Your 4 Options For Using Your Cell Phone Overseas -- and Which Is The Best

What are your options when traveling overseas this summer? Do you need to turn your phone off or leave it at home? The good news is the calling plans have gotten better, but you still need to be careful.

The carriers have lowered their rates to make it less expensive to access data and to make and receive calls. But the plans vary widely and some require you to predict your usage before you leave.

It’s good that costs have gone down because, more than ever, everyone is tethered to their cell phones. You want to use your phone to check directions, find restaurants and access tourist information while on vacation. All of this consumes data, and historically, carriers have charged huge rates for even a small amount.

Let’s take a look at what’s available for Europe. The rates are similar to most of the countries of the world, except for Mexico and Canada that are generally less expensive.

1. Verizon

Verizon offers a Travel Pass that costs $10/day and lets you use your data and voice just as you use them at home. You can enable the feature before you leave, and are only charged when you make a call or use data. While it prevents you from incurring huge charges, say for a one-hour call that would cost $120, it still can be very expensive. Make just one call or send or receive one text message and you pay a $10 charge for that day.

Still, you may find it better than their normal rates of $1.79 per minute for calls and $2.05 per MB of data.

What’s one MB of data? It’s equivalent to about 15 emails, browsing a dozen web pages or posting a few images on Facebook. Not even enough for many to get through most days.

2. Sprint

Sprint offers a better deal than Verizon if you don’t mind a slow data connection. Calls are just 20 cents per minute and texting and data are free, but using slower 2G speeds. But you need not sign up for any special plan; it’s included as a part of your normal plan.

You can buy faster 3G data for $15 for 100MB for one day, up to $50 for 500MB for 14 days.  In my experience, 2G is sufficient for checking Yelp, navigating, texting, and occasionally checking email. And you’re on vacation, so patience is good! When you get out of the big cities in Europe you will find many areas where they only have 2G.

3. AT&T

AT&T has three options to chose from. Their $30 Passport plan includes unlimited text and messaging, 120MB of data, and voice calls at $1.00 per minute, but all limited to a 30-day period. Additional data costs $0.25 per MB.

The $60 Silver Passport option comes with unlimited text, 300MB of data and calls at $0.50 per minute. More data costs $0.20 per MB. The $120 Gold Passport has $0.35 per minute voice calls, 800MB data, and $0.15 per MB over that.

The problem with these plans is you need to figure out what you might use in advance, and that’s a pain. It’s like estimating how much electricity you will use in a month and paying for it before you consume it. Since you never want to go over, you’ll usually pay for more than you’ll use.

If you choose not to use these plans, you’ll pay $1.50 per minute, an onerous $0.50 per text message and $2.05 per MB of data.

Next Page: T-Mobile and which option is likely the best.

4. T-Mobile

Subscribers to T-Mobile’s popular “Simple Choice” plan have unlimited data and texting worldwide, and calls are $0.20 per minute. Once you use 2GB of high-speed data, the speed slows to 2G, like Sprint.  If you want more high-speed data, a 1-day pass with 100MB of data costs $15, a week-long pass with 200MB of data costs $25, and a 2-week pass with 500MB costs $50.

So Which is the Best?

T-Mobile has the best plan by far, allowing you to use 2GB of high-speed data at no additional cost. Other carriers charge about $40 to $50 extra for that amount when traveling internationally. In fact, I know many international travelers that have switched to T-Mobile just for this option alone.

Other ways to save money is to use your hotel’s WiFi hot spot for downloading and sending email and pictures.  Save your data for when you’re away from your hotel. When you do have access to WiFi, make calls using Skype or WhatsApp. Just be aware that those you will call must have accounts with these services.

If you have an unlocked phone, you can also buy a local SIM card for each country you visit, but that’s not always convenient.  And be sure to turn off the data and voice settings under Settings/Cellular to avoid incoming mail and calls when you are not using your phone.

While using your cell phone when traveling to Europe is becoming less expensive, if you are an AT&T or Verizon customer, you still need to check with your carrier before you go, and sign up for the appropriate plan, to avoid big charges.  If you’re with T-Mobile or Sprint, you can travel carefree.