How I Stay Connected – Phone and Internet – During International Travel

I stay connected pretty incessantly while on the road, even on ‘vacation’. I make sure I have internet and phone capability wherever I go. And I do my best to keep the costs reasonable.

I haven’t found a magic solution for that which really makes me happy. There are tradeoffs and downsides to every strategy one can employ — whether cost, too many devices to carry around, or speed.

Here are the tools I’m using so stay well-connected by phone and internet without breaking the bank!

Unlocked cell phone, ‘international’ sim card

With an unlocked cell phone, of the sort you can pick up on eBay for around $20, you can use the phone on any carrier rather than being restricted to the one you bought your phone and plan from in the U.S. Just make sure it operates on the bands that the countries you travel to use. Get a quad band phone and you’ll be safe that it will be usable.

Then you’ll need a SIM card.

You can buy a different SIM card in each destination. That’s often the cheapest if you’re going to be somewhere for awhile. You’re changing phone numbers, and juggling cards. Plus you have to make the purchase each time. And any funds you load on the card wind up stuck there.

More expensive is to use a SIM card marketed as ‘international’ meaning that it is going to give you pretty good, although not the best, rates in many countries. Usually what this means is buying a SIM card with a number from a low cost country with cheap roaming and free incoming calls in much of the world. Estonian numbers are common. I used to use an Icelandic number prior to the financial crisis which was the cheapest I’ve ever found. One reliable provider is OneSimCard.com, and they even give you miles via TravellingConnect.

I get cheaper calls than T-Mobile in most countries, although giving people a different (U.S.) number to reach me at can be consuming for them.

Generally these work on a ‘callback’ basis — you dial a number, then you get a phone call back. Pick up, and you’re dialing. That way you’re getting rates based on incoming rather than outgoing calls.

These cards will still usually charge you more to make a call than to receive one. I’ve stopped the extra hassle myself, but for a long time I used CallBackWorld to turn my outgoing calls into incoming calls. That meant a double callback.

I rarely make calls anymore with an unlocked cell phone and sim, since I now carry an unlocked wireless router so can always make and receive data calls with my regular cell phone.

Unlocked wireless router, ‘international’ sim card

I have wireless internet most places that I go. If I’m in an airport lounge or in a hotel, I’ll have internet and it’s generally free (in hotels, at a minimum, based on elite status).

And that means I can make data calls, such as using a service like Skype, when I’m in my hotel room. I’ve downloaded the Skype app, keep my phone in airplane mode, and turn wifi on and I’m good to go.

But I still need data when I’m out and about. I may want to make calls. I may want to check email. Most of the time I probably just want directions, and to be able to update a Google Map on my screen.

I don’t need a ton of data when I’m not in a hotel or lounge, but I do need some. And so what I’ve been using is Gigsky.

I first learned about them from an email that Joe Brancatelli sent out on their behalf. They were offering subscribers to Joe’s newsletter a sim card that would work in an unlocked wireless router for less than $1, if I remember correctly. So I ordered one and figured I’d give it a try.

They’ll sell you a router, or you can buy one on eBay often for about $40. Stick their sim card into the router, and download their app.

Then when you land in a country, turn on the router. You use the app to buy a data plan. You can select a free 10 megabytes. After that you’ll need to spend for data — the rates vary by country. You select an amount of data and number of days for the data to be valid, they charge your card.

Rates vary but may be $25 for 175 megabytes to 500 megabytes which you can use over 3-5 days. There are cheaper and more expensive plans in each country, and there’s service available in most countries.

You’re roaming on a local network, subject to the speeds of those networks. Generally the slowest speeds I’ve experienced have been 3G, usually 4G (although DC and not LTE). More than one person can use it at a time.

The biggest downsides are:

  • it’s not the holy grail of ‘free’ or included in a monthly unlimited plan like T-Mobile offers (although it’s cheaper than AT&T’s new international plans and cheaper than renting a wireless router though that would come with unlimited data which I don’t need).
  • the service isn’t available instantly when you turn on the router. It can take a few minutes to connect to a local network, and your selected plan can take a few minutes to register with the network as well to let you have access. It’s not ideal then if you want to use it to get an Uber pickup at the airport.

What Next?

I don’t think I can live with T-Mobile’s domestic network, or their hobbled international data speeds.

