A few years back, I shared my tactics for avoiding massive mobile phone charges for overseas calls, which mostly involved getting an account with a VoIP (voice over IP) company and limiting use to times when you are connected to the Internet (Wi-Fi in the case of a cell phone).
But my experience since then has taught me that a Wi-Fi-based solution is not a complete panacea; there may well be times that you absolutely have to make a call when not attached to Wi-Fi, and if you haven't prepared in advance, it can cost you dearly.
I learned this the hard way while traveling in Germany earlier this year, when I had to make a couple of calls home that absolutely could not wait until I found a reliable Wi-Fi signal. In addition, we needed to map a route around a major highway closing, which involved downloading a lot of data on more than one occasion. When I turned off airplane mode in order to map the route, heaps of texts, email and other data poured in, and my cell phone bill spiked upwards by $254 for the month. Ouch!
The VoIP Internet/Wi-Fi option is still a great one, and more and more companies are offering the service at very reasonable prices. For example, Line2, the company I recommended and still use, offers a $9.95/month unlimited plan that can be used on your smartphone, tablet or PC, and has no set-up or cancellation fees and no contracts. Signing up involves downloading an app and giving your credit card, and not much more. Compare this to the cost of even one long-ish phone call using your regular carrier, and you can make your money back in a few minutes on an overseas trip -- and then cancel the whole thing when you get home if you want to.
But there are more and improving options all the time, some of them better or worse depending on how you prefer to stay in touch and how much data you will need. Read on for the current best options for using a smartphone overseas.
International Internet-based phone services owes their existence largely to the high costs typically charged by traditional carriers for anything but a domestic phone call and standard data plan. Any time you deviate from the standard offering, such as when making a call overseas, the cost of doing so is often outrageous -- my $254 overage bill was the proof for me.
Additionally, the mobile carriers are really on top of where and how you are connecting to their services in a way that may not have been possible just a few years ago. Back when I wrote the article above, I sometimes found that mobile carriers underbilled for international service -- on at least a couple of trips I had courted billing-day disaster by loading up maps and downloading email, and was somehow not detected. I may just have been lucky, but as providers have ramped up their international services as well as the prices for those services, they sure aren't missing things these days.
T-Mobile is leading the way in changing all that; specifically, its new Stateside International Talk for calls and Simple Choice plan for data and texting break ranks with the main carriers to include impressively unlimited deals for a heap of destinations (T-Mobile's abandonment of onerous contract terms is also a major change). The calling plan offers unlimited mobile-to-landline calling to 70+ countries and unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling to 30+ countries from the U.S.; the data/texting plan offers "unlimited data and texting in 120+ countries and destinations at no extra charge." See more here.
So far, the other big carriers have not seen fit to follow T-Mobile's lead. Verizon's offerings are still a thicket of options and microcharges that will pile up fast, and AT&T's may even be worse -- when a website says, "With only six rate tiers, international roaming charges are easy to understand," you are off to a really bad start. I have to think the big carriers will respond eventually, especially since T-Mobile started to offer the iPhone in 2013; the previous absence of the iPhone in T-Mobile's stable of phones was a serious deterrent for many smartphone users.
T-Mobile's tagline is "When we say global, we mean global," and that tells you most of what you need to know about the service -- and I emphasize most. The main (and somewhat hidden) expense here is that the unlimited calling plans include only calls from the U.S.; calls placed while you are overseas cost 20 cents per minute.
That said, the service is impressive enough that Forbes says that, especially for travelers, it couldn't recommend anyone else.
Before you switch everything over to T-Mobile, though, you will want to make sure that coverage at home is good -- otherwise you have a great travel phone that is useless in your living room. T-Mobile now has an interactive signal strength map that may help, and you can also check CellReception.com for actual user experiences (keep in mind that the site tends not to be filled with posts by satisfied customers, so you will want to read between the lines of complaints to figure out if it will work for you). T-Mobile is also offering a free weeklong test drive with an iPhone 5s; could be worth a try.
One last note on T-Mobile: As of just this month, if you are connected to Wi-Fi, T-Mobile can route your calls over the Wi-Fi connection. I have not been able to test this yet, and reviews online are scant to date, but this could really be a game-changer when choosing between VoIP or cellular options -- here you get both.
I mention some of the ways I have used VoIP services above; following is a brief look at some of the more popular voice over IP options that can work really well for travelers, with the pros and cons of each.
