What to Do About Cell Phone Service When Abroad

I’d guess that most people are reading this on their phone. If not, then I suspect your phone is nearby. As a culture, we have become addicted to our smart devices – and no, it’s not just the younger generations. Our devices give us access to everything: our friends and family hundreds or thousands of miles away, work, the weather, directions to the newest restaurants, etc. And one of the questions I am most commonly asked by folks traveling abroad is what to do about cell phone service.

If you’re planning to spend time outside of your home country and are not too sure what to do with your phone, the good news is that you have options. What you need to identify is how long you are going to be on the road for, since not all options make sense for the quick getaway, long-term visits, or permanent relocation.

For 12 years, I had the same cell phone carrier. When spending time in the States, the plan was great. Service was reliable, with some exceptions in a few desolate pockets. Then I moved to Nicaragua. I froze my account for the first 3 months I was there and told friends and family at home to reach me via email or Google Voice. While a good money saver, this wasn’t practical when I didn’t have WiFi. It took a few years of playing around with different options to come across the option that made the most sense.

Below you’ll find a few options that may work for you. Note, this is applicable for a smartphone.  If you’re still hanging onto a flip phone, we’ll get to that after.

  1. Purchase an international plan with your provider. Carriers such as Verizon offer a $10/day plan to use your phone abroad, as if you were back in the U.S. (data, phone calls, or texting) with no extra charges. This is great for a vacationer every now and again, but not so practical for those who spend considerable amount of time internationally, as $10/day can add up.
  2. Instead of roaming or purchasing an international plan, keep your phone on airplane mode and connect to WiFi. You’ll be able to use communication apps such as iMessage and Facetime (for iPhone users), WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, Google Voice, Facebook messaging and calling, etc. Regular phone calls won’t come through, and if you’re on an iPhone, neither will those green non-iPhone messages.
  3. Purchase a local SIM card to insert into your phone and a pre-paid plan when you arrive at your destination (usually available at the airport or a local supermarket/convenience store). Prior to your travels, make sure your cell phone is unlocked (you may need to call your provider to double check that your phone is unlocked) and able to read other SIM cards. Don’t forget to store your regular SIM card in a safe spot! They are small chips and can easily be lost. Note: Once you take out your current SIM card, calls or texts to your original number will not come through to your phone. In most cases, if you want a traditional plan, you will need to be a resident of the country.  Or if you have family/friends who are residents, maybe they’ll add you to their family plan!
  4. Purchase a local SIM card + pre-paid plan and a local phone. Whether a flip phone or a smart device, this will keep your home phone and your local phone separate.
  5. Switch service providers to one that is more internationally friendly.

Consumer Resource Guide

Don’t have a smartphone? Try option number 3 or 4 above. If you’re pursuing option 3, make sure you can take out your current SIM Card.

After a few years of ridiculously high cell phone bills due to my carrier not having a sensible international plan, I made the switch to a more internationally-friendly provider. Being able to use my phone in hundreds of countries with no additional fees for data usage or texts, I feel confident that no matter where in the world I am, I won’t miss a call or message to my phone. For extra confirmation, I purchased a pre-used Samsung that holds two SIM cards – one for my pre-paid Belize SIM and one for whichever country I’m traveling in (if necessary). I live in Belize and often travel to other countries, including the U.S. This option may not make the most sense for you, so it’s important to identify which scenario fits best for your timeframe.

As I write this, I am landing in Cuba – and I don’t think my U.S. phone or Belize SIM card works here, so I guess you can’t win them all. Sometimes you just have to disconnect.