Mobile Phones Abroad: What You Need To Know

Smartphones have become a staple in day to day existence and are becoming increasingly popular. Calling, texting, updating your social status, and even using GPS to search for your location and proximity to local hangout spots, are just a few of the neat things you can do with your phone nowadays.

If you plan to travel with your phone, you may not realize that costs can skyrocket when you use the phone’s various features while out of the country or your home area.  Stories about outrageous phone bills after utilizing your Smartphone are very common. 

There are things you can do to avoid a phone bill nightmare, and you can start with educating yourself on how your phone works, and what is available.

Phone Functionality Overseas
First, social updates and text message costs are not the only things to consider when traveling abroad. Your phone may not actually work in your destination country.  Most oversees phones operate on the GSM network (Global Service for Mobile) and utilize SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) Cards. The GSM network and SIM card combination is what makes the same phone work in London, Paris and Sydney.   By simply replacing the SIM card within your phone, it is possible to quickly activate, interchange, or swap out your phone with another while moving your phone number, address books and other important information to your new device.
In the United States, the iPhone, Blackberry and Android based phones utilize GMS/SIM card technology.  Most other US phones utilize CDMA technology, which although popular here in the US, is not as common in Europe, a reason many US phones do not operate there.  Find out which phone type you have, GSM or CDMA, and discuss with your carrier whether your phone will operate internationally.

Pricing will vary widely among carriers for international service.  Some international plans may include calling only and charge steep rates for text messages or Internet usage.  Charges can accumulate quickly for incoming text messages regardless of whether you read or respond to them, as well as for Internet usage if you are downloading large amounts of data.

That is not to say however, that you cannot afford to take a phone with you when you travel.  AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are just a few carriers who offer international plans, and phones which can make traveling much more affordable. 

What to Do

  • First, decide how you will utilize your phone.  Will you need just call capability, or will you also need text, Internet or GPS capability? If you need to use your phone’s more advanced features, consider an International plan which provides calling bundled with a data plan. Then determine if you need unlimited usage, or if you would prefer a “pay-as-you-go” option.  Not all carriers will provide this, so make sure to check with your carrier.
  • Call your carrier before you go:
    o Will your phone work abroad? If not, do they provide “world” or international phones for rent or use?  Your carrier may be able to provide you one at no charge. Don’t wait to arrive at your destination before makeing calling arrangements.

    o Does your carrier offer International plans? If so, be sure to verify how many minutes, text messages (incoming and outgoing), as well as how much time on the Internet, are  included. Typically you can tell them what you think you will need and get a recommendation on which plan is best. 

    If your carrier does not offer the ability for you to use your phone abroad, read the “Where to Buy” information below to find a phone to rent/purchase for your trip.
  • Use free calling services in Wi-Fi areas if possible:  Skype or Google Talk are great free alternatives.  Skype to Skype calls are free, and using Skype’s service via your mobile phone, you can call other mobile phones or landline for as little as 2 cents per minute usually.
  • Before you leave, download all the applications to your phone that you think you may need. Don’t wait until you are abroad to download new applications as this can be very costly. 
  • Track your data usage to prevent overages and surprises when you return home!

Where to Buy



US Travel Insurance Association (UStiA)
UStiA is a national association of insurance carriers, third-party administrators, insurance agencies and related businesses involved in the development, administration and marketing of travel insurance and travel assistance products.