• How to use your cell phone efficiently while traveling abroad

Posted: July 23, 2015

How to use your cell phone efficiently while traveling abroad
Make sure you're being smart when you use your phone while traveling abroad.

With all the excitement of preparing for a vacation or business travel abroad, it's easy to overlook many of the hurdles and obstacles that coming along with taking a trip to another country. While the currency exchange and mapping out the lay of the land are generally the first things that spring to mind when preparing for going abroad, international cell phone use remains a grey area for most travelers. From finding the most affordable data or Wi-Fi connection options to considering renting a global phone, here's what you need to know when it comes to efficient cell phone use while traveling abroad:

Talk to your service provider

Depending on which company your cell phone provider is, you can either expect your phone to be completely compatible during your trip out of the country or you can count on spiked roaming fees when using your device abroad. In 2013, Consumer Reports released a comparison chart that analyzed the different international fees attributed to each of the four major cell service providers in the U.S., which are Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. The report found that each provider significantly varied with one another in relation to fees attached to roaming as well as calling or texting in specific countries. For example, Verizon was found to have the lowest per minute charge for phone calls out of China, with $2 for every minute on an outgoing voice call, while T-Mobile had an outgoing voice call charge of $3.60 per minute. Texting plans were more all over the place, with providers such as AT&T and Verizon offering fixed monthly rates for sending texts abroad (with added charges per message sent if you've gone over your data plan) while Sprint and T-Mobile had a per-message charge varying between 20 and 50 cents.

Don't let your phone bill shock you after traveling internationally. Don't let your phone bill shock you after traveling internationally.

This is why discussing your travel plans with your service provider is extremely important prior to your overseas trip, as those unaware of the various fees and surcharges could find their next phone bill to be very eye-opening. The Federal Communications Commission suggests making the following inquiries with your phone company before you take off:

  • Check whether the country you're visiting is compatible with your provider's network.
  • Ask how much roaming fees are for the specific area you're traveling to. 
  • Know how much each feature will cost, such as voice calls, text messaging, Internet use, etc.
  • See if your phone is compatible with a different SIM card, which will switch your phone to a local number and abide by local network and service fees.

If traveling overseas is a common occurrence for you, it may be wise to opt for an international phone plan through your service provider. These types of plans can save you more money for texting and calling someone in another country than standard calling and data plans. The packages available from the companies provide a specific amount of calling minutes, text messages and gigabytes of data to use that won't fluctuate in price once you've subscribed to the international calling plan.   

Wi-Fi hotspot subscription

It's inevitable that some travelers will need to use their phones to access the Internet during their stay abroad, whether it's for conducting business or simply uploading photos to Facebook for friends to see. Unless you don't mind spending way more on data charges while roaming in another country, you should consider subscribing to a wireless Internet hotspot service that can instantly log you onto the Internet anywhere in the world, all for a low monthly rate. For example, Boingo Wireless offers a global Wi-Fi hotspot plan at just under $40 a month that will cover your cell phone as well as your laptop and up to four other devices. Verizon and AT&T also offer their customers global Wi-Fi hotspot plans that have different packages depending on how often you expect to travel internationally.

"Download apps that use Wi-Fi for free calls and text messages."

Cut corners

If you're only planning a short trip out of the U.S., it might not be worth it to look into all of these international phone plans. However, if you still plan on using your phone during the duration of your stay, there are plenty of little ways to cut corners and still call or text others back home without enduring the wrath of an expensive phone bill later. If your hotel has Wi-Fi you can connect to, try downloading a few apps on your smartphone that can allow you to contact any other mobile devices for free. Viber is a free app available for most major smartphone models that allows you to send free voice calls and text messages to anyone in the world, regardless of their own phone company, as long as they have the app themselves. Skype and Google Hangouts offer webcam communication services for free, just as long as you're connected to the Internet.

For making local calls without being charged for roaming fees from your provider, try using Rebtel, an app that routes your calls with a local number, so you won't see any international calling fees on your next bill. Otherwise, doing the little things, like making local calls from your hotel's phone and sending email from your computer as a main source of communication with those back home, are simple tips to stay in touch without having to use your own phone during international travel.

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