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Best international phone plans — what travelers need to know

(Image credit: Pavel Ilyukhin/Shutterstock)

With overseas travel resuming, it's time to review the best international phone plans and what the major wireless carriers offer to customers visiting other countries. After staying put due to Covid-19 restrictions, travelers headed back into the world should review their options, as a lot has changed since early 2020.

Does your current cell phone plan let make calls or browse the web once you leave U.S. borders? (Usually, though there can be 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.) All of these are things for globetrotters to consider when shopping for the best cell phone plan — which will probably be one of the best unlimited data plans since they tend to offer the most travel-related perks.

The next time you depart on an overseas adventure — whenever that may be — you should know exactly which services the best phone carriers provide when you’re out of the country. Here’s a look at the travel policies and perks for the three top U.S carriers along with information on Google Fi, which offers a plan that definitely appeals to frequent travelers.

Best international phone plan: 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 (Verizon or Sprint, though the latter has been absorbed into T-Mobile), don’t despair: Many of the best best phones these days can support both bands, thus simplifying travel. That includes popular models like the iPhone 13 and Samsung Galaxy S22. You can always check with your carrier before your trip to make sure your phone will work overseas.

Another option, if you're just looking for a device that keeps you connected to the web, and you're less interested in talk — get a mobile hotspot with international roaming. Our look at the best mobile hotspot looks at a few handheld devices built with travelers in mind.

best international phone plans: T-Mobile

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

T-Mobile international phone plans

T-Mobile offers one of the simplest solutions for traveling overseas. If you subscribe to T-Mobile’s 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.

T-Mobile's options became even better recently, as the company launched a Beyond Connected program that bolsters its travel benefits. Previously, when you used data in other countries with a Magenta Plan, T-Mobile capped you at 128 kbps speeds. That's pretty slow. Now T-Mobile is doubling that speed to 256 kpbs.

Even better, Magenta customers traveling in 11 European countries will enjoy 5GB of high-speed data every month, thanks to a partnership with T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telecom.

The perk gets better when you upgrade to Magenta Max, which is an extra $15 a month on top of the $70 that a single line of Magenta costs. Those 5GB of high-speed data will be available in all 210 countries where you can use your T-Mobile plan.

T-Mobile customers can enjoy free Wi-Fi on American, Delta and Alaska Airlines flights. United will soon offer that perk as well.

In Mexico and Canada, T-Mobile allows you to use up to 5GB of data whether you've got Magenta or Magenta Max; speeds are 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; the Magenta Max 55 Plus plan 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 also offers 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 (opens in new tab) to see what your pricing will be.

T-Mobile Magenta Max Plan | Unlimited Data | $85/month (opens in new tab)
T-Mobile Magenta Max is the plan to get for world travelers, as it lets you use your data in 210-plus countries at no extra cost. Even better, 5GB of that data is high-speed, with 5G speeds supported where available. Magenta Max costs $85 a month for one line of data, and discounts are available as you add lines. You can still use your data overseas with the cheaper Magenta plan ($70/month), and enjoy high-speed data in 11 European countries. Otherwise, data speeds are capped at 256 kbps.

best international phone plan: Verizon

(Image credit: Verizon)

Verizon international phone plans

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.

All four of Verizon's current unlimited data 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.

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 (opens in new tab) — including China, France and Germany — Verizon charges $10 per device per day. 

Verizon's 5G Get More and 5G Do More plans both let subscribers accumulate one daily TravelPass every month, and you can keep up to 12 such passes at any one time. (TravelPasses expire a year after they're issued.) If you do a lot of traveling, it's a nice perk for taking some of the cost out of buying a TravelPass.

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're traveling.)

If you know you’ll be traveling for a bit more time, consider Verizon’s monthly option. Verizon used to offer multiple tiers, but lately, we can only spot one option. At least, it's a generous one — you can get 250 minutes of talk, the ability to send 1,000 texts and 5GB of data for $100/month for each line. (You can receive an unlimited number of texts.) Overage charges are 25 cents per minute of talk, 5 cents for each message you send over the 1,000 cap, and a steep $20/GB if you go over the 5GB ceiling. 

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. Data costs $20 for a monthly plan, and you only get a meager 50MB. Verizon says that pricing also applies to plans on select airplanes.

