Best International Phone Plans: What Travelers Need to Know

Traveling to another part of the world can be an exciting way to experience new cultures, but it requires a little prep on your part. You have to get your passport in order, stock up on guidebooks and travel apps — and figure out just what your cellphone plan allows you to do when you’re in another part of the globe.

Will you be able to make calls or browse the web once you leave U.S. borders? (Yes, but likely for a fee on top of your currently monthly bill.) And what exactly will your carrier charge you? (It depends on where you’re traveling.)

Taking a trip around the world is an exciting adventure, but before you depart, you should know exactly which services your wireless carrier provides when you’re out of the country. Here’s a look at the travel policies and perks for each of the four major U.S. carriers, to help you determine which one will make the best travel companion.

Latest News (Updated July 18)

Both Verizon and Sprint have added new unlimited plans with benefits for international travel; we've updated this guide to reflect those changes. T-Mobile will increase the number of travel destinations covered by its Simple Global feature as of July 22. It also plans to add a new $5 daily data pass with 512MB of LTE data for travelers starting August 1.

Have the right phone

First things first: The only phones you’ll be able to use when you travel internationally are those considered “world phones,” meaning those that can be used as easily abroad as they are domestically. That means the phone must be capable of running on a GSM network, as that’s the predominant networking standard around the world. But if you’re on a CDMA network (Sprint or Verizon) here in the states, don’t despair: Many top smartphones these days can support both bands, thus simplifying travel.

MORE: Help Me, Tom's Guide: How Do I Pick the Best Phone for Travel?

Each carrier features a list of world phones, and you’ll find popular models, such as the iPhone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy S8, on those lists. You can check your phone’s status with Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. For those last two carriers, you’ll need to fill out some information about your trip first.

Verizon

Although Verizon’s network is based on CDMA a technology that most of the world doesn’t support the carrier offers coverage to its customers all over the world. But where you travel significantly influences how much you’ll have to pay.

Verizon has shuffled up its unlimited plans, and that has an impact on people who like to use their data plan while traveling. Go Unlimited and Beyond Unlimited subscribers both enjoy unlimited talk, text and data for no additional charge in Mexico and Canada. However, while calls and messages are truly unlimited, data will be throttled from LTE to 2G speeds after 512MB.

The carrier's new Above Unlimited offers that Canada/Mexico benefit, too, and augments it with another goodie aimed at travelers: you get five daily TravelPasses each month to use in more than 130 countries. That lets you use up to 512MB of LTE data per day. Just be aware that you'll have to do a lot of traveling to justify the higher rate for Above Unlimited, as it costs $95 a month for a single line versus $75 and $85 for Go Unlimited and Beyond Unlimited, respectively.

If you're not on an unlimited plan, Verizon offers a daily travel pricing option called TravelPass. It’ll cost you $5 per day per device for each day you’re out of the country if you travel to Mexico or Canada. In more than 100 other countries — including China, France and Germany — Verizon charges $10 per device per day. Talk, text and data on TravelPass are subject to the same allowances you have on your Verizon plan stateside; in other words, the data you use in Europe draws from the tiered data plan you have at home. Note that data speeds are only 4G for the first 512MB each day when you have a TravelPass; after that, you're throttled to 2G speeds.

If you know you’ll be traveling for a bit more time, consider Verizon’s monthly options. Again, pricing and service will vary depending on where you go.

If you’re off to Mexico or Canada, Verizon will charge you $15 per month per device. For that, you’ll get 100 minutes of talk time, the ability to send 100 text messages (you can receive an unlimited number of texts) and 100MB of monthly data. If you pay $25 per month, you’ll get 500 minutes, 500 sent messages and 1GB of data.

If you travel farther from home, things get pricier. Monthly travel plans to 140 other countries, like Germany and France, cost $25 per month. On top of that, you’ll pay $1.79 per minute for talk time and 50 cents for every text message you send. (Verizon also charges 5 cents for every text message you receive.) You’ll get 100MB of data during the month, and all data overages will cost you $25 per 100MB of additional usage.

MORE: Best Smartphones - Here Are the 10 Best Phones Available

Boosting your international travel fee to $40 per month gets you 100 minutes of talk time and 100 sent messages (and unlimited received messages). You’ll still have 100MB of monthly data allowances and the same overage charges.

Verizon also offers pay-as-you-go pricing for international travel. You’ll pay 99 cents per minute in Canada and Mexico and $2.99 per minute in other countries for voice service. (Talk rates fall to $1.79 per minute in 140 countries with monthly pricing.) Each text message you send will cost you 50 cents, and each received text will set you back 5 cents. Your data will be charged at a rate of $2.05 per megabyte.

Going on a cruise? Verizon charges $2.99 per minute for voice and 50 cents for every sent text message. You’ll pay 5 cents per message received.

AT&T

AT&T also comes with varied international pricing depending on where you want to go. If you’re heading to Mexico or Canada, for instance, AT&T already covers all of your voice, data and text with its Unlimited & More and Unlimited & More Premium plans; you won’t incur additional charges. If you’re still on a tiered data plan with AT&T, you’ll pay $10 per day for unlimited talk and text in Mexico and Canada. Data will be governed by your plan’s monthly allowance.

