When planning to travel outside the US for an extended period of time, one of the big questions that comes up is how to stay in touch with those back home. Sure, it's a little easier in this day and age with WiFi in almost every cafe, restaurant, or hotel you might be in. But for those moments when you are lost on a street corner in Tokyo and need to pull up Google Maps, or on a 3-day bus ride in Brazil and need to text your Mom that you are OK, what are the best options for using cellular data while abroad? Here are the most commonly recommended choices and the one we are going with for our trip.
Purchasing SIM Cards As You Go
The old school option, and still probably the most affordable, is just buying prepaid SIMs in each new country you travel to. Make sure your phone is unlocked before you go and when you arrive just head to a news stand or corner store to pick up a local SIM. The one major downside to this is that you will have a different phone number every time. This can get pretty confusing if you are texting or calling friends back in the states. Also, keep in mind that you will now have an international number, so if people back home call you, they could get stuck with a big phone bill!
Google's Project Fi
Google's cellular plan is one of the few pay-as-you-go options for international roaming. For a $20/month base fee, you get unlimited domestic texting and calling, and you pay $10 per GB of data that you use. When traveling to any of the 135+ covered countries, you still get unlimited texts, pay the same $10/GB for data, and calls (in most countries) cost only 20 cents per minute. While traveling you will get 3G data speed which, although still slower than the domestic 4G LTE, is faster than the 2G speeds you get with the other carriers we list below. The major downside to this plan is that you need a Google phone in order to use it, either a Pixel or Nexus. However, if you are not opposed to making a switch over to one of those phones, Project Fi might be a good choice for your travels!
T-Mobile's One plan is one of the most popular with international travelers. It offers unlimited texting and 2G data speeds in 145 countries, as well as calling at 20 cents per minute. 2G is pretty slow but should work well for messaging apps and text emails. A lot of travelers have also reported that they have gotten 3G or 4G speeds for no extra charge in certain countries. There is no need to switch SIM cards or do anything differently than you would in the US. As soon as you land, you receive a message with information on the local carrier, and you can continue using your phone as normal without having to worry about crazy roaming charges. The basic One plan starts at $70/month for one line. If you pay $10 extra per month you will receive 2X the international data speeds. If you pay $25 extra per month you will receive 2X data speeds and unlimited calls to landlines in 70+ countries and cell phones in 30+ countries. The biggest downside to T-Mobile is that the coverage outside of major urban areas in the US is not as good as Verizon or At&T. If you are in a more rural area, your phone might automatically switch over to AT&T to provide coverage, in which case you will only be allowed 200mb of data until you return to a T-Mobile coverage area.
Starting just this past spring, Sprint started offering free international roaming for all of its customers. They now offer unlimited texting and 2G data in 165 countries and calls at 20 cents per minute. They also give you the option of paying an extra $5/day or $25/week to upgrade data speeds to LTE. With a single line plan starting at just $50/month, this is a more cost effective deal than T-Mobile is currently offering. And the pay as you go feature to upgrade to LTE speeds is not a bad idea. However, their normal international 2G speeds are capped at 64kb/s which is only half of the 128kb/s that T-Mobile offers. Also, like T-Mobile, Sprint's domestic coverage is known to be pretty mediocre.
What We Chose
We went with T-Mobile and are planning to use their T-Mobile One plan for all our international travels. To be honest, we didn't know about Sprint's new international offer when we made the switch to T-Mobile earlier this year. If we had, we might have more seriously considered Sprint. That being said, since we have two lines with T-Mobile we only pay $50/month each, which is the same as we would pay on Sprint, and our free 2G international speeds will be twice as fast. So, we probably would have ended up choosing T-Mobile regardless.
Whatever you choose, the one thing you should NOT do is travel abroad with AT&T or Verizon and call, text, or use data. Roaming charges are no joke. If you use 1GB of data while roaming with AT&T, you could be charged more than $2,000!!! It would be a very sad day to return from a wonderful week in France to find out that you owe more for streaming one episode of The Voice than you spent on your entire trip.