Verizon 5G Do More | Unlimited Data | $80/month (opens in new tab)
Among Verizon's many unlimited plan options, 5G Do More may be the best for travelers. Among the perks of this plan is that you accumulate one daily Travel Pass per month to use on trips — you can store up Travel Passes, as they don't expire for 12 months. The 5G Get More plan offers that same perk, but it's a little more expensive at $90/month.

best international phone plans: AT&T

(Image credit: AT&T)

AT&T international phone plans

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 four different unlimited plans — Starter, Extra, Elite and the new Value Plus option. AT&T offers a lone tiered data plan with 4GB of data that you can use in Canada and Mexico (though roaming may be at 2G speeds). Both unlimited and tiered data plans feature unlimited texting to 120-plus countries.

The Unlimited Elite plan is the best option for travelers headed to the Americas, as you'll be able to enjoy unlimited text, talk and data at no additional cost in 19 Cental and South American countries.

For anyone 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 200-plus countries, and you can add extra phones for just $5 a day.

You'll never have to pay for more than 10 days of day passes on any one bill, even if your trip lasts longer. International Day Passes also kick in automatically when you use your phone abroad — you get a text message letting you know you're covered.

If you do a lot of international calling from home, AT&T offers unlimited calling to 85-plus countries from the U.S. for $15 per month for each line. Calls to another 140-plus countries get discounted rates under this plan.

On cruises (opens in new tab), 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. 

AT&T Unlimited Elite| Unlimited Data | $85/month (opens in new tab)
It's AT&T's most expensive unlimited plan, but Unlimited Elite has the best perk for travelers — you can use your talk, text and data at no extra cost in 19 Latin American countries.  As with other AT&T unlimited options, you also enjoy talk, text and data coverage when traveling in Canada.

best international phone plan: Google Fi

(Image credit: Google)

Google Fi international phone plans

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 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 also offers a $65 Unlimited plus 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. (Alas, Google's cheaper Simply Unlimited plan is not eligible for the free data perk.)

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 a selection of Samsung phones and Motorola budget devices — can switch seamlessly between cellular networks and Google's Wi-Fi hotspots, while other phones cannot.

Google Unlimited Plus| Unlimited Data | $65/month (opens in new tab)
The Unlimited Plus plan is the way to go with Google Fi, as you can use your data at no extra cost when traveling overseas. Google Fi customers who pay by the gigabyte of data used are also eligible for this perk.

International phone plans: What about 5G?

As noted above, many of the plans that offer international travel either have you connect at whatever speed is available locally or at a reduced speed in cases where you're drawing from your own data plan. But what if you've got a 5G phone that can connect to faster networks overseas?

For the most part, we'd expect your phone to operate as before, either at whatever speed the local network offers or a capped speed if that's part of your carrier's travel plans. However, in a few instances, U.S. phone carriers have started making deals with overseas wireless providers that allow their customers to access 5G speeds when roaming. You should check with your carrier for information about the country you're going to travel in.

Best international phone plans: Which should you pick?

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, and new perks speed up that data. Upgrading to Magenta Max gives you even more generous travel options. 

While T-Mobile's coverage is the most appealing among the established carriers, Google Fi shouldn't be overlooked if you're willing to go beyond the major wireless carriers for your coverage. Like T-Mobile, you simply use the plan you're already paying of overseas.

You'll need to pay extra for Verizon and AT&T coverage when you travel beyond Mexico and Canada, though AT&T's International Day Pass makes that carrier more appealing for lengthy trips. Frequent visitors to Latin America will also like that the AT&T Unlimited Elite plan includes talk, text and data coverage in 19 countries.

Don Reisinger is CEO and founder of D2 Tech Agency. A communications strategist, consultant, and copywriter, Don has also written for many leading technology and business publications including CNET, Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, Forbes, Computerworld, Digital Trends, TechCrunch and Slashgear. He has also written for Tom's Guide for many years, contributing hundreds of articles on everything from phones to games to streaming and smart home.

  • 89startup
    Very useful info! Thanks. Currently I'm abroad and I still need to check the dealing code at https://areaphonecodes.com/united-states/south-dakota/ every time I call home. I use Verizon network (they have affordable prices).
    Reply