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Stay in touch without racking up big wireless bills

Take your mobile phone or tablet with you when traveling abroad

Last updated: June 2013

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Taking your mobile phone and/or tablet on your vacation outside the United States makes sense, allowing you to stay in touch with family, friends, and (sorry to say) work, to get local info on the fly, and to find your way around wherever you’re staying.

In recent years, it’s become easier to use a mobile device primarily designed for the U.S. market abroad. For example, a Wi-Fi-enabled smart phone, tablet, or laptop allows you to connect to the Web within a local Wi-Fi hotspot, say the hotel lobby, café, or airport terminal. (Some smart phones can be used as a mobile hotspot. Check your owner’s manual.)

But complications exist. For example, a CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) phone from Sprint or Verizon might not work in a country where GSM (Global Service for Mobile communications) is the standard. The same goes for a GSM phone from AT&T or T-Mobile in a CDMA country. And some carriers' so-called "global phones" might work on different networks overseas—but at slower speeds.

Thinking about changing your wireless company? We'll help you find the best cell phone carrier.

In short, you'll need to check with you're carrier to determine whether your phone will work with the wireless networks used at your destination. The comparison chart below offers details for the four biggest carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon; if you use a different carrier, contact the company for details.

No matter your phone or your carrier, using your phone or tablet overseas can be pricey. To prevent you from wiping out any exchange-rate savings with a whopping wireless bill, use our advice. This information is also useful for a college student studying abroad for a semester or two.

Illustration: Jason Ford

The cost of wireless abroad
AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon charge extra for international connections, from about 50 cents to $5 per minute for calls and 10 to 50 cents per text, depending on the carrier and the part of the world you're visiting.

You’ll also pay a surcharge—about 2 cents per kilobyte—to your carrier for wireless data access overseas. You can get a discounted rate by adding an international plan (comparison chart) to your existing plan, which is ideal for users traveling for an extended period or for a student overseas.

One way to keep communications costs down is to send short text messages instead of calling. (“Just arrived in Rome. Weather is beautiful. Off to hotel.”) Some U.S. carriers, such as Verizon, count those messages as part of your monthly plan limit. Others offer international messaging as an option at about $10 to $50 per month. While texting can be cheaper than talking——as low as 20 cents per text per recipient compared to 60 cents per minute of voice—bear in mind that you might face overage costs by exceeding your plan's monthly allotment of messages.

You can also buy a prepaid "disposable" SIM card and install it in your phone. This small plastic card contains the account information that gives some U.S. phones access to a carrier’s network overseas. Because the SIM is tied to the service provider wherever you’re visiting, you'll no longer be tethered to your U.S.-based mobile-phone number. But you'll typically still have access to most of your phone's capabilities, including snapping pictures, shooting videos, and using apps. And when you return stateside, all you'll need to do is swap SIM cards to return the phone to normal. Prepaid international SIM cards can be cheap, starting at about $5.

Note that not all mobile phones—even ones described by U.S. carriers as "world" or "global"—from U.S. carriers are "unlocked" or otherwise able to accept SIM cards from other service providers.

In such cases, you might want to simply rent or buy a disposable mobile phone online (as low as $19) in advance or on arrival, say from a self-service kiosk at your destination airport. These temporary cell phones operate on local wireless service providers' networks. But like prepaid SIM cards and calling cards used for landlines, you'll need to be wary of connection costs and service fees, which can vary wildly, from free to $5 per minute of talk time if you're calling from a cruise ship or far-flung destination.

Technology makes it easy to stay in touch when you’re abroad. But if you’d prefer not to incur the expenses or just want to get away from it all, you have a simple option: the off button.

