Ask Help Desk: How to keep your phone working while traveling abroad

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Even as we get some mixed signals, many Americans say we’ve turned the corner on the worst of the pandemic. It’s no surprise then that people are gearing up for a big travel season — even if it’s going to cost more than usual.

For some Help Desk readers, dealing with this pent-up wanderlust has some wondering what they’re supposed to do with their phones when traveling overseas. And finding the right answer can be trickier than people expect.

Why? Well, the best solution usually hinges at least a little on your personality. And the roaming deals offered by America’s wireless carriers aren’t always straightforward. Don’t worry, though: We’ve put together a brief guide to walk you through the options for staying connected.

If you have treasured tech travel tips of your own, consider sharing them with us in an email to [email protected] — we’ll update this article with your best suggestions. In the meantime, here’s where you would-be globe-trotters should start.

1. Look up your wireless carrier and plan

This should be pretty easy, but it’s an important place to start: Different wireless carriers offer different roaming rates and features for international phone use.

If you have a plan with AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon, and you passed a credit check when you signed up, you have the most options available to you. Meanwhile, customers of prepaid services like Mint Mobile, Tracfone or others might not be able to roam with their phone numbers at all. (If that’s you, skip to step 3.)

This is also a good time to think about what you need from your phone while traveling. Do you want to be online the whole time? Or is the occasional phone call you’re really worried about? Some travelers may want to disconnect almost entirely. If that’s you, consider leaving your phone in airplane mode, disable data roaming and jump on WiFi networks when you can find them. (Just be careful about what you do while connected to them.)

2. Weigh your carrier’s international options

If you get a monthly bill from Verizon and AT&T, you have access to a very convenient international roaming feature: day passes. On Verizon, paying $10 a day per phone basically lets you use your devices the same way you did back home. AT&T offers the same feature but charges $10 a day for the first phone and $5 a day for each additional one.

The benefit? You can send and receive calls and text messages with your existing phone number, plus use your mobile data at reasonably fast speeds for Web browsing and streaming.

The problem, as you might have noticed, is that these can get expensive pretty fast. I usually go with this option myself because these companies stop charging for day passes after 10 days, or $100 for a single person. But if you have an entire family that wants to stay connected, be prepared for the next bill to be much higher than usual.

That said, the alternatives those companies offer aren’t much better. For AT&T customers who don’t want day passes, their only choice is to pay for each text and each minute of a phone call at obscene rates. Verizon works the same way, with one twist: It offers an “international calling” feature for $100 per line that gives you 250 voice minutes, 1000 text messages and five gigabytes of data. (In a word: ouch.)

By comparison, T-Mobile customers have it a little easier — most of their plans have some free international features built in.

The company’s low-cost Essentials plans give you free unlimited texting while abroad and charges calls at 25 cents a minute. Its Magenta plans offer the same thing but adds unlimited 2G data free. Meanwhile, customers on its highest-end Magenta MAX plans get those same features but with slightly faster data service.

Even then, don’t expect to do much more than basic Web browsing without getting frustrated — T-Mobile says the standard speeds on those MAX plans are far less than 1 megabits per second.

3. Consider using a local phone service

If none of your phone provider’s options feel like a great fit, consider buying a SIM card from a local cell service provider once you arrive.

The biggest benefit here is price: You stand to save a lot of money. In Hong Kong — a favorite haunt — $15 gets you 8GB of data to use for Web browsing and calls through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram over eight days. Meanwhile, France’s Orange offers “Holiday” SIM cards that give you unlimited calls and texts inside Europe and buckets of data you can still use if you head to another European country. (Pro tip: Buy these from a local carrier store instead of generic travel SIM cards at the airport.)

The only real downside is that you have to use a different phone number while abroad. That could get confusing for people you try to contact, and you can’t easily access passcodes sent to your usual phone number via text.

Still, these deals might make the occasional drawback worth it for some. But taking advantage of them requires some prep work.

First, you’ll have to make sure your phone is unlocked — that means it can accept SIM cards from different carriers and work on their networks properly. Most U.S. wireless carriers don’t sell unlocked phones, but if your account is in good standing, you can request that AT&T or T-Mobile unlock a phone you bought from them. Verizon phones, meanwhile, are automatically unlocked after 60 days.

Alternately, if your finances allow, you could buy a separate unlocked phone for use while traveling.

If you use a prepaid phone service like the ones we mentioned earlier, you could also buy an unlocked phone for travel — after checking its compatibility with your provider, that is. Prefer to stick with your own phone? Your provider may agree to unlock it for you.

Mint Mobile will unlock a phone you purchased from them if you meet certain criteria. After a run-in with the Federal Communications Commission a few years ago, TracFone Wireless is required to do the same. Since that company runs other brands like Straight Talk Wireless, Net10, Simple Mobile and Tracfone, you can ask it to unlock a phone you bought from any of them.

Before you leave, consider bringing a few of these items — they could help keep you connected in a pinch.

  • A power bank. Some people spend more time using their phones abroad than at home. A portable battery can help keep it running for as long as you need it.
  • A paper clip. Seriously. If you buy a SIM card while abroad, you may have to install or remove it yourself. Some phones require you to stick something into a tiny hole to do this and a small paper clip usually does the trick.
  • An international phone card. Consider this a bit of insurance. Keep it with you while you wander, but not with other valuables like your wallet — that way you’ll have a way to reliably contact people back home if something happens.
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