Best Cell Phone Plans for International Travel
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Using a US cell phone company's international roaming plan can get expensive! Eli's service is with AT&T. If he were to use their international plan, he would be shelling out an additional $10 a day up to $100 a month while we travel. Stephen, who has his service with T-Mobile/Sprint, gets free 2G data (which is basically only useful for sending text messages via WhatsApp), or can pay $5 a day or $25 a week for 4G/5G data. Either way, though, for a month of travel, we'd both be spending $100. Stephen's plan with T-Mobile is better for the person who might only travel occasionally for a week-long vacation.... $25 for Stephen vs. $70 for Eli. But we get it; who wants to go through the rigamarole to change mobile carriers just to save a few bucks for the few times when most people are traveling internationally. Sometimes it's just easiest to suck up the $100. But you don't have to!
In the old days, to save money, you used to have to buy a local SIM card and then swap it out with your SIM card from home.
Not anymore! There is another option! If you have an iPhone 11 or later, any Samsung Galaxy S20 or later, or the Galaxy Z series, it is compatible with eSIM as long as your phone is unlocked. With eSIM there is no swapping out a SIM card because there is no physical SIM card to swap. Generally, all you have to do is scan a QR code to install the eSIM, follow some easy step by step directions to activate the eSIM, and you're good to go! We're saving between 30% and 70% per month over the roaming plans that come with our US carriers.
There are a number of different companies that are now offering eSIM. Two that we've used are Airalo and Holafly. Airalo has a wide variety of different country specific, regional and global plans that come with various different day lengths and data amounts. Holafly has the same thing, but for some country and regional plans they offer unlimited data. Airalo generally allows you to top up your data plans if you need just a little bit more, while with Holafly you have to buy a whole new eSIM. It pays to check both sites to figure out which plan has the right combination of data, time, and price for the trip you're going on.
If you're unsure how much data you typically use (we hadn't ever given it much thought either) you can check your monthly data usage via your phone or your carrier's app. Take that monthly usage, divide by 30, multiply by the number of days in your trip and that should be a good guide; we've found we use about as much mobile data traveling as we did when we were at home.
If you end up choosing a data limited plan, make sure to set your automatic cloud backup programs on your phone to back up only over WiFi. Mostly this is important for photo backing up with programs like Google Photos, iPhoto/iCloud, or the like as that will eat into your data cap quickly, especially when you're taking tons of photos as one does on vacation.
Both companies offer 24/7 customer support, but Airalo is based out of Singapore, so we found they were slower to respond during the morning hours while we were traveling in South America.
Most eSIMs don't come with a phone number; they're data only. This isn't really important, though, these days. Most people in the world use WhatsApp and you can make calls and send text messages to practically everyone using the app. In fact, we haven't yet encountered a single soul while traveling who didn't have WhatsApp installed. iMessage and traditional SMS messaging are only really a thing in the US.
Another helpful app to help manage communication is Google Voice. Anyone that has a Gmail account also can use Google Voice. When traveling, you can forward your regular phone number to your Google Voice number, and you can take calls or have people leave you voicemail messages that way. The only cost to you is a tiny bit (and it really is tiny) of data from your plan. It's free to call any US number with Google Voice (again, it just costs a tiny bit of data from your plan). When connected to WiFi, it's not even using any of your eSIM data.
We've used Google Voice to call US phone numbers mostly when we've needed to get in touch with business customer service numbers (like credit cards and airlines) back in the US while we're abroad. They also have low cost ($0.01-$0.10 per minute) rates to call international numbers for those times when you can't get a hold of someone in the country you're in via WhatsApp (we've used this mostly when calling to make restaurant reservations).