How to stay in touch when traveling abroad:
- Take your US cell or mobile with you but add to your plan so you can use it abroad. Useful for short term trips under 30 days.
- OR if you’re planning on being gone for a month or more, think about buying a local cell phone after you arrive.
- OR you can use both. I’ll explain further in a bit.
- OR If your US phone is unlocked, buy a SIM card in the country you’ll be traveling in
You’ve got your summer vacay to Europe booked; you’re almost packed and counting down the days till your flight. Or maybe you’re going for a long sabbatical or a semester abroad?
Have you thought about how you’ll stay in touch with friends and family while you’re gone?
Take it from me, your smart phone will be your GO TO resource when traveling. Not just as a phone but such an easy way to pull up boarding passes, maps, hotel, travel info and booking details. When traveling, my phone is my only must have accessory!
You need an easy uncomplicated way to keep in contact with friends, family and even with work.
I’m assuming you’re traveling from the US to Europe, but similar options should apply to any destination. Just check with your cell provider before leaving the US.
Most US cell providers have one rate plan for calls to and from Canada and Mexico with a higher rate for calls to and from other countries. My rates and advice are based on travel to Europe. Here’s your options.
1. Take your US cell phone with you:
Most US cell carriers offer plans that will allow you to call from Europe.
I recommend using your plan for data and texting ONLY. Calls are $$$. You need data for maps and apps while on the move, but otherwise use Wifi when available.
Texting is a quick way to keep in touch vs calling. Check with your phone provider to see how many texts you’re allowed. Most plans allow unlimited texting to and from the US.
None of the US carriers had reasonable per minute call rates to call home to the US. In fact they’re downright punishing. So once again, use your plan for data only OR an emergency call home.
US CellPhone Plans that Allow Calls/Data/Texts from Europe
AT&T – offers a AT&T Passport International monthly plan starting at $70 for a one time charge for up to 30 days. Texting is unlimited but calls are still charged at .35 per minute.
Verizon – offers a daily travel pass plus monthly travel plans as well as cruise ship plans. Rates from $10. per day or $70. a month. Verizon’s monthly plan includes a 100 minutes talk.
T-Mobile – Check the country you’re traveling to. The T-Mobile Simple Global plan includes 2G data and text while you’re in other countries. Calls are .25 minute. Which makes T-Mobile the winner for taking your US phone abroad and is what I use.
Sprint – Sprint Global Roaming offers a similar international plan that includes basic data and text with additional calls at .25 a minute.
Check with your carrier before you go to find out what they offer as these plans and rates change often.
Any voice call or voice mail received on your US phone will be counted as a call and subject to the per minute charge.
2. Get a Local Phone in the Country You’re Visiting:
I walked into a Vodafone store in Brighton UK and walked out with a nice little Android phone with Googles’ Chrome browser and mapping ability. Use any mobile provider – Vodafone is just one choice.For about $30 I got a months worth of data and voice usage with the phone. Pay for a monthly plan (with no commitment) or pay as you go. For example you can top up or add minutes to your phone with as little as £5 ($6.50).
If you want to keep the phone and number active, add what’s called a “top up”. Take it with you when you travel back to the US and top it up online (if you don’t do this your number will expire at 6 months of non usage).
This is exactly the same as a “pay as you go” phone. Cheap but functional and it gives you a local number for hotel reservations or to call a taxi. Use it for local calls and data usage; but not to call back home to the US (unless you don’t mind large phone bills)!
By the way, unlike the US, incoming calls are always free on UK cell phones.
3. Use Your US phone AND a Local Phone
In the UK, I’ve used my TMobile cell phone and a cheap “pay as you go” Vodafone phone to have a local number. Wish I had done this at the start of my trip for two good reasons. One, it’s easier to call a local number from a local number and two it’s cheaper.
Use your US phone for calling, texting and WhatsApp and use your local UK phone for local calls and texts to UK numbers.
4. Get a SIM Card for Your US Cell Phone:
If you’re planning on staying in Europe or the UK for an extended period of time, it makes sense to have a local number.
If your phone is unlocked (check with your provider, if you’re still on a plan, it’s locked) buy a SIM card in the country you’ll be staying in. If you know your phone is locked, ask your cell provider to unlock it before you leave the US. You’ll need to pay it off or be eligible to be out of any contract.
Using your US cell phone and replacing its’ SIM card means giving up your US cell number.
This means you’re replacing your US SIM card and US number with the new SIM and new local number. Hang onto your US SIM, you may need it later.
In the UK with your SIM card purchase, you’ll sign up for a monthly “SIM only” plan but it can be pay as you go or contract, it’s up to you.
I purchased a new iPhone in the US and decided to turn my old iPhone into my UK cell phone by replacing it’s SIM card. My new iPhone keeps my US cell number and I use it for data and WhatsApp with my TMobile plan.
More Options to Stay in Touch When Traveling Abroad
WhatsApp is owned by Facebook and allows you to make free calls internationally using your local phone number. You call, text or chat with any contact you add in the app. Add your Facebook friends, or any of your phone contacts.
The best part is it’s FREE. The app is free and there’s no cost to make calls.
When you make calls you’re making them using your data or a Wifi network. If you don’t have either, you won’t be able to make calls. I discovered this app sucks up a lot of data, so if you’re on a limited data plan while abroad, try to make all your WhatsApp calls while on Wifi.
I use my US cell phone for data and texts but WhatsApp for calling anyone internationally. Download the app from the Apple Store or Google Play.
Stay in touch when traveling with wifi and email:
Wireless Internet: Having a good Wifi connection will make your life a lot easier. Keeping in touch by email is free. You’ll find a lot more free Wifi spots in Europe than the US, but keep in mind public open Wifi is not secure. For example don’t do your banking or transmit anything you wouldn’t want to have hacked if you’re using public Wifi.
Your hotel or Airbnb home from home will usually have Wifi access. Again if you’re using your hotel internet be aware you’re on an open network and don’t use it to access private information online. If you’re staying in an individual flat or apartment, you’re likely the only person using that network so you should be secure.
Email Vacation Responder: If you don’t want to be bothered with replying immediately to email, add a vacation responder. This is a message that automatically goes out to anyone who emails you. You can customize the message and length of time it stays active. For example, you may want to say “Jane and John will be out of the country from this date to that date. We’ll get back in touch once we return”. Check your email accounts user settings to turn this on.
If you decide not to use a vacation responder, keep in mind each time you check your mail, you’re using data.
If you just have a basic data plan this can add up. Try to schedule checking mail, sending mail, or using What’s App when you’re on Wifi.
Traveling abroad is an amazing experience, but it’s even more fun to share it with those you love!
Need help planning a move abroad sometime in the future?