Can You Use Your Cell Phone When You Travel to Other Countries?

Michael Kwan
Woman using cell phone in Paris

Many major American wireless carriers provide nationwide coverage at no additional charge. This is typically not the case when you travel to other countries, including Canada or Mexico, so what options do you have to stay connected and minimize costs?

Traveling With Prepaid and Postpaid Cell Phones

You may incur significant roaming charges when traveling internationally with your American cell phone because it will no longer be connected to your home network. Instead, your phone may "roam" on the local network at your destination, like with Orange in France or with Rogers Wireless in Canada.

Domestic carriers and plans offer varying levels of support with roaming partners around the world. As a rule of thumb, users will be able to use their phones with an additional charge for calls, text and mobile data if they subscribe to a monthly postpaid plan and have a phone that is compatible with international roaming at the destination.

However, most prepaid plans either do not support international roaming or have very limited support for roaming in other countries. For example, GoPhone customers with AT&T can roam in Mexico and in Canada, but nowhere else in the world. Customers with Straight Talk will find that the prepaid service will not work at all when outside of the United States and Puerto Rico.

Roaming Charges With Existing Carriers

If you choose to use your existing cell phone with your current American domestic wireless carrier in another country, you will find that most major nationwide providers will offer two main ways to obtain international roaming access: one-time travel packages and pay per use rates.

AT&T

AT&T offers a series of international travel packages that it calls AT&T Passport. These are one-time packages that start at $30 and include:

  • Unlimited text and picture messages
  • Unlimited Wi-Fi access
  • 120MB of cellular data
  • Talk at $1.00/minute

There are also packages for roaming only in Canada and Mexico starting at $30 for 80 minutes, plus regular pay-per-use rates for talk, messages and data that vary based on destination.

Customers on the GoPhone prepaid service can have service in Mexico and Canada on a pay-per-use basis.

  • Minutes start at $.25.
  • Sent text messages are $.25.
  • Sent picture messages are $1.30.
  • Data is only available with the $25 per 1GB data package on the $55 US, Mexico and Canada monthly plan.

T-Mobile

One of the biggest perks offered by T-Mobile is the fact that the Simple Choice Plan includes unlimited data and texting in over 120 countries and destinations all around the world at no extra charge. Voice calls are charged at a rate of 20 cents per minute. This includes coverage in such countries such as, but not limited to:

  • Canada
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Brazil
  • Peru
  • Austria
  • Germany
  • Poland
  • China
  • Japan
  • Iraq
  • Kenya

The biggest caveat is that the free, unlimited data is only available at a slower speed. Customers who desire faster speeds can purchase higher-speed data passes at a rate of approximately:

  • $15 for 100MB valid for one day
  • $25 for 200MB valid for seven days
  • $50 for 500MB valid for 14 days

It should also be noted that customers on Pay-in-Advance and Simple Choice no credit plans are not eligible for free global coverage.

Verizon

On the Verizon website, there is a handy Trip Planner utility that allows you to see the pricing options and international coverage based on your device. This ensures that your current cell phone is compatible for international roaming and checks if Verizon has a roaming partner at your chosen destination(s).

The roaming packages from Verizon are divided into two main groups. The data plans for Mexico and Canada start at $10/month per line, including 100MB of monthly data. An extra $5 adds 100 minutes, 100 sent text messages, and unlimited received text messages.

The equivalent roaming data plans for global travel to over 140 countries is $25 a month per line for 100MB of wireless data. Adding 100 minutes, 100 sent text messages and unlimited received texts is an additional $15 a month per line charge.

If you do not plan on using your phone as much, you may consider the global pay-as-you-go rates.

  • Global voice starts at $.89 per minute.
  • Sent text messages are $.50.
  • Received text messages are $.05.
  • Data in Canada, Mexico and the rest of the world is charged at $2.05/MB, $5.12/MB and $20.48/MB, respectively.

Sprint

Similar to Verizon, Sprint also has an online wizard to help you determine international rates when traveling with your Sprint cell phone. You simply enter your destination and choose your device from the list of options.

For example, the standard rates for voice calls in Hong Kong are $2.49 per minute, while sent and received text messages are $.50 and $.05, respectively. The Sprint support website also provides instructions about how to get your phone ready for international travel by activating the roaming feature.

For wireless data, Sprint offers a number of International Data Pack Add-ons. The rates for Canada and Mexico start at $30 a month for 55MB of data while the multi-country pack for international travel starts at $40 a month for 40MB of data.

Even better, consider the International Value Roaming options from Sprint.

  • A one-day pass for $15 includes 100MB of unrestricted 3G data and unlimited 2G data after that.
  • The 7-day pass is $25 for 200MB of 3G data.
  • The 14-day pass is $50 for 500MB of 3G data.

Save Money With Local SIMs and Service

Instead of purchasing an international travel pack or choosing pay-per-use rates with your domestic carrier, it is often far more cost effective to get a local prepaid SIM at your country of destination. This is particularly true for longer trips in single countries.

Unlocked Cell Phones With Local Service

To take advantage of local prepaid rates, you must first ensure that your phone is unlocked and is compatible with the networks at your destination. This typically means that the phone must be GSM-enabled with compatible bands. First, GSMArena is a good resource to check, and it lists most GSM cell phones. Next,, look online to see which bands and wireless technology are used by the wireless carrier at your destination.

A good international smartphone that has been unlocked can be an excellent choice. When you arrive at your destination, you will need to pick up a prepaid SIM card with your chosen prepaid wireless provider and choose a pricing plan.

Be prepared to encounter some potential complications, particularly if there is a language barrier to overcome. Many carriers will ask for government-issued identification, such as a passport. Some international airports have kiosks right in the terminal where you can purchase and sign up for a prepaid plan.

International SIM Service

If you plan on visiting multiple countries on your trip, it can be a hassle to initiate a new cell phone service at each destination. To overcome this, you should consider signing up for service with an international roaming provider. This works in a similar fashion as the local prepaid SIMs, but allows for travel across multiple countries at discounted rates. Notable providers in this space include iRoam (previously known as G3 Wireless) and Truphone.

Cell Phone Rentals

If you do not have an unlocked phone or your phone is not compatible with the networks at your destination, you might also consider renting a phone. This is something that you'd need to plan for ahead of time. There are no roaming charges and no long-term commitment, but cell phone rentals can become expensive for extended trips.

The Cost of Seeing the World

Many costs must be considered when you travel internationally. Just as you would shop around for the best airfare and hotel deals, the same level of diligence should be exercised regarding cell phone service while abroad. The travel packages with your existing American carrier will be the most convenient, but signing up for a local prepaid SIM service will almost always be less expensive. It's simply a matter of deciding what is most important to you and how much you're willing to pay to get it.

Can You Use Your Cell Phone When You Travel to Other Countries?