Best international phone plans — what travelers need to know

(Image credit: Pavel Ilyukhin/Shutterstock)

Reviewing the best international phone plans from U.S. wireless services should be on the top of your to-do list if you're planning any trips abroad. And after Covid-19 restrictions have kept most of us at home for the last two years, we can be forgiven if we're eager to get back to traveling.

When we do start taking trips again, though, we should know what our options are for staying connected with the folks back home. Our guide to the best international phone plans can help with that.

A good international plan will let you make calls and browse the web when you're in another country (though there might be a fee on top of your normal monthly rate, depending on which carrier you use). Different plans might cover different countries, and how long you plan on traveling could also impact your choice of plans. Your method of travel — be it by plane or cruise ship — also affects which plan is best for you.

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: Device compatibility and eSims

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Traveling overseas used to mean checking to see if your phone would be compatible once you set foot in another country. But those days are drawing to a close now that 3G networks are shutting down, eliminating much of the distinction between phones that work on either GSM and CDMA. If you've got a recent smartphone that connects to LTE, chances are strong it's going to work just fine in other countries. (You still might want to confirm that your phone works on the LTE bands available in the country you're heading to prior to your trip, just to avoid any unpleasant surprises.)

Many phones now support electronic SIM cards or eSIM technology, where you no longer need to swap in a local SIM card to make your smartphone work with an overseas network. (iPhone 14 models sold in the U.S. only feature eSIM support, for example.) One of our editors took an international trip recently using an eSIM for her phone and found it easy to setup and use with a local network — in fact, she plans to use the eSIM approach on all future travel. 

That said, not every country supports eSIM. And depending on your phone carrier in the U.S., you might already have options that cover your phone use in other countries.

T-Mobile international phone plans

best international phone plans: T-Mobile

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

T-Mobile offers one of the simplest solutions for traveling overseas. If you subscribe to T-Mobile’s Magenta or Magenta Max plans 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 Magenta Max Plan | Unlimited Data | $85/month (opens in new tab)

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.

But some plans have better perks than others, after T-Mobile introduces its Beyond Connected program. There's a big benefit for all of T-Mobile's jet-setting customers, as Beyond Connected has boosted data speeds to 256 kbps when you're overseas — double what it used to be. If you subscribe to the Magenta plan and you're in one of 11 European countries, you can 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.

Finally, T-Mobile customers can take advantage of free Wi-Fi on American, Delta, Alaska Airlines and United flights. Magenta Max subscribers get full texting and Wi-Fi with streaming during flights, where wireless is available. If you go with Magenta, you're covered on four flights per year with full streaming, plus unlimited texting; after those four flights, you can stream one hour of video.

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. It's part of the reason why T-Mobile heads the list of the best cell phone plans for seniors.

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.

Verizon international phone plans

best international phone plan: Verizon

(Image credit: Verizon)

Verizon phones generally work all over the world, especially if you've got a phone built in the last few years. But where you travel significantly influences how much you’ll have to pay.

Verizon 5G Do More | Unlimited Data | $80/month (opens in new tab)

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.

Verizon now features six unlimited data plans, with each one including the ability to text internationally to 200-plus countries. 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. TravelPass gets you 2GB of 5G data, and unlimited data at 3G speeds after that; the passes also come with unlimited talk and text.

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.

If you know you’ll be traveling for a bit more time, consider Verizon’s monthly option. International Monthly Plans at Verizon cost $100/month, but in exchange, you get 250 minutes of talk, the ability to send 1,000 texts and 20GB of 5G data. (Use that, and you get unlimited data at 3G speeds.)

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.

AT&T international phone plans

best international phone plans: AT&T

(Image credit: 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 four different unlimited plans — Starter, Extra, Premium and the entry-level 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.

AT&T Unlimited Premium| Unlimited Data | $85/month (opens in new tab)

AT&T Unlimited Premium| Unlimited Data | $85/month (opens in new tab)
It's AT&T's most expensive unlimited plan, but Unlimited Premium 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.

The Unlimited Premium 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 Central 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. 

Google Fi international phone plans

best international phone plan: Google Fi

(Image credit: Google)

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. 

Google Unlimited Plus| Unlimited Data | $65/month (opens in new tab)

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.

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. Unlimited Plus subscribers now get a year of YouTube Premium as a perk. 

But the real benefit to Google Fi for Unlimited Plus and by-the-gig customers covers travel to 200-plus countries. When you're overseas, 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 such as the Pixel 6a and both Pixel 7 devices along with 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.

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 Premium plan includes talk, text and data coverage in 19 countries.

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.

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