Since the first iPhone was introduced, consumers have been going overseas and coming back home to exorbitant cell phone bills. The worst I ever heard was from someone who went to Costa Rica and got a $30,000 bill for 3 days! As a close second, I heard from another person who got a $6,000 bill for 40 minutes of smartphone use in a Canadian airport during a plane change.
For the longest time, that was all just part and parcel of how the wireless world worked: When you went overseas, you got cheated.
But that's no longer the case. Follow this guide to figure out how to use a cell phone on the cheap while you see the world!
Getting a phone that will work
ONE CARRIER HAS YOU COVERED
In an unprecedented move, T-Mobile has introduced the cheapest way to use your cellphone overseas. They offer unlimited data and free texting when you travel abroad, plus 20 cents a minute even back to the United States.
The T-Mobile deal is for those on the Simple Choice plan. So you'll be able to use your phone in over 100 countries overseas and not worry about bill shock when you get back home. Click here to check the country or countries you’ll be traveling to. It's the cheapest option for using your phone abroad.
However, there are still some limitations for frequent travelers. Any trip abroad needs to be 6 weeks or less, and customers need to spend at least half their time in the U.S. in any 3-month period. So the program would not be for students spending a year abroad, for instance.
WHAT IF THAT WON’T WORK FOR YOU?
If that solution is a no-go, you’ll have to go to Plan B: Get an unlocked GSM Quad Band World Phone and a SIM chip before you leave for your destination.
You can get a basic one for $10 and up on eBay or Craigslist, and low-end Androids for $50 and up. You can even rent one at the airport when you’re at your destination. Remember, the phone needs to be quad-band for calling and labeled “international” for data.
LOOK AT YOUR OWN CARRIER
You can always purchase a data plan from your carrier for international travel. Just call them and ask. But while that’s very easy to do, you’ll pay for the convenience. My preferred alternative is for you to purchase a SIM card that goes into your phone.
BUYING A SIM AT HOME
Buying a SIM here in the United States, you’ll get a U.S. number so it’s free for your family and friends at home to call you. callers. Plus, most SIMS allow free unlimited incoming texts.
Check out GoSIM.com or Telestial.com to buy a SIM at home. You'll get pre-paid minutes for the countries in which you are traveling and you'll be sent a SIM card that replaces the current SIM inside your phone once you get to your destination.
BUYING A SIM AT YOUR DESTINATION
If you don’t want to buy a SIM before you go, it’s perfectly acceptable to buy one once you get to your destinations.
Lycamobile.com is the largest discounter with service now in 17 countries across Europe. In France, the cheapest provider is Free Mobile. Three.com is another big discounter that is now in 8 countries.
All of these companies provide cheap calling both in country and to the United States, as well as free or cheap texting and generous amounts of data.
One thing to note if you’re going to Asia: Getting a prepaid SIM card with local calling service is difficult in Japan. It's better to rent a handy little wireless router, known as "pocket WiFi" in Asia.
This will allow multiple gadgets -- smartphone, laptop, tablet, Kindle -- to connect at once with un-throttled, unlimited data. Local calls are then possible via cheap Internet phone services like Skype.
You can rent and return one of these devices easily at the telecom company counters at most airports. Booking online before the trip brings the price down even lower.
Global Advanced Communications,for example, offers a deal of ¥5,550 ($53) for a 7-day rental plan if you book before the trip. They deliver the device to the airport/hotel/office for free the day before your arrival, and include a prepaid envelope for returns.
Using public wifi
Your third alternative when traveling is to use free public wifi for connectivity. This is available in many accommodations and city centers. The downside is the ever-present threat of hackers when you check email, log onto social media, or do any financial transactions. This option should give you some real pause for thought.
If you decide this is the way to go for you, you can get a $7.95/month pass for two devices on a service called Boingo.com with 700,000 worldwide hotspots. This is a particularly good idea for cities.
Once on wifi, you can use free services like Google Voice calls, Skype, Facetime, and Whatsapp to stay in touch. Here’s a list of some other free apps for free unlimited international talking from cellphone to cellphone.
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