How to Use Your Smartphone When Traveling to Another Country

People viewing maps app on a smartphone

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You're planning an international trip, and there's one thing that you're definitely going to bring with you, your phone. But wait, can you actually use it? The answer to that question is unfortunately complicated, especially for US residents on certain major carriers. Don't worry. There are a couple of simple ways to break things down and figure it out.

Is Your Phone Really Yours?

The first, and probably most important thing to figure out is whether or not you actually own your phone. Most people don't realize that when you sign up for a contract and get a special price on a new phone, you don't own it. Your carrier does. It's almost exactly like leasing a car.

Locked Phone

If that's the case for you, options are going to be limited. You may be able to get a temporary international plan from your carrier or you'll need to use a different phone for your trip. If you did buy your phone outright and bring your own device(BYOD) or you have an unlocked phone, you'll probably be able to use an international prepaid SIM card for your travels. In fact, if you own your phone in the US, your carrier is required by the FCC to unlock it for you.

Which Network Standard Is It On?

There's another level of complexity to contend with. In the US, there historically have been two wireless standards, GSM and CDMA. GSM, or the Global System for Mobile communication, is the standard used nearly everywhere in the world, including over 220 countries. It's also always been the main standard used by AT&T and T-Mobile in the States. CDMA, on the other hand, is much more restrictive. Very few countries have CDMA carriers, but it's been the primary standard for Verizon and Sprint for a while.

Cellular Tower

Things are changing, though. More phones are being offered unlocked. Sprint and Verizon are catching up with the times too. Verizon recently discontinued support for CDMA only phones, and GSM phones now work on the network. The future isn't with GSM, though. Most current generation phones work on 4G LTE. LTE is a completely different standard that carriers have been using for mobile data for years. Now, they're finally switching to allow voice and text over LTE too, making phones much more universal. Then, there's 5G which is just over the horizon in many countries and promising the possibility for more compatibility and much faster speeds.

So, what does this all mean for you? You'll need to check which standards your phone supports. If you have GSM and/or LTE calling, you're likely in a good position to take your phone global. If you're on an older device from Verizon or Sprint, things aren't looking as positive.

Check With Your Carrier - They Offer Travel Plans

All of this probably feels overwhelming, and while you can do your own research online, your carrier is probably your best resource to find out everything you need. They'll let you know if your phone will be usable overseas, and they may even offer a convenient travel plan. Verizon TravelPass and AT&T International Day Pass both let you pay per day for international service. T-Mobile offers international roaming services. Sprint Global Roaming is something of a hybrid, allowing for daily data purchases but charging a flat rate per call.

Use a Prepaid SIM

Even if you go to your carrier for travel info, you don't need to use their service. There are plenty of options for prepaid SIM cards geared toward international travelers. You can purchase a SIM card from OneSimCard, WorldSIM, Travelsim, or any other provider of global SIM cards. Using them is usually as simple as replacing the current SIM from your carrier with your new global one. As long as your phone supports the correct wireless standards, it'll work as soon as the SIM is activated.

SIM Cards

If you're more familiar with the country you're traveling to or you've received a recommendation, you can always purchase a prepaid card at your destination. Just like carriers in the US, cell phone companies around the world offer prepaid SIM cards too. Most will work with unlocked or global model phones.

Buy or Rent a Phone

In the unfortunate event that you find yourself without an unlocked phone or one compatible with international networks, you can always buy or rent a temporary phone.

Phone with SIM card

There are services that rent or sell phones specifically for travel, like OneSimCard. You also may be able to rent a phone once you arrive. There are also prepaid phones that work internationally as well.

If you'd prefer something that you own, you can always pick up an inexpensive used phone that is unlocked. It's not difficult to find an unlocked phone from a few years back on eBay for under $100, and most are being sold refurbished from professional sellers. Trow an international SIM card in your new used phone, and you're ready to go.

When All Else Fails, Use Wi-Fi

If you're only going to be away for a short time, or you don't want to be bothered with the hassles of travel plans and additional SIM cards, you can always just use Wi-Fi and services like Skype and Google Voice or Hangouts to talk. Both services let you make calls to mobile numbers and receive them, and you can use them on your hotel's Wi-Fi. Sure, you won't be able to talk absolutely everywhere, but is a great low-cost solution that lets you bring your phone.

You can mix and match with Wi-Fi too. It can seriously help cut back roaming charges, and it'll conserve that valuable data that may have purchased either through your carrier or via a prepaid SIM card.