When you're overseas, you need a way to keep in touch with family and friends back home - and access important information on the go - that won't see you coming home to an outrageous cell phone bill. Unfortunately, international travel is still one of the biggest causes of unexpectedly high bills for smartphone owners, so it’s important to do your research before you head to the airport.
We've compared the big carriers below to see what their standard rates are for the top three destinations for American travellers, as well as what each carrier offers in the way of global roaming packages. More information and rates for many more countries can be found at each wireless carrier's website.
If you’re headed to Mexico, AT&T's new Mexico Roaming bonus is available free to all Mobile Share Value Plan customers. This add-on will give you unlimited talk and text within Mexico and to the US, and 1GB of fee-free roaming data. Data overages are charged at $20 per gigabyte
Passport roaming packs
AT&T has recently introduced three new global roaming packages which all include talk, text and data. AT&T's Passport plans start at $30 per recharge, and are good for 30 days before expiring.
The $30 Passport includes unlimited text and multimedia messaging, unlimited data over WiFi, 120MB of cellular data, and voice calls are charged at $1.00 per minute. Data overages attract a fee of $0.25 per MB.
AT&T's $60 Silver Passport comes with unlimited text and multimedia messaging, unlimited WiFi data, 300MB of cellular data and a lower voice call rate of $0.50 per minute. If you go over your cellular data allowance, expect to pay $0.20 per extra MB.
Finally, the Gold Passport is priced at $120 per recharge and includes unlimited texting and multimedia messaging, unlimited WiFi data, and $0.35 per minute voice calls. The plan also includes 800MB of cellular data, with excesses charged at $0.15 per MB.
AT&T customers on Passport plans will also have access to unlimited WiFi hotspot use at participating locations in over 35 countries.
Example pay-as-you-go rates for AT&T customers who do not purchase any of the above add-on packs are as follows:
|Cost to call the US per minute||$1.00||$1.00||$1.50|
|Cost to send text message to the US||$0.50||$0.50||$0.50|
|Cost of data||$2.05 per MB||$2.05 per MB||$2.05 per MB|
Sprint's Open World service gives customers free and unlimited calling, texting when roaming in 16 countries across North and Latin America, and 1GB of high-speed data use each month free of roaming charges.
The feature can be added to any Sprint plan free of charge, and also gives customers free texts and low 20 cents per minute calling rates in close to fifty additional countries. Data in these countries is also available for $30 per gigabyte and billed in KB increments.
If you’d like to bump up your data speeds to 3G, Sprint offers three new International Speed Data Roaming passes from $15. A one-day pass includes 100MB of faster data for $15; a week-long pass gives you 200MB for $25; and $50 gets customers 500MB of 3G data to use over two weeks.
If your destination isn't included in International Value Roaming, Sprint offers customers a $4.99 per month Sprint Worldwide Voice add-on, which provides travellers with discounted roaming rates for voice calls. Standard pay-as-you-go rates vary between $1.99 and $5.99 per minute, depending on the country.
You can also save on data by adding an International Data Pack to your plan. A Multiple Country Pack covers about 40 countries, with prices set at $40 for 40MB and $80 for 85MB. Overages are charged at a pricey $10.00 per MB.
Canada and Mexico
Customers traveling to either country without Open World - or looking for additional data coverage - can add a Canada and Mexico Data Pack, with prices starting at $30 for 55MB. 175MB will cost you $75, and for 800MB expect to pay $125. This pack also attracts a $4.00 per MB overage rate.
Example pay-as-you-go rates for Sprint customers who do not purchase any of the above add-on packs are as follows:
|Cost to call the US per minute||$0.59||$2.29||$1.49|
|Cost to send text message to the US||From plan allowance||$0.50||$0.50|
|Cost of data||$2.00 per MB||$4.00 per MB||$19.00 per MB|
Customers travelling to Mexico or Canada can purchase the new TravelPass feature, which for $2 per day gives you access to all your plan's domestic features (including data) with no roaming charges.
Another 65 countries are also available for $10 per day, and again, you can use your plan's talk, text and data allowance internationally with no extra fees. Customers only pay the $2 or $10 charge on days they use their device outside of the US.
If your destination isn't included in Verizon's TravelPass add-on, you can buy a separate plan that covers over 140 additional countries. A global plan will cost you $25 per month, and includes 100MB of data. Bump it up to $40 each month, and you'll receive 100 minutes of voice, 100 texts and unlimited received texts.
Example pay-as-you-go rates for Verizon customers who do not purchase any of the above add-on packs are as follows:
|Cost to call the US per minute||$0.99||$0.99||$1.79|
|Cost to send text message to the US||Domestic rates||$0.50||$0.50|
|Cost of data||$2.05 per MB||$2.05 per MB||$2.05 per MB|
T-Mobile allows customers on Simple Choice plans to access unlimited data and texting in 120 countries, at no extra charge, as well as make calls back to the US for a low $0.20 per minute. The downside? The unlimited data is restricted to 2G speeds.