If you’re off to Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America or the Asia Pacific region on a short jaunt, AT&T recommends its $10-a-day International Day Pass, which comes with unlimited talk and text and data governed by your plan. That service is available in 100-plus countries.

For longer trips, AT&T has retooled its AT&T Passport, which provides 30 days of service when you travel. Users thought the previous iteration of AT&T Passport offered too little data (since data was limited to 200MB, you can see their point), so AT&T increased the amount of data in its travel plan. The $60 Passport gives you 1GB of data and unlimited texting; you'll be charged 35 cents per minute for calls to any country. A $120 AT&T Passport boosts your data to 3GB. Don't go over that allotment, as AT&T charges $50 for each GB you go over.

And, of course, AT&T delivers an à la carte service, with a talk rate of $1 per minute in Canada and Mexico, $2 per minute in Europe and $3 per minute anywhere else in the world. AT&T charges 50 cents for each text message and $1.30 for each picture or video message. You’ll pay $2.05 per megabyte of data usage.

On cruises, AT&T offers a $50 monthly plan that covers 50 minutes of talk and unlimited texting. A $100 monthly plan gives you 200MB of LTE data on top of unlimited talk and text. If you'd prefer to pay as you go on your cruise, calls are $3 per minute and data will run you $6.14 per megabyte.

charges $2.50 per minute of talk time and $8.19 per megabyte of data usage.

Sprint

Sprint's revised unlimited plans include benefits when you travel to Mexico and Canada. The Unlimited Basic plan offers 5GB of LTE data on top of unlimited talk and text in those two countries, while the Unlimited Plus plan doubles data to 10GB. Both the $60 Basic and $70 Plus plans give subscribers access to Sprint Global Roaming in 185 places around the world.

Sprint Global Roaming is an option you can add to your Sprint plan at any time, and you can keep it on your account, free of charge, for as long as you’d like. Once you’ve enabled the feature, you can travel to most countries around the world, including all of North America and South America, China and Europe, and get free text and free data on 2G speeds. If you want to talk, you’ll pay 20 cents a minute.

If you’re interested in faster data speeds, Sprint lets you buy a High-Speed Data Roaming Pass, either for 24 hours or a full week. Rates vary based on where you travel. In Canada and Mexico, you can buy a day pass for $2 and a weekly pass for $10. In China, day passes cost $10, and it's $50 for a week of high-speed data roaming. Most other destinations charge $5 a day and $25 a week.


Beyond those programs, you can add an International Data Pack to your account and pay between $30 and $125 per month in Canada and Mexico, depending on whether you need 55MB or 325MB of data. Sprint offers 40MB and 85MB of data allowances elsewhere around the world for $40 and $80 per month, respectively.

Sprint’s cruise rates vary by the ship you’re on. You can tell Sprint which vessel you’ll be on, and the company will give you your rates in advance.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile offers one of the simplest solutions for traveling overseas. If you subscribe to the company’s T-Mobile One unlimited plan or are clinging to one of its Simple Choice plans with tiered data, you automatically get unlimited data and texting in more than 140 countries around the world. As of July 22, that number will grow to 210 places, T-Mobile says. If you want to place or receive calls, you’ll be subject to the local rate depending on where you want to go. You don’t need to notify T-Mobile of your travel.

It’s also worth noting that although you’ll get unlimited data when traveling with T-Mobile One, you’re capped at an exceedingly slow 128 kbps. Most 4G connections can deliver average speeds of 3Mbps to 6Mbps. If you need to boost your speeds, you can choose T-Mobile’s 256-kbps option for an extra $25 a month as part of its T-Mobile One Plus International plan. (That plan includes other perks, such as unlimited calling to landlines and mobile numbers in select countries, unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi if you’re on a plane that uses Gogo, and HD video streaming.) In Mexico and Canada, T-Mobile used to allow unlimited 4G LTE coverage with its One plan, but you're now capped at 5GB with speeds slowed to 2G after that.

T-Mobile also lets you temporarily add high-speed data by the day or week with its On Demand Passes. Starting August 1, a $5 daily pass gives you 512MB of high-speed data, and unlimited calling between the 210 Simple Global destinations. T-Mobile points out that rate is half of what Verizon charges for its TravelPasses.

Pricing on cruises will vary according to which cruise you’re taking. You can check T-Mobile’s site to see what your pricing will be.

Bottom line

If you make frequent trips overseas, T-Mobile’s plan is a no-brainer, especially now that more countries are covered. The carrier includes unlimited data and texting as part of its standard T-Mobile One unlimited plan (albeit at slower speeds than you’re used to in the states). If your calls include a lot of overseas numbers, it may even be worth upgrading to T-Mobile One Plus International for an extra $25 a month, since it lets you make calls to landlines and mobile numbers in many countries at no additional charge. Sprint offers something similar with its new unlimited plans and their access to the Global Roaming feature. But T-Mobile will cover you in more countries after July 22.

As pricey as Verizon's Above Unlimited plan may be, it could be worth it if business takes you overseas on a monthly basis, thanks to the addition of some complimentary TravelPasses. For infrequent travelers taking short trips, programs like Verizon’s TravelPass or AT&T’s International Day Pass will likely be good enough. But again, T-Mobile offers the most appealing international coverage, especially once it launches its $5 On Demand Pass in August.

Create a new thread in the Cell Phone General Discussion forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
1 comment
Comment from the forums