Complete Guide to International Cell Phone Use in 2019
Ring, ring, calling all travelers: I can almost hear you wondering… “Will my phone work in a foreign country?” or “Can I make free international calls online when I’m abroad?” The answer? Yes and yes. Travelers can pick from a variety of options, ranging from unlocked international cell phones to free international calling apps. But where to start? That’s why we’ve compiled a guide to international cell phone use, lining up our favorite options for calling while abroad so you’re never disconnected.
We’ll dive into the following:
- Roaming plans and unlocked international cell phones
- Buying local SIM cards
- Apps to make free international calls online
- Portable WiFi devices
Option 1: International Cell Phone Roaming Plans
“Can I use my SIM card in another country?”
Yes, but it’s going to cost you.
The simplest way to get your phone to work while traveling is to pay for an international roaming plan via your service provider. All major providers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint offer international plans, but they are usually a tad costly.
The fan favorite among travelers is T-Mobile since they offer coverage in 210+ countries for “no additional fee.” Calls abroad, however, will cost you 25 cents per minute (not too shabby).
Most large phone companies offer calls at less than $0.50 per minute and it’s a little more expensive if you are going to countries other than Mexico or Canada. Data also tends to be slower in many countries, but it should get you where you need to go.
If you’re a business traveler and your company covers your plan, even better, but if you’re a digital nomad and don’t want to shell out $70-$90 a month for a cell phone contract, options 2-3 are more for you.
Option 2: Buy a Local SIM Card in a Foreign Country
Picture this: You’re studying in Spain for 5 months and receiving visitors. You want to call some restaurants to make reservations, but there’s a problem: you can’t call their European landline with your American phone number (or if you have one of the aforementioned plans, and it is costing you). You need a local number.
Here’s the good news… You’ve got a few options!
a. Unlock Your Phone for International Use
Buying a local SIM card is a lot cheaper than using your American phone plan abroad. The problem is a lot of phones sold by common carriers (i.e. Verizon and Sprint) are sold locked, meaning you are only allowed to use THEIR SIM card.
The solution is simple: Get your phone unlocked.
Here’s how: contact your service provider and ask them to unlock it. It will take some time to do, so don’t wait until the day before your flight to unlock it!
You’ll be able to switch out SIM cards anywhere and connect to a local carrier wherever you are globetrotting.
Once you arrive at your destination, ask your hotel where you can find a cell phone shop or electronics store to buy a local SIM card. From there you can pick out a plan and pay for the amount of credit you want on it.
For Whatsapp users: Will your number change? Yes, but international calling apps like Whatsapp will normally give you the option to keep your original number. Technology wins.
Don’t know Whatsapp? Keep reading.
b. Buy a Cheap or Used Phone Abroad
If unlocking your current phone is not an option, then buying an inexpensive unlocked phone abroad should do the trick.
You can get fairly cheap, basic phones for less than $100, or used/refurbished smartphones within that price-point as well.
Next, get yourself a local SIM and an unlimited data plan (they are usually much less expensive abroad).
c. Buy a Dual-SIM Cell Phone to Use Internationally
For the person who wants the best of both worlds, there are some phones that have the capacity for two SIM cards.
Unfortunately for Apple-lovers, most of the dual-SIM card cell phones are not Apple products, and even though the iPhone XS and XR will support dual-SIM features, most large carriers (Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T) are not accepting this feature.
If you are often between two countries for work, say Chile and Spain, having two SIM cards would be super beneficial. If you plan on staying with a US carrier, then having two SIMs will be tricky.
Option 3: Make Free International Calls Online with Apps
Looking for free international calls online?
Everyone reaches that point where they have to call a bank, a customer service rep, or some bureaucratic landline. When you know the call will be more than a minute, it’s good to know there are international calling options.
Here’s how to do it: Use cheap (and often free) WiFi communication apps.
Check out some of the best apps for international calling below.
