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 definitely want to bring with you, your phone. But whether you can use it is complicated, especially for U.S. residents on certain major carriers. There are a couple of simple ways to break things down and determine if you can take your phone on your international trip.

Is Your Phone Really Yours?

The first and 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. The carrier does. It's almost like leasing a car.

Locked cell phone
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If you don't own the phone, your options are 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 own the phone and bring your own device (BYOD), or if you have an unlocked phone, you may be able to use an international prepaid SIM card while traveling. If you own your phone in the U.S., your carrier is required by the FCC to unlock it for you.

Which Network Standard Is It On?

In the U.S., 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 United States. CDMA is more restrictive. Very few countries have CDMA carriers, but it's been the primary standard for Verizon and Sprint.

Cellular Tower

Things are changing as more phones are offered unlocked. Sprint and Verizon are catching up. 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 different standard that carriers have used for mobile data for years. They're switching to allow voice and text over LTE, making phones more universal. Then, there's 5G which is just over the horizon in many countries and provides more compatibility and faster speeds.

Check which standards your phone supports. If you have GSM or LTE calling, you're in a good position to take your phone global. If you have an older device from Verizon or Sprint, you may not be able to take your phone with you and use it.

Check Your Carrier's Travel Plans

Your carrier is the best resource to find out everything you need. They'll know if your phone is usable overseas, and they may offer a convenient travel plan. Verizon TravelPass and AT&T International Day Pass both charge 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. Purchase a SIM card from OneSimCard, WorldSIM, Travelsim, or any other provider of global SIM cards.

Using a prepaid SIM is 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
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If you're familiar with the country you're traveling to or received a recommendation, purchase a prepaid card at your destination. Just like carriers in the U.S., cellphone companies around the world offer prepaid SIM cards too. Most work with unlocked or global model phones.

Buy or Rent a Phone

If you don't have an unlocked phone or one compatible with international networks, buy or rent a temporary phone.

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

If you prefer a phone that you own, 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 sold refurbished from professional sellers. Add 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 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, use Wi-Fi and services such as Skype, Google Voice, and Google Hangouts to talk. These services make calls to mobile numbers and receive calls, and you can use them on the hotel's Wi-Fi. You won't be able to talk everywhere, but this is a low-cost solution that lets you bring your phone.

You can mix and match with Wi-Fi too. It can cut back roaming charges, and conserve data that you may have purchased through your carrier or with a prepaid SIM card.