Given the ubiquity of cell phone usage in the United States, it's not surprising that many travelers feel naked without a cell phone tucked in their pockets. If you're longing to flip open a personal phone on a cruise or text your friends from the Eiffel Tower, read on. We've outlined the pros and cons of each cell phone option abroad so you can figure out which one is right for you -- and your budget.
Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas
Using Your Own Cell Phone with an International Calling Plan
Most major U.S. phone companies give you the option of choosing a plan that allows you to make international calls. These plans may be offered on an ongoing basis or as a temporary service that you can set up for a single month when you know you'll be leaving the country. Each company offers different plans for various prices that work for a number of phone models and in designated countries. Major cell phone providers have coverage maps that show in which countries your network works. Per-minute calling rates vary for different countries.
Some cell phone companies have calling plans for specific regions, such as Canada or Mexico. Other providers let you specify the nations where you need your phone to work (the more countries you choose, the higher the monthly rate). Although you can probably find a broad international phone plan from your current cell phone service provider, you will not be able to make calls from every country on earth; be sure to check that your plan covers the destination in which you plan to travel.
To make an international call from a cell phone, your carrier network must be compatible with the country you're visiting. If you are traveling to Europe, you will most likely find a suitable calling plan. In Africa, the Caribbean or South America, plans may vary. In addition, your phone must be technologically capable of making international calls -- many of the cheaper phones offered by popular cell phone stores can only be used domestically.
Fortunately, many major provider Web sites offer detailed roaming maps and prices so customers can sort out the complexities of international cell phone service. To see if your current phone has what it takes to work overseas (or to find out more about roaming prices and plans), check out the following links:
Another option besides making a traditional cell phone call is using a Voice Over IP (VoIP) service such as Skype, which connects calls via an Internet connection. Skype is often used on laptops, but it is now available on cell phones as well. (There's even a Skype mobile app.) Skype users can talk to each other for free, and can make calls to landlines and cell phones at affordable rates. However, remember that even if you're not making international calls over your phone's cellular network, you'll still need to have an international plan in place to avoid exorbitant data charges.
Essential Smartphone Travel Apps
Travelers who spend a lot of time overseas and don't want to deal with the inconvenience of renting or purchasing a new cell phone should consider using their own cell phone abroad. If you are looking for the most convenient way to make a call regardless of cost, using your own phone is your best bet.
Purchasing an International Cell Phone
Depending on your destination country, you may be able to purchase a local phone with a domestic calling plan. Local plans are often similar to the one you have on your current cell phone; domestic rates are cheap, and the most basic cell phone models are quite affordable.
Research cell phone companies in the country you will visit or look for a local cell phone store. Just make sure that the cell phone company you choose is popular and well known. Do not buy a cell phone from someone on the street just because you think you're getting a "deal."
Frequent travelers who spend a lot of time in one international location will be best served by purchasing a phone in their destination. Students studying abroad and travelers with international vacation homes or family in another country should also consider purchasing an international cell phone.