Unless I’m traveling for work, I like to disconnect from my cell phone entirely. But on a recent spur-of-the-moment trip to southwestern France—I know, tough life!—emails and calls simply couldn’t be put on hold. (And functioning without Google Maps? Impossible….) So I set up an international plan on my iPhone and learned a few indispensable tips along the way.

Tips for Traveling Internationally with a Cell Phone

Find Out if Your Phone is Country Compatible

Some cell phones don’t cross borders as easily as people do. Cells and smartphones in the United States connect over GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) or CDMA (Verizon and Sprint) networks. This means your Verizon smartphone will be able to call, text, or search in a country that uses CDMA. But bring that cell phone to one of the 219 countries around the world that operate on GSM, and you might as well hold a brick up to your ear. Below is a general breakdown of destinations that support GSM/CDMA, but it’s worth checking with your carrier to find out if your phone will work in the country you’re traveling to.

  • GSM: Most of Europe, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand; and parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America
  • CDMA: Mexico, China, and parts of Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
  • GSM and CDMA: United States, Canada, New Zealand

If you have a CDMA phone and are traveling somewhere that uses GSM (or vice versa), talk with your carrier about renting or purchasing a global phone.

Choose the Right International Calling Plan

For shorter vacations or if you’ll be using your phone for emergencies only, the simplest way to make and receive calls while abroad is to purchase an international calling plan that fits your expected usage. Heads up: Expect to feel a bit nickel and dimed on this. Cell carriers will charge you for everything from activating the international service to incoming calls—even if you don’t pick up.

Here are deets on some popular carriers (again, contact your carrier directly for the most up-to-date information):

Carrier International Plan Cost Per Minute Network
AT&T World Traveler – $5.99/mo $0.99–2.49 GSM
Sprint Worldwide Voice Plan – $4.99/mo $1.49–2.49 CDMA
T-Mobile N/A $1.49–2.49 GSM
Verizon Global Value Plan – $4.99/mo $0.69–2.89 CDMA

Also, remember to ask about roaming charges—these can be pricey. Either way, calling from your cell phone isn’t cheap, so you’ll definitely want to monitor your usage. And don’t forget to deactivate the service when you return home. For longer trips, it may make sense to swap out your SIM card to lessen the per-minute rate. Rick Steves provides a handy guide to using SIM cards in Europe.

Buy a Data Package for Your Smartphone

To check email, find a restaurant, map directions, or use an app while abroad, you’ll need to purchase a data package. These are offered in tiers based on the number of megabytes you plan to use. Generally, plans aren’t horribly expensive for what you get, but there are a few important must-knows

1.) How Much Data Do You Need?

Most of us underestimate the amount of data we power through in a month. Use one of the roaming calculators below to estimate your usage and ensure you pick a plan that will cover your data requirements. I also try to avoid downloading songs, videos, or apps while abroad—they’re massive data sucks.

2.)  Change Your Settings Before You Leave

Imagine all the emails and updates that build up over the course of a ten-hour flight. As soon as you land and power up, your smartphone will start downloading those megs upon megs of data. So before you leave, make sure you’ve talked with your carrier about activating data roaming and have adjusted your phone’s settings so that it isn’t constantly reaching out for updates.

3.) Disable Roaming Whenever Possible

While traveling, conserve the limited data MBs you’ve already paid for by making sure your phone updates only when you ask it to. Your phone is probably set to pull data in 10- or 15-minute increments. You can change this by going into your settings and disabling roaming. (If you have an iPhone, you can also disable the automatic update on your email. Just make sure to enable it when you want to check your inbox.) Are you a Google Maps addict? Try Maps.me app for iPhone (thanks Independent Traveler for the reco), which allows you to map out a destination through your GPS without racking up data.

Text Like a Teenager

OK, maybe not quite that much. But because texting is way easier on the wallet than international calling, a good rule of thumb is to text more than you talk. AT&T, for example, charges $0.50 to send a text while abroad — receiving a text costs $0.20. If you purchase a plan, SMS texting is even cheaper, but make sure you’ll be sending enough texts to warrant the $10–50 monthly buy-in.

Tip: Texting photos is pricey ($1.30/text), so if you have a data plan, it’s better to email images to the folks back home.

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