Dedicated VoIP Phone Number Services (Line2, Talkatone, MilliTalk, etc.)
- Calls to phone numbers in your home country are considered local calls and included in the price of your plan.
- Similarly, calls from your home country are considered local calls, so family and friends at home can call you at no additional cost.
- Most services include texting, a major upside.
- Most services offer voicemail, which can be delivered to your email inbox as an MP3 file, allowing you to listen to your messages from your computer.
- The services work over any Internet connection.
- Calls to the country in which you are standing are billed as international calls. It's a bit tricky to get used to, and you will want to know how much these are going to cost you.
Skype is probably the best-known method of connecting to other people worldwide using an Internet connection -- so much so that the name has come to be used as a verb ("Skype me when you get to your hotel"). The service is sometimes considered limited to calls to other folks who have Skype on their devices, but the company has expanded its offerings to allow connections to landlines and cell phones.
Skype recently introduced Skype Credit, which is a pay-as-you-go service for calls to landlines; it looks promising, though it may lead you into the world of refilling prepaid accounts while on the road, which not everyone enjoys. The subscription option may help here, although it does get complicated (you can call landlines and mobiles in eight countries, and landlines only in heaps more; texts cost 11.2 cents per message with Skype Credit).
- Skype to Skype calls are free from your phone, tablet or PC, no matter where you are.
- It is easy to download and set up.
- "International" calls (i.e., calls home to the U.S.) cost only 2.3 cents per minute.
- It's not really a solution for data or texting.
- Using Skype Credit requires you to set up an account, pre-purchase a certain amount of time and refill your credit as you go. Skype also has a subscription-based version; the "Unlimited World" program at $13.99/month may help here, but is a bit complicated.
Note: LocalPhone.com is a very similar service, albeit with lower prices on most of the same options.
Google has introduced a pretty stellar competitor for all of the above services, but for use overseas it is less useful at present. Voice uses a cellular network to carry calls, and as such is not "free" for either local calls or calls to U.S. numbers when using it overseas.
There are rumors that Google plans to discontinue Voice, at least as a standalone service; it may be folded into Google Hangouts, but I couldn't recommend it at this time for folks looking for a simple solution that is likely to be around for a while.
Rented Phone or GSM Phone with Purchased SIM Card
Putting a local SIM card in your GSM-capable phone, or in a rented phone, is another popular option for many travelers. Although some of the conveniences of using your own phone disappear -- your number will be different, your contacts may not be accessible, your favorite apps are absent -- you can use a GSM phone with a SIM card and prepaid plan much as you would use your own phone at home.
This doesn't sound critical, but when you need to pull up directions on your phone, or if you are traveling with friends and family and need to text each other when you get split up, or any of the countless little things we rely on smartphones to do in 2014, it can really come through.
- This is a compelling option if you want to make calls, text a lot, download data, use mapping applications, etc. -- all the things you use your smartphone to do at home.
- You can get very competitive rates if you shop around.
- It will behave like a local phone while overseas.
- You don't have to muck around with data plans with your current carrier.
- You will likely have a different phone number for every trip, so you'll have to share it with friends and family each time.
- You won't have your list of contacts already on the phone; same goes for your favorite apps.
- Buying and refilling SIM cards can be tricky, as some countries restrict the purchase to people with a local address (to discourage terrorists and other criminals who may change phone numbers frequently), and running out of credit at the wrong time is a hassle.
Given the above, this option isn't for everyone. Nonetheless, here a few reputable rental companies:
One thing to consider here -- if you travel enough that rental charges become prohibitive, you might want to buy an unlocked GSM phone, and then purchase SIM cards ahead of each trip.
At present, T-Mobile's pretty much generic program (that is, no additional plan shopping, pre-trip signup procedures, add-on fees, etc.) seems like the way to go. In fact, if you have the company's Simple Choice plan, you probably already have most of what you need to avoid the $254 cell phone bills.
T-Mobile's coverage stateside, however, doesn't yet match that of Verizon and AT&T, and if it is poor where you live and work, it's not worth switching just to have better options when you travel. In that case, a VoIP service like Line2 could cover you very well, so long as you don't have to connect frequently when out of Wi-Fi range.
Finally, if your own phone is GSM-enabled and can take a third-party SIM card, or if you want to rent a GSM phone at the beginning of your trip, it could be worth going the "local SIM card" route.
Anything I missed? Please let me know in the comments below -- you might help save all of us $254 on our next trip!