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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 the best 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 sometimes for a fee on top of your currently monthly bill depending who your carrier is.) And what exactly will your carrier charge you? (It depends on where you’re traveling.)

Before you depart on an overseas adventure, you should know exactly which services the top wireless carriers provide 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.

Editors' Note: Be aware that T-Mobile and Sprint are attempting to combine into a single company, and that regulatory approval could be coming soon. Should a merger happen, that could impact the international coverage the new carrier would offer customers. We've also updated this story to reflect Verizon's recently announced changes to its unlimited data plans.

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. Pretty much any handset sold unlocked or SIM-free is designed to be used on global GSM networks, making them good options for travelers.

That said, 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 XR and the Samsung Galaxy S10, 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 used to offer an unlimited data plan that was quite appealing to international travelers who did a lot of globe-trotting. The carrier's Above Unlimited plan may have been pricey at $95 a month, but it included five daily TravelPasses each month that let you use up to 512MB of LTE data in 130 countries.

Sadly, that plan is gone, as Verizon has introduced four new unlimited data options. All four plans include the ability to text internationally to 200-plus countries, and you can also use LTE data when traveling in Mexico and Canada. You're limited to 0.5GB of data consumption per day in those two countries before your speeds are slowed to 2G, and you can't use more than half of your talk, text and data over a 60-day period.

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For other travel, Verizon offers a daily 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 and don't have an unlimited plan. In 185 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'll be throttled to 2G speeds. (Verizon will also let you buy another 500MB of high-speed data, but you'll pay another $5 or $10 depending on where you'r traveling.)

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. Monthly passes start at $70 for 100 minutes of talk, 100 texts sent and 0.5GB of data. If you want to bump up those limits, $130 gets you 250 minutes of talk, 1,000 texts sent and 2GB of data. You designate the day Verizon's monthly international plan starts — generally, the moment you set foot in the new country — and your pass runs for the next 30 days, expiring automatically.

Verizon International PlansView Deal

Verizon also offers pay-as-you-go pricing for international travel. You’ll pay 99 cents per minute in Canada and Mexico, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands. Rates go up to $1.79 in 130-plus countries and $2.99 in 80 other places. 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 no matter where you are.

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’ve opted for tiered data through AT&T's Mobile Share Plus plans, talk, text and data are available when you travel in Mexico.

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. (Note that each device you take overseas will need its own Day Pass.) That service is available in 100-plus countries.

AT&T International PlansView Deal

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.

Sprint

Sprint's assorted unlimited plans include benefits when you travel to Mexico and Canada. The $60 Unlimited Basic plan offers 5GB of LTE data on top of unlimited talk and text in those two countries, while the $70 Unlimited Plus plan doubles data to 10GB. True globetrotters should consider Sprint's Unlimited Premium plan, an $80 option which lets you use unlimited data when you're in Mexico and Canada. All three 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.

Sprint International Plans

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 unlimited plan (which is now called the Magenta Plan) or are clinging to one of its discontinued Simple Choice plans with tiered data, you automatically get unlimited data and texting in more than 210 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, or 2G. Most 4G connections can deliver average speeds of 3Mbps to 6Mbps. Upgrading to T-Mobile Magenta Plus (formerly T-Mobile One Plus) doubles your data speeds when you're overseas, while also giving you unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi on planes that use Gogo's service. That costs an extra $15 a month, though the price is reduced to $10 a month per line for subscribers with multiple lines.

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's travel benefits are also included in its senior plan, which offers two lines of data for $70 total for subscribers 55 years and older. (Seniors who want double the data speed when traveling abroad can opt for the Magenta Plus Unlimited 55 plan, which costs $90 a month for two lines.) If you opt for T-Mobile's lower cost Essentials unlimited plan, you'll get 2G roaming in Canada and Mexico, but have to pay for data elsewhere.

T-Mobile International PlansView Deal

In June, T-Mobile expanded its International Pass options for travelers who want high-speed data during lengthier stays overseas. A 5GB International Pass gives you that much high-speed data along with unlimited calling for 10 days. It costs $35. T-Mobile's $50 International Pass increases high-speed data to 15GB and extends the length of the pass to 30 days.

The carrier also offers a $5 daily pass that gives you 512MB of high-speed data, and unlimited calling between the 210 Simple Global destinations. 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.

Other Options

If you do a lot of international traveling, don't ignore Google Fi, the wireless service set up by Google that uses cellular towers of Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular to provide coverage. International travel is built into Google Fi's rate plans, which cost $20 a month for talk and text plus $10 for each GB of data you use. (Data usage is rounded off to the nearest megabyte so you only pay for the data you consume.) Google stops charging you after you use 6GB a month, meaning you'll never pay more than $80. If you find unlimited data plans more appealing, Google has you covered there, too — it now offers a $70 option that rolls in unlimited talk, text and data.

Travel to 200-plus countries, and Google Fi charges the same rate for data usage, whether you're on an unlimited data plan or paying by the gigabyte. Voice calls cost 20 cents (though calls placed over Wi-Fi are free) and you get unlimited SMS messaging.

Google Fi is even more appealing now that Google has opened up service to all phones, including iPhones. Note that phones optimized for Google Fi — Google's Pixel phones plus select devices from Moto and LG — can switch seamlessly between cellular networks and Google's Wi-Fi hotspots, while other phones cannot.

Google Fi International Plans

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 Magenta unlimited plan, albeit at slower speeds than you’re used to in the states. Upgrading to Magenta Plus doubles those speeds. 

Like T-Mobile, Sprint lets you use your data plan when you travel, though fewer countries are supported and data speeds are slowed. To get faster speeds, you'll need to pay extra. You'll also pay up if you use Verizon's Above Unlimited plan, but 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, though Google Fi shouldn't be overlooked if you're willing to go beyond the Big Four wireless carriers for your coverage.