any data you use while connected to it doesn't count as roaming. Depending on where you're headed, you'll likely find free Wi-Fi in restaurants, tourist spots, and even some public parks and metro stations. And of course, nearly every hotel and hostel will have Wi-Fi. However, the more expensive the accommodation, the more likely it is that you'll have to pay extra for Internet access.

If you're on public Wi-Fi, it's best not to access banking or other sensitive info without a VPN, just to be safe.

Option 2: Temporary data passes

These have different names—Verizon's $10 TravelPass, AT&T's $10 International Day Pass, T-Mobile's $5 International Pass, and Sprint's $5 to $10 International High-Speed Data Roaming Pass—but all are the same idea. They provide a set amount of roaming data, usable for a certain amount of time, for one price. Need some 4G data while you're in Paris? That will be $5 to $10 a day. Most companies offer a month's worth of data at a slight discount off the day-pass rate. AT&T, for example, will sell you 1 gigabyte of international roaming data to use over the course of a month for $60; at Verizon, it's half a gigabyte for $70.

Without question, these are all expensive, albeit less so than traditional roaming fees. If you can't unlock your phone (it's new, say), data passes might be your only way to use your phone while traveling without bankrupting yourself. For T-Mobile and Sprint, buying a data pass—which you can do whenever you want before you leave or while you're traveling—is a way to temporarily relieve the annoyance of slow 2G data. And some monthly plans, such as Verizon's Above Unlimited, include a few free data passes each billing period.

As for Project Fi, it doesn't sell passes, as you're already getting 4G data, wherever it's available, at the same rate you're paying for data at home.

For most non-Fi people, a far better option to data passes is getting a local SIM card.

Option 3: Get a local SIM card

This is an option that's common everywhere except in the United States. A SIM, or subscriber identity module, is a removable chip roughly the size of a microSD card. It lets your current phone work in another country as if you bought the phone there: local number, cheap and fast data, and so on.

When you land in a new country, just go to a local telecom store (the equivalent to Verizon or AT&T, in other words), and buy a temporary SIM. It's that easy. These are often called "pay-as-you-go" SIMs, but some areas have special SIM offers for travelers. Either way, they're usually good for a month and include more data than you'll probably use. The store will likely help you install it too, which takes seconds. After a phone restart and a few minutes more, your phone works just as if you bought it new in that country. When your trip is over and you're heading home, put your old SIM back in and your phone returns to normal (make sure you've disabled data-roaming till you're back in the US, though).

I've done this dozens of times in countries all over the world. It takes maybe half an hour out of my first day in the country, and makes traveling much easier; my phone works just as it does at home. The only two drawbacks: you won't be using your "home" number while you're traveling, and you'll be without service from the time you arrive in the country till you can get to a telecom store. (This is where a $5 to $10 data day pass might come in handy, if you're worried about getting into town or finding your lodgings without phone service.)

You can also buy SIMs at the airport and many tourist/souvenir shops, but these are often more expensive. I stick with SIMs from the main telecoms in a country, assuming they'll offer the best coverage and service. For example, if there's an issue with my Vodafone SIM in the UK, I can go into countless Vodafone stores everywhere. Not so much with "Joe's Travel SIM XXXtrafast" from a random travel stand. Wikipedia lists the main providers in Europe, Asia/Pacific, Africa and the Middle East, and the Americas, so you can have an idea of what to look for when you arrive.

There are also "travel SIMs" that you can buy ahead of time that claim to work everywhere in the world, but I've researched these extensively, and all are more expensive than buying a SIM at your destination. Though prices vary, most local SIMs cost $10 to $20 and are good for a month with several gigs of data. I've paid as much as $35 and as little as $6.

The trick with this option is that your phone needs to be unlocked. Each company has different requirements to do this. Generally, the phone needs to have been on the company's network for a certain length of time, and you need to have paid the phone off (or fulfilled your contract, if you still have one). To find out more on how to do this, check out the Unlocking your phone section of our "Best Cell Phone Plan for Frequent International Travel" guide.

One drawback for some people is if someone calls your "real" number, it will just go to voicemail, and you won't see any texts from them till you put your old, home-carrier SIM back in your phone and access a cell network or, depending on your carrier, Wi-Fi. Your phone is essentially a different phone. You can give friends/family your "new" temporary number for emergencies, or ask them to use a data-based messaging service like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. You might also put your temporary number on your "real" outgoing voicemail message.

Option 4: Rent a hotspot

You rent a small device, perhaps slightly larger than a phone, that creates a little zone of Wi-Fi for you and your family. Connect all of your devices to it, then turn it off when you don't need it.

The main advantage to this option is if you're traveling with others, you and all of your gear can tether to the single hotspot instead of you all having to buy travel data. Of course, any member of the group who leaves your little Wi-Fi bubble to explore solo will have to give up Internet access while doing so.

This is something to look for at an airport, or research before you go, because you have to return the physical device. That means either dropping it off where you got it, or mailing it back when you get home.

This is not something I've tried, nor does it seem very popular, but it could work for you if the other options here aren't exactly what you're looking for. I've seen prices in the under-$10-a-day range, which is expensive compared with other options, but for a family traveling for two weeks somewhere, the cost of getting local SIMs for everyone may rival the cost of renting a hotspot.

Also keep in mind that most phones can create their own Wi-Fi hotspots, so if you get a local SIM card, you can tether a tablet, a computer, or another phone to yours and share your Internet without having to pay extra for a physical hotspot device. Some SIMs don't allow this, though, so best to check before you buy.

Option 5: Use an old phone (or get a cheap one) instead

If you're the type of person who holds on to old phones, dust off the newest of them and it could be your key to easy international travel. As long as it's not too old (under four years is a safe bet), and the battery can still hold a charge, and you're able to update its software via Wi-Fi, you should be able to use it when you travel by buying local SIM cards. Check with whatever cell phone company you used the phone with to make sure that the phone is unlocked.

Oh, and if you go this route, keep in mind that some providers will unlock only one phone per account in any 12-month period. I found this out the hard way.

Once it's unlocked (if it wasn't already), follow Option 3 above. You'll still have to get a new phone number with every SIM card, but otherwise you'll be using your familiar old handset with all of your contacts and apps just as you left them.

If you don't have a usable old phone, you could instead buy a new, but inexpensive and unlocked, phone. For example, our pick for a budget Android phone is great for the money, takes good pictures, can create a Wi-Fi hotspot, and costs $160. After three or four trips using $20 local SIMs instead of month-long data passes, you'll have made back your investment.

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