No one has yet come out with the silver bullet that lets me use my single device worldwide at a price I’m happy with and without swapping out sim cards.

If AT&T or Verizon offered T-Mobile’s ‘Simple Choice’ plan, and without throttling speeds down below 3G, I’d gladly pay even a little more than T-Mobile is charging.

So I’m left with relying increasingly on wireless internet, and for now continuing to pay for a few days’ worth of data that I use relatively sparingly in each country.

And I still carry around an unlocked cell phone with a sim card that works well in most places as a backup.

Although I look forward to the day when I can jettison both the extra phone and the extra wireless router. Carrying around a wireless router, my US (Samsung Galaxy S5) phone, and my small extra phone sure gets bulky.

What’s your strategy?


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I pay $100/month for 1G of international 4G from TMobile. It saves me from trips to buy local SIMS, and gets me 20c calling to/from my phone in MANY countries. I couldn’t be much happier.

  2. AT&T just introduced a better international roaming plan that will have me leaving my extra unlocked iPhone at home. They have a 30 day plans that are not necessarily tied to your billing cycle like before. $30 for unlimited SMS, MMS, 120MB Data, and $1/min calling. $60 for unlimited SMS/MMS, 300MB Data, and $.50/min calling. $120 for unlimited SMS/MMS, 800MB Data, and $.35/min calling. In the past, if you went over your allotment of data, AT&T automatically charged you another $30/$60/$120 depending on your plan. Now if you go over your allotment, you are charge per MB based on the original rate. These rates aren’t enough to do backflips over, but it’s leaps and bounds better than what was available just a few short years ago.

  3. I am with John. I have been using AT&T for years international back in the early days you had to have two phones and just swapped sims. But yes they were really expensive so was more for emergencys or quick calls to say i had gotten to my destination and then relied on wifi and email.

    The new rates are a huge improvement and now its easy to make changes to your account via the web page.

  4. I don’t feel the need to be constantly connected, so my hybrid phone from RepublicWireless does the trick for me – works whenever I’ve got a wifi connection. The odd little hotels I stay at and many places I eat have free wifi. The only places I’ve paid for internet in the last 5 years were Las Vegas & their nasty resort fees, and Tanzania (USB stick modem, $6/wk, first 2Gb “high speed”).

  5. Similarly I switched to T-Mobile for just this reason. I found that their $25 for 200MB/week package works well for my needs for high speed. For shorter trips, or personal trips where I endeavor to not be on my mobile device, the free 2G internet is perfectly adequate (email, sms/iMessage, mapping – web browsing will be frustrating for anyone).

    Prior to T-Mobile, I did the local SIM for data only, and forward my mobile number to Google Voice. I’d use their Google Hangouts app for inbound calls (over voip) with “my” number. Using Hangouts for outbound calls is also free for US calling.

  6. I haven’t used my new T-Mobile plan overseas yet but a few points of interest:

    1. As there’s no contract, you can buy the plan for a month at a time (a friend just did this).

    2. Speeds are often 3G, even though only 2G is guaranteed. My recently-returned friend had good 3G server in most of his locations in Eastern Europe.

    3. The 2/3G speed limit is only for the “free” plan; you can always purchase additional highest-available speed data when and if you need it.

    4. Most (many?) phones have built in hot spot (router) capability, so if your phone is on T-Mobile you don’t need to carry the router.

  7. I carry my unlocked iPhone 6 Plus and usually buy data SIM cards om the country I am visiting. Just bought a data SIM card from Vivo in Brazil for less than $20 which game me 600MB of data fro 30 days and as Brazilian phone number which I could receive calls for free. If you go to Europe (I usually got to the UK and Italy) it is very easy to buy local data SIM cards with unlimited data for a fraction of what you would pay for ATT or TMobile.

  8. I have an unlocked phone. Whenever I arrive in a country I buy a SIM card with the most data I can get cheaply. I do that because my main phone is voip. I use Google Voice and Google Hangouts to make calls and text via data. To the outside world my number never changes. I don’t even use the number on my US T-Mobile SIM (I’m using their $30 5gig data plan). It’s worked fantastically.

  9. I switched to T-Mobile earlier this year. It’s phenomenal. There’s a lot of handwringing about the service, which is mostly–I think–people who don’t have it speculating on how it can’t possibly be that good.