Most people know Skype as mainly a video calling service, but Skype now has a phone plan where you can call landlines or international cell phones in 63 different countries starting at $13.99 a month.
You can even buy a local number for the country your visiting through Skype and answer calls via the app. Just share your new number with family and friends and you’re good to go.
With 1.5 billion users, Whatsapp is one of the most popular messaging apps in the world.
In fact, in some countries, Whatsapp is less of a private messaging app and more of a way of life. Salons and even restaurants take reservations via Whatsapp, and Latin America uses Whatsapp to keep their large families connected and share news stories.
Why is it so popular? Many mobile networks allow unlimited access to Whatsapp, even for users who can’t (or don’t want to) pay for Internet plans.
Most people are familiar with Whatsapp international calling, but they also offer video, text messages, and unlimited media sharing for free (as long as you have WiFi.)
For our country-hoppers out there, Whatsapp makes more sense than changing your SIM card every few weeks.
For Southeast Asia travelers – expect to see more individuals using LINE for messaging or WeChat for all things chat and social media in China.
International Cell Phone Pro Tip: If you are going to download Whatsapp but want to keep your U.S. number, make sure to download it BEFORE you leave on your trip because it will ask to verify your phone number. If you can’t receive text messages overseas, it won’t allow you to sign up.
c. Google Voice
There Google goes saving our lives again! This app gives you a phone number for calling, texting, and receiving voicemails.
As long as the number you choose is from the U.S., you can call other U.S. and Puerto Rican numbers for free.
Calling numbers in other countries cost as low as $0.01 per minute.
d. Google Hangouts
Another one! Similar to Skype, Google Hangouts is a video chatting app where users can video chat, conference, and message other users.
But wait, there’s more…
Free landline calls to the U.S. and Canada?! Yes, please.
You can download Hangouts Dialer app (an extension of Google Hangouts) which works like a phone. Supported by WiFi, you can call any landline in the U.S. and Canada for free, and international calls range on average from $0.01-$0.50 per minute. Check out Google Hangouts calling rates by region.
This website/app allows you to make free international phone calls and text messages via the internet to any country. Even the person on the receiving end doesn’t get charged.
BUT (you knew it was coming), there is one drawback: there are limits to the number of calls you can make a day and to the length of the calls, so save the very long calls home for a different service.
f. Facebook Messenger
This is a clear contender. Facebook is one of the most popular social media sites with more than 2 billion active users.
Most people you know have a Facebook profile – parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. If they have a Facebook profile, then they have access to Facebook messenger.
The only downside is it tends not to be professional, but all of your longer social calls, videos, and messages can be made through the app. All you need is a connection to WiFi.
Option 4: Get a Portable WiFi Device
The aforementioned apps are great, right? But what about when you DON’T have access to WiFi?
Imagine: You’re on a local bus passing through Colombia or lounging on the beach in Australia, or on an awesome rooftop in Lisbon, but you don’t have roaming data and there’s no WiFi available.
Here’s when you need a portable WiFi device.
You can get that sweet, sweet internet connection anywhere in the world by paying a monthly plan for data. It is similar to a cell phone plan but less expensive.
Another major benefit is that the WiFi extends to your laptop as well so you can use an international calling app on your desktop with your portable WiFi literally anywhere in the world.
Try hotspot devices like Skyroam, which allow you to pay when you needed and stop when you don’t.
Portable WiFi for digital nomads and business travelers is extremely handy and will save you a ton of money in the long run. Instead of buying a coffee every time you need WiFi access, you can take your hotspot and use the free international calling apps above to stay connected.
Ready to Make Calls Around the World?
Once you’ve figured out the best cell phone plan or app to keep you in contact with family, friends, and work, you can focus on learning the language of the place you’ll be visiting.
Check out our intuitive Pimsleur language learning software. Take us traveling with you on your cell phone or portable device. You’ll be saying Bonjour, Hola, Buon Giorno, and Nǐ hǎo to everyone back home in no time. Here’s the first lesson on us.