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Everyone hates the idea of seeing roaming charges on your phone bill after a trip abroad. We’ve all been there, but the good news is it doesn’t have to be this way — TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino explains how you can stay connected on the cheap without much effort.
While we sometimes travel with the hope of spending as much time “off the grid” as possible, if you’re running a small business or taking an extended trip, it’s often necessary to have daily access to email, not to mention social sharing sites like Twitter and Facebook. Fortunately, as technology evolves, it’s becoming easier (and less expensive) to stay connected to home, even as you explore a new destination 10,000 miles away. Here are some of the best options to consider for your next international trip:
Data, Calls and Text Messages
1. Google Project Fi
Google recently introduced its own service, Project Fi, that allows you to make calls and send texts over Wi-Fi or Sprint or T-Mobile networks in the US. The cost varies but the Fi Basics plan is about $20 per month and includes unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited text messages and Wi-Fi tethering to use your phone as a hotspot in order to access cellular coverage in more than 120 countries. Beyond that, data costs $10 per GB in the US and abroad, but speeds are typically capped at 256 Kbps in the 120+ countries Fi supports (you’ll get full LTE connectivity in the US). Officially, the service currently only works with the Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X and Nexus 6, but we’ve had no trouble using the cellular features with an unlocked iPhone 6 (just insert the Fi SIM) as well.
Tip: Initially, Google required you to request an invite to sign up for Fi, but now it’s available to everyone. Google will ask for your email address and zip code and assuming there is service in your zip code (there should be), you’ll be able to order a SIM (and a phone — if you need one). You can also order additional free data-only SIMs that let your other gadgets, such as tablets, access your account’s data pool at home and abroad.
2. T-Mobile Global Roaming
If you’re a T-Mobile customer, you can simply turn on your smart phone in more than 140 countries and have free data if you subscribe to one of the carrier’s Simple Choice Plans, which start at $50 per month. What’s the catch? It’s super slow! The free international data has a max speed of 128 Kbps, meaning that you can definitely send a few Whatsapp messages, but trying to navigate the web may take a long time. If you want faster data, upgraded packages are also available. Calls cost just 20 cents per minute to both landlines and mobile devices from your smartphone. For more information, read Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig’s review of this service.
Tip: It’s worth noting that tethering is not allowed when you’re roaming, so if you want to connect your laptop or tablet (that doesn’t have a T-Mobile SIM of its own), this isn’t the plan for you.
KnowRoaming offers a sticker that you place on your current SIM card that connects you to local networks in more than 200 countries. The sticker is only activated when you’re traveling and won’t affect any local US data, text or calls when you’re back at home. Unlimited data rate plans start at $7.99 per day (in 70+ countries) and you must have an unlocked phone in order to use this service. KnowRoaming recommends using UnlockBase if you need to unlock your phone.
Tip: Download the app (from the Apple App Store or Google Play for Android), which will allow you to track your usage, add credit to your account and get customer service assistance during your travels, among other features.
4. Local SIM Cards
If your phone is unlocked, you can buy a SIM card each time you visit a new country. This is especially useful if you plan to be in just one or two countries during a long trip. SIM cards are typically available at the airport or in local cell phone stores once you arrive in your destination. Prices can vary, but it’s usually quite cheap and typically a variety of options are available to fit your needs. In the past year, I’ve paid the following for local SIM cards and most of the ones I used were valid for one month. Note that prices will most likely vary as these are simply examples of what I’ve used:
- 20 GBP (~$28) at the London Luton airport for 2 GB of data, no calls/texts
- 350 Thai baht (~$10) in a 7/11 store in Koh Samui for 500 MB of data plus local texts and calls
- €20 (~$22) in the Dublin airport for unlimited talk, text and calls
- €15 (~$16) in Sardinia, Italy, at a local I-Wind store for 1 GB of data, text and calls
Tip: Make sure to ask the provider what will happen when your 4G data runs out: Will you be completely without data or will it just be slower?
5. Lifetime Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot from Keepgo
Keepgo’s Lifetime Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot has a global SIM that TPG Points & Miles Editor Sarah Silbert tested out on a recent trip to Paris. The device is a compact box that you carry around, allowing you to share data with any Wi-Fi device you have with you at the time. However, it’s not cheap compared to some of the other options: Prices start at $129 for 1 GB of data which you can use in more than 64 countries (including the cost of the hotspot), and you can refill it with more credit starting at $49 per GB, though you can get 15% off with this link. Order the hotspot ahead of time and they’ll ship it to your home, office or to select hotels in 38 countries. Sarah reviewed the device and explained that it was easy to use, but sometimes slow to connect and occasionally buggy, saying she’d used all of her data up when she clearly hadn’t.
Tip: Make sure to turn off the device when it’s not in use so you don’t waste your 1 GB of data.
6. Hippocket Wi-Fi
The French start-up company Hippocket WiFi offers a pocket-sized Wi-Fi rental device with LTE service in most European countries, with prices starting as low as €4.90 (~$5.43) per day. Hippocket will deliver the device to your hotel, along with a prepaid envelope for its return. You can connect up to 10 devices to the Wi-Fi simultaneously. The battery usually lasts about six hours, but if you shut it off while you aren’t using it, it can get you through a full day. Various packages are available depending on where you’re headed and how much data you need, allowing you to select the one that best fits your travel needs.
Tip: The longer the trip, the cheaper the cost is, so plan to use this if you are staying abroad for awhile. Also, delivery is free in France and once you pass your allotted data, you’ll still have connectivity, just with reduced speed.
TEP offers a pocket Wi-Fi hotspot which lets you connect up to five devices at once. The battery lasts about eight hours (up to 20 on standby) and the device is available in several countries (see the list here). If you plan on traveling to many different continents in a single trip, TEP also has a Global Wi-Fi option that works in many countries around the world. You can order the device before you leave or have it sent to your destination. Pickup options are also available at Paddington Station in London or at any terminal (except T1) at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) — return the device to any of these spots or just mail it in. Prices start at $9.95 per day.
Tip: If the device is only connecting to 2G speeds, change the settings to have it connect to only 3G or 4G so you can navigate faster.
With a little planning, you can avoid horrifying roaming charges on your phone bill and still stay connected to friends and family back home while you’re traveling. To save more money overseas, consider using credit cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred or Citi Prestige that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. For more info on similar fee-free card options, check out 11 Top Credit Cards with No Foreign Transaction Fees.
How do you stay connected when traveling abroad?
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