    There is an absolutely huge benefit to having the same phone number with connectivity at all times. You can spin the international SIM card all you want, but it’s a far inferior solution. And, it’s much more complicated for the user. The whole reason why I want to have access is so people can reach me, where ever I am in the world. Having a burner phone with local phone # completely wrecks that.

    Traveling abroad, I basically never need more than 3G to do simple things, like using Google Maps, translating something, or checking travel tips. And, it’s 3G almost everywhere I’ve been.

    My calculation is pretty simple: if T-Mobile’s network is passable for you in the US, and you travel a lot, it makes sense to switch. If you don’t travel a lot and/or the network is truly terrible for you in the US, then maybe it’s not.

  10. Lol to the tmobike hate. Obviously Gary doesn’t travel enough to appreciate flying around every single country in the world (more or less) and having free data. I’m writing this from Nicaragua using my tmobile phone. I get off the plane, turn it on and it works fine. I can make skype calls using the 3g data. I called united from the taj mahal 2 weeks ago to change a flight. Tmobile also allows for free wifi calling so you can always call from that to the usa.

  11. I switched to the tMobile a few months ago as I had a 10 week RTW trip planned and figured it would be the easiest way to handle communications. I’m now into week 8 of that trip and as soon as I get home I’m ditching the TMobile service as it is total rubbish. I appreciate the free emails but the data service is a joke. MAny locales the speeds have been so low it’s impossible to get a map to load. The entire plan is the old bait and switch. They offer unlimited data but they know u won’t be using too much because the speeds are so slow. The intent is that u will get frustrated and pay to upgrade to the faster plan. In 8 countries the performance has been well below what is tolerable. I’m going back to ATT and will happily pay then whatever fees they want when I travel overseas in future.

  12. the new ATT rates are actually WORSE as they don’t allow prorating any longer.

    Gary, you should just get the TMobile $20 data only plan and just pay for the months in which you are traveling internationally. Game set match.

  13. I just switched over to T-Mobile and love it. Service is spotty in the Bay Area (inside buildings) but I loved using it in Germany, Turkey and the Maldives last month. I got LTE in Germany at FRA and solid service in both Turkey and Maldives.

    I use an unlocked iPhone 6 which works with T-Mobile wifi calling which is incredible! Having unlimited calling directly from iPhone at the Park Hyatt Maldives was incredible! $0.20 a minute to local numbers? Nice and easy.

  14. Gary, the new AT&T rates are much different than they used to be. Yes, the data rates are the same, however now the program comes with unlimited SMS/MMS which used to cost extra, and now you get discounted voice rates which used to require a separate add-on. Also in the past, the rates were based on your billing cycle, so if you had an international trip that straddled 2 billing cycles, you had to pay for 2 months. You now pay for 30 days of your choosing regardless of your billing cycle. On top of that, if you go over your Data allotment in the 30 days, the overage is billed at the same $/MB as your plan. In the past, if you purchased the $30 120MB plan, and you used 121 MB, you got charged another $30 plan for a total of $60. Now if you use 121 MB, you are charged $30.25. That’s a big plus! The AT&T plan is not perfect, but it’s much improved and looks like it will allow me to leave my burner at home. Now, if I thought I was going to use a ton of voice, I would bring my burner and pop a local sim for cheap calls.

  15. Gary not sure how versed you are in phones but in xda developers there are several hacks that allow you to get your speeds to at least 3g speeds on Tmobile network. I live and work in Korea however I have a tmobile account just for the sole reason of using the free internet when I travel anywhere in the world.

    By using the unlocking speed app from xda I was able to get consistently 3MBps in a lot of countries in Europe, Asia, and Americas. If I had to pay for similar service It would probably be in the $400s or maybe more. Just in Argentina last month I did 3GB on a $50 Tmobile plan, and my download was consistent around 3MBps or about 350KB/s

  16. I don’t like Skype’s call quality. But I love Voxer! I switched to that App about 2 years ago. It’s another wifi based Intl calling or texting app (I use it on Iphone but I am sure they have an Android app too); the call clarity is AMAZING. All calls and texts are free of course, as long as you are on Wifi; you can use it off-Wifi for pennies also.

  17. @Gary – Honestly, T-Mobile makes this article obsolete! The Simple Choice plan gives free SMS in all countries that matter (hehe) and unlimited 2G. Calls are $.20. For a small amount ($10/$15/$25) you can buy up to full speed data for a week or whatever you need.