However, if you prefer faster web browsing, you can buy high-speed data passes from T-Mobile to add to your plan. A single day pass with 100MB of data costs $15, a week-long pass with 200MB is $25, and $50 will buy you 500MB to be used over 14 days.
For countries outside of the included 150, standard text messages are charged at $0.50 per text sent, with data rates up to $15.00 per MB depending on the country. Voice rates will also vary for non-included countries (and for customers not on a Simple Choice plan).
'Mobile Without Borders' in Mexico and Canada
If your travel plans keep you in North America, there's even better news: Simple Choice users can also use their plan inclusions (that's unlimited talk and text, and their 4G LTE data monthly allowance) in both Mexico and Canada at no additional charge.
LTE data will be available in selected cities, and all your Simple Choice features - WiFi calling, Music Freedom, and (later this year) Data Stash - can be accessed with the new Mobile Without Borders move. More information on this feature can be found in our article here.
However, if this doesn't apply to you, example pay-as-you-go rates for T-Mobile customers not on Simple Choice plans are as follows:
|Cost to call the US per minute||$0.59||$1.79||$1.49|
|Cost to send text message to the US||$0.20||$0.50||$0.50|
|Cost of data||$10.00 per MB||$15.00 per MB||$15.00 per MB|
Boost Mobile now offers a $5 per month Mexico Plus add-on, which gives customers unlimited calls back to the US, unlimited international text, and up to 8GB of data use when roaming in Mexico. You'll also get unlimited calls to Mexico and Canada from within the US, and unlimited international text messaging when at home. If you're travelling to other countries, Boost refers its prepaid customers to Sprint if they require international roaming service outside Mexico.
Cricket Wireless has recently added some excellent Canada and Mexico roaming features to its $50 Smart, $60 Pro and $70 Unlimited plans. Customers can now make unlimited calls and send unlimited texts between the US, Canada and Mexico, and use their plan's domestic high-speed data allowance when traveling in both countries.
The feature, called Data Access Plus, is available free on the above plans as part of your monthly service. Unfortunately, if you're a Cricket customer heading outside North America, roaming in other countries is not yet available from the prepaid.
MetroPCS has recently added a $10 World Calling plan add-on to its prepaid service. The feature gives you 200 minutes of voice calls, 200MB of data and 200 text messages in selected countries. You'll also get unlimited calling from the US to landlines in over 75 countries, 200 minutes to mobiles worldwide and unlimited international texting.
Customers planning a trip to Mexico will want to add the $5 Mexico Unlimited service to their plan. The pack includes unlimited calling and texting and unlimited use of your plan's high-speed data when in Mexico, free of roaming charges. The $5 per month service can be added to MetroPCS' $40, $50 and $60 plans. Likewise, if you're headed to Canada, you can enjoy unlimited calls home and unlimited use of your plan data with the $5 Canada Unlimited add-on.
Republic Wireless doesn't offer international roaming; however, customers with Republic Wireless devices can make calls over Wifi.
Virgin Mobile doesn't offer international roaming.
U.S. Cellular allows customers on contract plans to access roaming in a handful of destinations. Calls from Canada and Mexico are charged at $0.80 and $1.20 per minute, respectively, with text messaging costing $0.40 per text in both countries.
Data is charged at $1.00 per megabyte, although data packs are available: $35 buys you 125MB of data to use in either country, with overages charged at $0.30 per MB.
Data packs are also available for Latin America and Europe, priced at $35 for 50MB and with a $0.70 per megabyte overage fee. Voice calls from countries in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the Asia Pacific start at $1.20 per minute (up to $2.40) and all sent texts are $0.40.
Things to remember
Despite the savings, a major problem with buying an add-on international data pack is that not all customers will be able to monitor their usage in real-time when traveling internationally. Some carriers offer data and voice call usage trackers and alerts, but be warned: you may experience delays in getting up-to-date information.
Another point about data use: carriers don't necessarily charge data use per kilobyte. Instead, they may prefer to charge customers in increments of 10KB or more. Make sure you're aware of the minimum cost of each data session before you go online.
Remember - there are still alternatives to using your cell phone abroad. Upon arriving at your destination, you can switch to a cheap prepaid handset or (if your phone is capable), buy a local SIM and place in your device.
Likewise, if your phone runs on GSM networks you may be able to insert a global or travel SIM to get discounted rates on voice calls, texts and data.
Finally, take advantage of WiFi wherever possible. Most hotels offer it as a complimentary service, and you'll find free wireless internet available in many tourist and business-friendly places. By switching off your phone's cellular connection and relying on Wifi, you can potentially save hundreds - even thousands - of dollars over the course of your trip.
Airplane at sunrise image via Shutterstock
Passport image via Shutterstock