Last Updated: Dec 5, 2018
If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of American students planning to study abroad, or one of the millions of US citizens with upcoming travel plans to a foreign country, you likely have a long list of pre-trip to-do’s. Among them should be to check your mobile phone’s coverage and determine whether you have the right plan for your travel needs.
As a student (or parent of a student) on a family plan, you want to know that your phone will connect to an international network and how much your wireless provider charges for international service. After all, you don’t want to arrive at your destination to find that you have no service or, perhaps worse, wind up with a huge cell phone bill from international roaming charges. As you plan your semester abroad, consider these questions before you cross the border.
Related: The Ultimate Study Abroad Timeline
Do you have a “world phone”?
Worldwide, there are two major radio technologies underpinning cellphone networks: the Global System for Mobiles (GSM) and the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). Most of the world uses GSM, except for Japan and Korea, which rely on CDMA.
In the United States, the technology used depends on the wireless carrier. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, while Sprint, Verizon, and US Cellular use CDMA. If you have T-Mobile, your phone is locked into GSM and won’t work in Japan. If you have Verizon, your phone may not work in Europe. The good news is that most of the latest smartphones support both networks, but you may still need to get it unlocked.
Do you need to get your phone unlocked?
When you bought your phone, your carrier probably locked it to their network, making it impossible for you use the phone on a competitor’s network. If you want to use your phone in a foreign country, you’ll probably need to get it unlocked. An unlocked phone allows you to swap out the SIM card—the tiny computer chip that helps your phone communicate with a desired cellular network—for one that works in the country you’re visiting.
Depending on your provider, the country you're traveling to, and how much you’ll be using your phone, getting a SIM card in the country you’re traveling to is likely your most affordable option. But since you’ll need to contact your wireless carrier to get your phone unlocked, you might as well ask them if they have an international roaming plan option and compare prices.
Does your carrier have a postpaid international roaming plan?
Most wireless carriers offer postpaid international calling plans, meaning you’ll use the service and get the bill later. Estimate your needs ahead of time and the run the numbers to see if this option makes sense for you.
For example, some plans offer unlimited talk, text, and a few gigs of high-speed data in Canada and Mexico for one cost. In other countries, you can usually get unlimited text and data but will have to pay a certain amount per minute to talk (how much you pay depends on your plan). That could add up if you plan to make a lot of calls.
Other plans offer international roaming with fees that vary by country and can be great options for shorter trips. No matter what, always opt for Wi-Fi–based communications. It’s usually free, but check with your hotel or other housing to be sure.
Related: 6 Money Tips for Studying Abroad
Should you buy a prepaid phone with an international roaming plan?
If you’re going to be traveling in a foreign country for an extended amount of time, you may want to consider buying a prepaid phone, either before you leave the United States or after you arrive abroad. Look for a plan that includes unlimited texting while abroad and prioritizes free Wi-Fi calling.
If you decide to wait until you’re in the country of your destination, do a little research beforehand. Locate a phone company near your accommodations and visit the store once you arrive. You will likely be expected to pay for the phone and a flat monthly fee for each gigabyte of data. Prices vary widely (depending on where you’re traveling, you may even get unlimited text and calls with your purchase), so it’s important to check ahead of time.
Whether it’s a short jaunt or a year abroad, you’ll want to share your international experiences with your friends and family back home, and having a phone is a major component of those communications. Investigate the best options available to get the most for your money—the choice ultimately boils down to the amount of time you’ll be visiting and your budget. Good luck with your plans and bon voyage!