Service provider comparison

Service provider

Important links

International fees

Sample rates

Best devices for international travel*

AT&T

International services information

Find out whether your AT&T phone will work overseas

 

 

 

Roaming: $5-$6 per month

Texting: $10 per month for 50 multimedia messages (overage: 40 cents per message)

Data: $30 per month for 120MB (overage: $30 per 120MB)

 

Canada: 60 or 80 cents per minute

China: $2 or $2.30 per minute

England: $1 or $1.40 per minute

India: $2.30 or $2.50 per minute

Mexico: 60 cents or $1 per minute

 

Cell phones:
Samsung Rugby II

Smart phones:
Samsung Galaxy S4

LG Optimus G

Apple iPhone 5

HTC Windows Phone 8X

BlackBerry Z10

Tablets:
Apple iPad (4th gen)

Asus VivoTab RT TF600T

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2

Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9

Sprint

International services information

Find out whether your Sprint phone will work overseas

 

 

Roaming: $3-$5 per month

Texting: $10 per month unlimited or 20 cents per message sent

Data: $40 per month for 40MB (overage: $10 per 10MB)

 

Canada: 20 or 60 cents per minute

China: $2.50 per minute

England: $1.30 per minute

India: $2.30 per minute

Mexico: $2.30 per minute

Smart phones:
HTC One

Apple iPhone 5

Samsung Galaxy Note II

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE

Tablets:
Apple iPad (4th gen)

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (10.1)

Apple iPad Mini

T-Mobile

International services information

Find out whether your T-Mobile phone will work overseas

 

 

 

International text: 50 cents per message sent and 20 cents per message received

Data: $15 per MB ($10 per MB in Canada)

 

Canada: 60 cents per minute plus 20 cents per minute if dialing a U.S. phone number

China: $3.60 per minute

England: $1.50 per minute

India: $3.60 per minute

Mexico: $1.80 per minute

Cell phones:
Samsung Gravity TXT

Smart phones:
Samsung Galaxy S 4

HTC One

Apple iPhone 5

Google Nexus 4

BlackBerry Z10

Tablets:
T-Mobile SpringBoard

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0)

Verizon

International services information

Find out whether your Verizon phone will work overseas

 

Data: $25 per 100MB with overage of $25 per $100MB

 

Canada: 70 cents per minute for voice. Domestic text rates apply. Multimedia texts are 25 cents per message sent and 25 cents per message received.

China: $2 per minute for voice; 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received (25 cents per multimedia message received)

England: $1.30 per minute for voice; 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received (25 cents per multimedia message received)

India: $2 per minute voice; 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received

Mexico: $1 per minute voice; 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received (25 cents per multimedia message sent and received)

Smart phones:
Samsung Galaxy S 4

Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD

Apple iPhone 5

BlackBerry Z10

HTC Windows Phone 8X

Nokia Lumia 822

Tablets:
Apple iPad 2

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

*The phones and tablets are Consumer Reports Recommended models as of June 2013.

Stay connected via the Net

If you want to leave your devices at home but still want to say stay in touch with people at home, consider using Skype or Google Voice, which you can access from any computer, say in your hotel’s business center or at a cyber café. You can of course use these on your own phone, tablet, or computer.

The free version of Skype gives you person-to-person chats and video conferencing. The paid version ($10 per month) provides you with unlimited calls to mobile and landline numbers over the Web or over Wi-Fi and the Skype app on an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad.

With the free Google Voice, you get your own phone number (you need a Gmail account) and can make calls to a U.S. or Canadian number for as little as a penny per minute. People at home can ring your Google Voice number, and if you're online, you'll receive the call via the Gmail chat service. If you’re offline, callers can leave voicemail messages, which then get transcribed and sent to you as an e-mail.

Travel checklist

• Check for any issues with using your device(s) abroad by referring to user’s guides or contacting your service provider.


• Back up data on each device before you depart, whether on an external drive or with a cloud-based service.


• Don’t forget the chargers and appropriate power adapters that match the outlets in your destination country. Many mobile devices can also be recharged via a USB port on a laptop. A Google search for “electrical plugs around the world” reveals a number of sources that will help you determine which adapter you need.


   

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