    I’ve tried everything on your list and this is hands-down the cheapest and tidiest solution. The ONLY exception is if you’re staying somewhere long enough, then get a local SIM, obviously.

  18. I have been grandfathered into to an unlimited Intl data plan with AT&T through work (they still exist, so if you can talk your rep into hooking you up, it’d be a good thing) for $35/mo after corporate discount. I do use Talkatone for phone calls over data – lets you call any US landline or cell for free. Texting is just using iMessage on my iphone or Whatsapp when i’m texting non-US based people. And then I also use Viber for contacting non-US people as well (and US people that have Viber). Really like Talkatone the best though – its very good. And almost all my int’l friends have Viber or Whatsapp. Family in India use Line as well, which I’ve downloaded, but not a lot of users.

  19. If you will be in a specific country and near by check out country specific son cards. My knowledge area is Belgium and the EU. You can get a mobile Viking SIM card for 15 Euro. They have a 15 Euro plan that provides 2 Gig of data and 15 Euros teleohone calls with an hour a day free calls to other mobile Viking subscribers. I also used 10 Euros of my 15 Euro credit for an EU plan for 300-350 MB in the EU which was enough to check my email and use UBER many times in Paris. Btw you can get another Uber account with your European SIM card worth the cost of the SIM card (haven’t tried Lyft yet from my Belgian phone numbers)- the 2 gig of data for 30 days per phone comes in handy for the kid using the iPad as we travel around….check out the SIM cards (with data included) and anyone who wants to sign up for mobile Viking you can get a referral bonus to me and to you if you then have a second phone number use 0484863420 if you need a mobile Viking number as the referring number. It is appreciated

  20. I bought an iPhone through Tmobile. It is unlocked, so I could switch out the sim card when I travel. I haven’t done it though because the Simple Plan meets my needs just fine. People from home can call me without paying long-distance, and I’m only paying .20 per minute to receive the calls. It has also worked fine for me with data and mapping. best of all,I don’t have to try to remember another phone number.

  21. For me pocket wifi (mi-fi) is the way to go. Pick up a cheap data-sim at the airport, stick it in and you use Skype. Calls to e.g European phones are at 1c to landlines and 7c to mobiles from anywhere.

    Of course you could use your old unlocked iphone (or whatever) instead and thus your local contacts can reach you at a local number.

    In JPN & KOR I normally rent a device with a local sim, for less than $5 with unlimited 4G data. Elsewhere just get a sim.

  22. I always switch to local SIMs- in Asia Pacific, they are generally cheap and easily available at the airport. I pay $3 – $15 to get a SIM, 200MB with unlimited data, and local number as well.

    Then I use Roamer to forward my home number onto the local number, so people can still call my home number and reach me without me roaming.

    Cheapest solution, and seamless for your business colleagues, and I even have a local number for conference calls if necessary.

  23. I realise this blog has mostly US-based readers and stories, but in Australia, Vodafone has the best int’l roaming deal I’ve seen yet. On their Red plans (starting at 50 AUD a month, including 3GB data, unlimited Australian calls, and 300 min international calls), you also get…

    $5 / day international roaming in 47 countries, including…
    Unlimited inbound calls
    Unlimited local calls
    Unlimited calls back to Australia
    Unlimited inbound / local / Australian texts
    As much 3G / 4G data as included in your plan

    You’re limited to 90 days of international roaming per year.

    It’s a pretty incredible deal. My partner has it, and when we land in another country, he just turns on his phone and it works (I’m unfortunately on a corporate plan with another carrier).

  24. Local SIM card, always. Not only you get faster data speeds and it’s much cheaper, but it’s essential for restautant reservations, airline updates, and, most importantly, whrn things go wrong. Being able to make inexpensive calls, and, more importantly, having local people be able to call you, is invaluable if you’re in an accident or emergency situation (and even if facing an airline cancellation).

  25. TMo

    PROS: Hopping around countries every few days and need data? Want alerts on your phone from TripIt/Worldmate/w/e while transiting a 3rd country without airport WiFi? Don’t want to mess with SIM cards?

