Comb the web for a bit, and it’s not hard to find horror stories of overseas cell phone usage gone wrong, with people paying more for data than they did for their airfare or accidentally spending a month’s rent on background app refreshes. Data download fee disasters seem almost to be a rite of passage for many modern travelers.
I recently profiled mobile hotspots as a way to beat these fees outright—but if renting still another piece of metal is going too far, or if you think a basic roaming plan will cover you, I’ve gathered details and pricing information about the best international phone plans from five major providers.
International Phone Plans: What You Need to Know
When you travel abroad, you will usually be connecting to the cell towers of third-party providers other than your own cell phone company. This means that your cellular provider must pay an access or connection fee to that third-party network, a cost it will pass on to you, usually at a markup. These fees typically show up on your phone bill as “international roaming data” fees.
These costs apply to everything you do with your phone—phone calls, text messages, and, importantly, data usage of all kinds. On this last item of data usage, it is crucial to understand that, unless you are connected to Wi-Fi, every use of your phone incurs a data toll.
That means that viewing and downloading email, browsing the web, viewing social media, and mapping all incur data charges, as do applications that we sometimes assume to be “free,” such as Skype and WhatsApp.
A simple example: While traveling without an international phone plan, you know that making calls while overseas costs extra, so instead you use your WhatsApp number to make calls. Unless you are connected to Wi-Fi, however, WhatsApp is using cellular data, so you are getting charged at your provider’s international roaming data rate. How much does that cost?
On AT&T, international usage costs with no plan in Europe are as follows:
– Phone calls: $2.00/minute (no charge for incoming calls)
– Texts: $0.50 per text and $2.05/MB (no charge for incoming texts)
– Data: $2.05/MB
WhatsApp’s data use depends on whether you are on a 2G, 3G, or 4G network, but on 4G this study by AndroidAuthority puts WhatsApp calling data use at about 750 kilobytes per minute, so a one-minute call using WhatsApp will cost you about $1.50.
Meanwhile, Google Maps uses about six megabytes every 10 minutes, a cost of $12 to go a few miles in your car.
Clearly, data usage can get very costly very fast.
Here are your options for the best international phone plans as of early 2018.
International Phone Plans with AT&T
Of its several international phone plans, AT&T’s simplest offering is the International Day Pass, which is available in more than 100 countries and costs $10/day for unlimited calling and texting as well as whatever data plan you have at home. One nice feature of AT&T’s plan is that you are charged only for days on which you use the package, so if you are on Wi-Fi all day or never turn on your phone, you save the $10.
Note that Mexico and Canada are included in some AT&T plans, so you don’t need an international package in those countries.
For longer trips, AT&T has two Passport plans offering one GB of data for $60/month and three GB for $120/month, including unlimited texting and phone calls for 35 cents a minute.
International Phone Plans with Project Fi
Google’s Project Fi is a newcomer to the wireless market, and isn’t for everyone; the plan is available on only six phone models, including various Pixel phones as well as Moto X4, Android One Moto X4, Nexus 6P, and Nexus 5X.
Project Fi’s international phone plan, the main draw for many customers, is extremely straightforward: “Data abroad costs the same as at home.”
Project Fi charges in a somewhat a la carte fashion: $20/month for unlimited domestic calls and texts, $10/GB per month for data, and $15/month for an extra person to share your data plan. Internationally, the only substantive difference is that voice calls cost 20 cents per minute; otherwise, your international plan is the same as your domestic plan.
An important caveat is that if you are outside the 135 destinations where Project Fi is available, you will have to get a local SIM card; otherwise, you will not be able to use your device unless you’re on Wi-Fi.
International Phone Plans with Sprint
Sprint is among the companies that include international connectivity in their standard plans. All Sprint plans that have Sprint Global Roaming enabled include free data and unlimited texting in 185 destinations; calls cost 20 cents per minute.
Note that while there is no extra charge for Sprint Global Roaming, you must take the step of adding it to your plan to qualify for the benefits.
The free data comes at up to 2G speeds, which may seem slow compared to what you are used to at home. For faster data speeds, Sprint’s Global Roaming package offers 4G LTE data for $5/day or $25/week in most destinations (it’s $2/day or $10/week in Mexico and Canada, and $10/day or $50/week in China).
International Phone Plans with T-Mobile
T-Mobile has carved out a niche for itself by offering only unlimited plans at fixed prices depending on how many phone numbers you have, starting at $70/line down to $40/line for four lines. T-Mobile also piles on some unexpected benefits; unlimited streaming is included, including Netflix streaming on most plans; it also includes in-flight texting and one hour of data on Gogo-enabled flights.
For travelers, the most interesting element is that texting and data in more than 140 countries are wholly included in your main plan, with calls placed from international locations billed at 20 cents per minute.
The downside is that the standard speed is approximately 128 kilobytes per second, which is crawling by current standards. For faster speeds, T-Mobile has two options. One Plus gives you double the data speed (256 kilobytes per second—which is still not super fast, as most 4G networks do 3-6 megabytes/second) abroad and unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi, for $10 more per month. One Plus International costs $25 extra per month and gives you the 256 kbps speed and unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi, as well as unlimited international calls, unlimited 4G in Mexico and Canada, unlimited HD streaming, and some other features such as voicemail to text. See T-Mobile’s website for more details on its international phone plans.
International Phone Plans with Verizon
Verizon’s GoUnlimited and BeyondUnlimited plans include unlimited calls, texts, and data in Mexico and Canada—one catch being that after you download 512 MB of data, speeds will be reduced to 2G levels. Otherwise, Verizon’s TravelPass plan is very similar to AT&T’s, with a $10 charge per day, per device to get the same plan you have at home. If you are not on one of the unlimited plans at home, Verizon charges $5/day for coverage in Mexico and Canada.
Verizon also offers monthly plans ranging from $15/month for 100 minutes, 100 sent texts, and 100 megabytes of data for Mexico and Canada up to $40/month for 100 minutes, 100 sent texts, and 100 megabytes of data for more than 140 countries. See the grid on this page for all options.
Note that these monthly data limits in particular are very tight for a full month’s time; you will want to have a solid sense of your data use before choosing these plans. Also, if Verizon’s recent international plan changes are a portent, Verizon may up those limits soon, mainly to keep pace with AT&T.
On this last point, changing international phone plans are almost a rule in this industry, and what you find out in the wild is often much more heterogeneous than what you find officially on the company websites. Many customers are grandfathered in on old plans that are otherwise no longer on offer; for this and other reasons, many companies ask that you provide details of your trip before giving you a quote on your international phone plan.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 8 Innovative Phone Cases and Accessories for Travel
- Have an Old iPhone? Here’s the Airport Perk You’re Missing
- 12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip
Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.