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.

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 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.

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

Sprint

Sprint’s no longer offering its Open World travel plan to customers, which is a pity because it was a a great program fro graveling in North America and Latin America. Instead, you'll want to turn to Sprint Global Roaming.

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.

You can also pay Sprint $4.99 per month for discounted calling rates whenever you’re subject to the rates and traveling internationally. The rates vary by country and apply to every country in the world.

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. 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 allows for unlimited 4G LTE coverage with its One plan. 

T-Mobile also lets you temporarily add high-speed data by the day or week with its On Demand Passes. Rates vary depending on where you're using that data.

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. 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’s travel options aren't as appealing without Open World, though at least Sprint Global Roaming offers free text and data in a lot of countries, even if data is slowed down. If your international travel is limited to Canada and Mexico, AT&T’s offerings might look good, particularly if you opt for one of the carrier’s unlimited plans; AT&T's decision to boost the amount of data in its Passport plans also makes the carrier more appealing if you're planning a lengthy trip.

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.

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