    CONS: I don’t consider the $.20-$.25/min charges to call local numbers in Nicaragua, or a number of other countries, to be cheap. Also, having locals dial your US number is complicated unless they’re used to dialing international numbers. 2G internet is good enough for alerts and a 1-2 minute google search page load, but not enough for significant internet usage. Also, there’s an interesting wrinkle in their offer in that “most” of your usage over a 3-month period MUST be in the US. Sure, there’s no “contract commitment” but they also do a hard pull on your credit and WILL cut you off if they see you using the plan as not intended.

    Personally, I make some compromises between the two and take a hybrid approach. When transiting, I generally settle for WiFi (I’m not a country hopper hitting a new one every day). When at my destination, I acquire a SIM card with enough data (generally, 500+ MB) and a little credit for calls and texts. My phone is already set up to use a 3rd party VoIP provider both in the US and abroad, and when at home, I’m on a friend’s Verizon plan as a data-only “tablet” device for $10/month. (Again, Google Voice for texts, and calls to my Google Voice number are routed to my VoIP [SIP] phone that operates over data.) Complicated? Yes. Tradeoff of potentially not having data in a strange country during transit? Yes. But saving cash on local calls and data, calls to/from the US, and my US phone bill? Yes.

  26. I sent this email to Lucky back in September before AT&T changed their International plans. For me what I found ,still seems to provide a better choice. I use the data plan with a service from my office but Skype or some other service would work. I estimate my cost if I go over the 3GB plan at .03 cents per minute. It works best for outgoing calls but I don’t see why you can’t have a Skype in number that works. Using date can drain your batter, make sure you have a spare or portable charger. My last trip I spend just over $140.0 in roaming cost for almost 8 weeks on the road and used less than 3GB. My roaming cost were tied to a few inbound calls which I could not end quickly. I set a response message on my phone to send that said out of the country, i will call you back. Now the notes I sent to Ben.

    On Sun, Sep 7, 2014 at 6:24 AM, Leonard wrote:

    The plan that I was able to get with AT&T by submitting the request I showed you in a previous email provided 3GB of data for $69.99 that is 3GB of complete data for international and local data. The grandfathered plan some companies have is unlimited data for the same rate, that is what I thought I was getting and Is no longer available.

    In contrast to what is currently available, if you travel internationally frequently, this is a good plan. Below is the current options most people know about. The maximum available is 800MB of international data only, for an extra 120.00 per month/ (with the exception shown below) Your local data plan is not impacted when you travel.

    Comparing if you just add this $69.99 plan you have 3GB to use globally to use. If you were to choose the 800 MB plan you would pay 30 for each added 120MB. To get to 3GB of date that would have been an additional $550.00. for a total of $619.00 , saving obviously $550.00 if you use as much as 3GB. Which is worth it because if you have a reason to run over the cost add up quickly. What I don’t know is the overage cost per Gbit. Does it follow the international overage rate or the domestic rate, need to ask that question. UPDATE AS OF now each 1GB is $10.00

    Other considerations, you are no longer part of a pooled plan.
    You no longer have tethering (according to your article tethering was allowed for T-Mobile)
    You have to ask for permission for this plan and it has to be approved which was not a big deal.
    I am told, you can add and remove this as needed, I don’t know how they prorate it.
    It is assigned to your FAN (Foundation Account Number) I am told that it has to be billed to the same account as your Fan.

  27. Thank You Gary for the Great Tips, since they are Really Awesome Tips especially for those who travel for leisure or just few times a year and need high-speed data occasionally. Gigsky actually has pretty good prices and good speed VS rubbish T-Mobile 2G/Edge. Additionally, doesn’t one need to pay $50/month for the cheapest Simple Mobile plan first to enjoy this “free” data perk??? I couldn’t find any cheaper T-mobile plan that would be eligible for this Simple Global perk.

  28. This is the device I use and it cost me ONLY $30!! It is essential for international travel and I love it! Pay as you go (just buy day passes as needed). I paid it for $70 and it came with 5 free day passes ($40 Worth). The original cost is $150. They have a sale right now and it’s for $100. You can use the coupon (Code is HPT93FL) and link below and you get an additional $30 off and free shipping. So basically its costs $30 after 5 free day passes.

    You just buy the device one time and day passes are only $8 a day for unlimited data. You save money by not shipping it back and forth and don’t have to worry about different/multiple SIM cards or portable devices.

    http://skyroaminc.refr.cc/HPT93FL

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