One of the most vital parts to international travel is the ability to be able to communicate both with our family and friends back home, but also with those that we meet abroad. When it comes to picking a US based cell phone company, your choices are limited to the four big carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon and any other small companies that piggyback off of their antennas. This post is for someone who will be traveling for short periods of time or will be traveling to many locations fairly quickly. That’s because a traveler who plans to live in a specific country for a prolonged period of time will want to pick up a local sim card which will undoubtedly offer greater speeds and coverage, often at a nominal price. With that being said, today we are going to break down the pros and cons of each of the big four cell phone companies and help you make the choice for the best cell phone plan for international travel.
The characteristics we are going to be focusing on are: coverage, affordability, and providing an overall score. Coverage will represent how many geographical areas are covered under your international cell phone plan. Affordability will touch upon costs versus service, giving you a value estimate. The score will take both measures into account as well as any other miscellaneous or qualitative data to take into account.
Top Four Cell Phone Plans for International Travel
Coverage: AT&T’s coverage map for voice and data availability is broad, covering most major international areas and countries. Coverage is spotty in rural areas, jungles, and isolated vast spaces, which is to be expected.
Affordability: The Passport program offers three tiers of international service at an additional cost to your domestic plan, meaning that you must add this to your existing plan, otherwise you will be charged exorbitant per minute, per text, and per kilobyte rates, which everyone should avoid. The three Passport tiers all including unlimited texting and messaging and access to participating Wi-Fi hotspots. The most basic, simply called Passport, costs $40 per 30 days and can added to your line on a recurring basis or as a one-time plan good for short trips. Talking comes in at $1.00 per minute and includes a meager 200 megabytes of data. Overage charges for data are $0.25 per megabyte.
Passport Silver costs $60 and includes 300 megabytes of data with a cost of $0.20 per megabyte over your initial 300. Talking is $0.50 per minute.
Passport Gold comes in at $120, with talking at $0.35 per minute, 800 megabytes of data, with overages coming in at $0.15 per MB.
This plan is pricy, but can make sense for someone who will need access to high speed data in areas where wi-fi is not available.
Coverage: This basic coverage map shows you that many areas are covered, with the largest gaps occurring in parts of Africa and China. You can input your specific travel location on their website to see what coverage is to be expected.
Affordability: Sprint is a great option because their Global Roaming plan is automatically included into your domestic plan, which means you won’t have to pay additional fees to have access to it, unlike AT&T. What you can expect at no additional cost is: unlimited texting, unlimited 2G speed data, and $0.20 per minute of talking.
The most important part to notice here is that 2G speeds are quite slow compared to what you may be used to at home, so keep that in mind. These speeds are useful in a pinch or if you have time to wait for pages and maps to load on your device.
You may purchase separate, additional 1 day (100 MB), 7 day (200 MB), or 14 day (500 MB) plans at up to 3G speeds. They cost $15, $25, and $50, respectively.
Sprint’s included Global Roaming is a great deal because its features are already included in your domestic plan, which means no extra costs. Their higher speed paid plans can be useful too, if going on short trips.
Coverage: T-Mobile’s international coverage covers over 140 countries around the world, meaning that most of your destinations will be included. Coverage is very similar to that of Sprint.
Affordability: Just like Sprint’s plan, T-Mobile’s Simple Global provides international roaming features at no extra cost, which can come as a welcomed surprise for frugal travelers. You’ll have unlimited texting, unlimited 2G speeds, and $0.20 per minute voice calls.
For higher speeds, you can pay for 1 day, 7 day, and 14 day access plans identical to those of Sprint, coming in at $15, $25, and $50.
Exclusively for this summer(July 1st – August 31st 2016) T-Mobile will be providing 4G high speed data throughout Europe at no extra cost, which you should take advantage of if Europe in in your plans.
Go here to check if your destination is covered.
T-Mobile’s Simple Global plan is great because it comes with no extra costs, including perks that even Sprint does not have, such as free GoGo internet on airplanes and free high speed data in Europe this summer. This is the best cell phone plan for international travel in my opinion and one that I use.
Verizon’s international voice and data plan options are the most extensive and thus can be difficult to understand. They offer a service called TravelPass which is unlike any of the other carriers and is tied directly to your domestic plan’s voice and data caps, while also offering individual per device travel plans.
Coverage: Verizon’s coverage map is akin to that of AT&T’s in that service can be had in over 140 countries on the TravelPass and nearly everywhere else at higher rates.
Affordability: The TravelPass option, which can apply to over 100 countries, is unique in that your existing domestic data, voice, and texting limitations will persist despite being out of the country. What this means is that if you have 6GB per data in a month, for example, you’ll have that data cap abroad as well. It seems like a good deal because you may have a lot of data to use, but it comes at a cost. They charge you $10 per day of use to take advantage of this option, meaning that if you don’t use your device during the span of 24 hours, you won’t get charged for that day.
Outside of this plan, they offer monthly international travel plans, similar to what AT&T offers. For $25 a month you’ll have 100MB of data allowance, $1.79 per minute calls, and $0.50 per text message sent and $0.05 per message received. There will also be costs if you go over those limits. Their second tier at $40 a month is the same except you’ll have 100 minutes included, 100 messages sent included, and unlimited messages received.
Data speeds are 4G high speed where available.
Verizon’s plans can be the most expensive out of the bunch and are quite limiting. Their redeeming feature is that the data is very fast and coverage is good. The TravelPass is recommended for short trips.
The best cell phone plan for international travel is going to depend on the domestic plan that you may already have, but it may be worth considering a switch. If you have no domestic plan already, T-Mobile and Sprint are two great low cost options to take advantage of, but they are not for the power user who will need high speed data availability. AT&T and Verizon provide great speeds, but they are both relatively expensive. If you foresee yourself requiring reliable speeds because you plan on working abroad, then the more expensive plans may be your only option. I would pick a plan with AT&T for long trips and Verizon for short ones. For a more relaxed trip or the frugal traveler, the inexpensive plans offered by Sprint or T-Mobile are certainly adequate. This blog did not touch upon travel to Mexico and Canada, where all carriers have specific plans at often better rates. Similarly, all phone companies have international plans for cruise ships, but they, too, were not covered here and tend to be much more expensive.