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What’s the best international phone plan right now?

Nov. 15, 2021
7 min read
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On my first trip to Japan, I decided to forgo international data on my cellphone. After all, I figured I could rely on public Wi-Fi when I needed data. But I ended up regretting not having data on my phone when I became lost.

Of course, knowing what I know now, I'd make sure to download offline maps and a translation app ahead of time. But frankly, now I always travel with an international phone plan. I work remotely as a digital nomad, so I sometimes rely on my phone's hot spot to get work done. I also like to remain in constant contact with family back home.

There are many reasons why you may want to remain connected while abroad. In this guide, I'll compare the best international phone plans. Since many plans consider use in Canada and Mexico differently than other international locations, this guide won't discuss use in those two countries. Instead, it will focus on the best phone plans for U.S. residents who travel outside North America.

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Google Fi

(Photo by Tim Robberts/Getty Images)
  • Cost for one line: $20 (plus taxes and fees) per cycle, plus data usage costs, for the Flexible plan and $70 (plus taxes and fees) for the Unlimited Plus plan.
  • Data: $10 per gigabyte (with free data after 6 gigabytes but slower speeds after 15 gigabytes in a cycle) in 200-plus destinations for the Flexible plan and free (but with slower speeds after 22 gigabytes in a cycle) in more than 200 destinations for the Unlimited Plus plan.
  • Voice: 20 cents per minute from 200-plus destinations (calls via Wi-Fi to the U.S., Canada and Mexico are free).
  • Text: Free from more than 200 destinations.

I've used Google Fi internationally for more than five years. Until mid-2019, Google Fi was my sole cellphone plan. In the U.S., Google Fi relies on T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular networks, but when network traffic is high, these networks may deprioritize Google Fi users. So, last summer, I also signed up for a Verizon plan to use in the U.S. when I needed prioritized data.

However, I've found that Google Fi users get high-speed data in most international destinations. As such, you might be tempted to only use Google Fi when traveling internationally, but doing so isn't a good idea. After all, the Google Fi terms state:

The Services are offered only to residents of the United States. The Services must be primarily used in the United States (territories not included) and are not intended for extended international use. Further, the Services are designed for use predominantly within our network. If your usage outside our network is excessive, abnormally high, or cause us to incur too much cost, we may, at our option and sole discretion, suspend your Google Fi account, terminate your service, or limit your use of roaming.

Some U.S. residents who have temporarily moved abroad have been shut down by Google Fi, so you'll want to avoid extended international use if you opt to use Google Fi.

But for U.S.-based travelers who want fast data without any hassle while traveling abroad, Google Fi is an excellent option. In my global travels since 2016, Google Fi has only failed to work in two locations: the all-inclusive resort I lived out of for a month in the Dominican Republic and Liberia.

Related: How I wasted $300 using the wrong card to pay my cellphone bill

T-Mobile

(Photo by Betsie Van der Meer/Getty Images)
  • Cost for one line: $70 per monthly cycle for the Magenta plan and $85 per monthly cycle for the Magenta Max plan.
  • Data: Free for up to 128 kilobits per second in 210-plus countries and destinations for the Magenta plan and free for up to 256 kilobits per second in more than 210 countries and destinations for the Magenta Max plan.
  • Voice: 25 cents per minute from 210-plus countries and destinations on select plans, including Magenta and Magenta Max.
  • Texting: Free from more than 210 countries and destinations for select plans, including Magenta and Magenta Max.

Before I started using Google Fi back in 2016, I relied on T-Mobile when traveling internationally. In fact, many travelers I know still swear by T-Mobile as their international phone and data plan. I switched after getting tired of the slow data speeds in most international destinations. After all, even 256 Kbps can be aggravatingly slow.

Even if you don't mind the slow speeds abroad, long-term and frequent international travelers should note that T-Mobile's terms state:

Not for extended international use; you must reside in the U.S. and primary usage must occur on our network. Device must register on our network before international use. Service may be terminated or restricted for excessive roaming.

There have been instances of T-Mobile shutting down travelers in the past for roaming excessively. So, don't go with T-Mobile if your primary usage won't be domestically on T-Mobile's network.

Related: Quick Points: Link a credit card with cellphone protection to your mobile bill

Other international phone plans to consider

(Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)

If your device supports eSIM, you may be able to purchase a data plan for your destination through an app like Airalo. Best of all, you may be able to buy a regional eSIM data plan if you're visiting multiple countries in the same area during your trip.

However, if your device doesn't support eSIM, you could still purchase a local SIM card at your destination. For example, I once bought a monthlong SIM card with unlimited high-speed data in Vietnam for less than $10. But data is significantly more expensive in some destinations, and purchasing a SIM card can sometimes be complicated or confusing. As such, I've mostly stuck with Google Fi instead of using local SIM cards.

If you plan to use eSIM or a local SIM card, you should ensure that your phone is unlocked. A locked phone won't be able to accept any other SIM cards until it is unlocked. For more information, check out our guide to international smartphone use.

Finally, you may want to check your current provider's options if you only travel internationally on occasion. Here are some options that are available as optional add-ons for many AT&T and Verizon plans:

  • AT&T International Day Pass: Pay an extra $10 per day for unlimited high-speed data, talk and text in more than 210 destinations.
  • Verizon TravelPass: Pay an extra $10 per day for unlimited calls, unlimited texts and your typical daily data allowance (data speeds decrease after 0.5 gigabytes in a day) in 185-plus countries. You'll only be charged for days you text, call or use data abroad.
  • Verizon International Monthly Plan: Pay an extra $100 per month for 250 minutes of talk, 1,000 sent texts, unlimited received texts and 5 gigabytes of data in more than 185 countries.

Most plans also allow you to pay as you go for international use, but these rates are almost always excessive. As such, frequent international travelers should find a different solution since these costs will add up quickly.

Related: Credit cards that cover cellphone loss and damage

Bottom line

Having a functioning international data plan when traveling abroad is important for travelers who want to stay connected. My go-to, and general recommendation, is Google Fi. It is great for both digital nomads and frequent international travelers who value having fast data.

If you already have T-Mobile or a plan that offers international add-ons, you may want to stick with your plan. Alternatively, you can consider using an eSIM or a local SIM card — in some regions, these options may be available for low rates.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases