One of the most frequent questions I receive is: “How do you use your phone abroad?” Up until now, I haven’t had a satisfactory answer.
The truth is that I never really used my phone abroad. I kind of enjoyed the freedom of not being attached to a device. Though it sometimes made doing research or getting in touch with people difficult, I realized most things could wait until I got back to my hostel.
But it is now 2014, and I am no longer a backpacker who can go weeks without checking email. I have a business to run, and I need to stay connected.
So it was finally time to upgrade my cracked Android phone, which would often turn off for no reason or refuse to dial numbers. (Let’s just say I don’t miss it.)
Also because I am now 28 years old, I figured it was about time to get off my Verizon family plan. (Here’s to independence!)
From prior research, I knew I wanted an unlocked iPhone. That way, when I traveled, I could simply buy a local SIM card to use data and make calls. (This is what I’d recommend to everybody: Don’t use your American plan abroad, unless you want to get hit with some high fees!)
What I didn’t know was which phone plan to sign up for.
Here were my must-haves:
- NO contract (This is essential for travelers!)
- Decent amount of data (I use 1-3 gbs per month)
- Can bring unlocked iPhone (I wanted to buy a used one online)
- Works in both Alaska and Central New York
- Can be used as a mobile hotspot (Internet for my laptop when there’s no wifi around)
In this post, I’ll share with you what I learned during my research of cell phone carriers, so that you can choose which one is best for you.
Side-by-Side Comparison of No-Contract Carriers
I’ve compiled the data about the different no-contract carriers into a sortable table, which I hope will be helpful. You can also click on the carrier’s names to go directly to their sites.
|Straight Talk||$45||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited||No||Data speed reduced after 3 gb. Uses ATT or Sprint's network.|
|T-Mobile||$60||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited||Yes||Data speed reduced after 3 gb. Free music streaming. Free texting + data in 120 countries.|
|Verizon||$45||500 mb||Unlimited||Unlimited||No||Can pay $10 for extra 1 gb of data, or $20 for 3 gb, which expires after 90 days.|
|Pure Talk USA||$41||1 gb||Unlimited||Unlimited||No?|
|Consumer Cellular||$45||2.5 gb||15,000||200||Yes||Best customer service rating by PCMag. Uses ATT's network.|
|Virgin Mobile||$35||Unlimited||Unlimited||300||No||Data speed reduced after 2.5 gb.|
|Cricket Wireless||$50||2.5 gb||Unlimited||Unlimited||Yes|
A few other no-contract carriers that might work for you are: Metro PCS, Boost Wireless, and US Cellular, which didn’t have service in AK, and Page Plus and Republic Wireless, which didn’t allow iPhones.
What’s the Best Carrier for International Travel?
For me, the clear winners were: Straight Talk, T-Mobile, Consumer Cellular, and Virgin Mobile. These offered the most benefits for the best prices. Let’s go through them each below.
Available at Wal-Marts everywhere, this is one of the pioneers of no-contract cell phone plans. I liked that they ran on ATT and Sprint’s networks — but not the fact that their phones couldn’t be used at hotspots. At $45/month, this is one of the cheapest plans on the list.
Though this plan is more expensive at $60/month, it has a LOT of benefits to back up that higher price. First and foremost, it offers FREE texting and data in 120 countries. For international travelers, this is amazing. It also allows you to stream music from Pandora — without it counting towards your data. As a music lover, this was also huge.
I was tempted by this company’s great customer service ratings. After being with Verizon for so long, good customer service sounded pretty nice. And since I don’t talk on the phone that much, the 200 minutes per month didn’t scare me. They’ll also sell you an iPhone for $150, after which you can make monthly interest-free payments of $25.
At $35/month, this is the cheapest plan on the list. You can also use the phone as a hotspot for $5/day, which is reasonable. After further research, I found out this plan wouldn’t work in Alaska, so I had to say sayonara to it.
The Winner: T-Mobile
In the end, I chose T-Mobile. I mean, as a travel blogger, how could I not say YES to free texting and data in 120 countries? I haven’t tried it out yet, but I’ll let you know how it goes on my upcoming trip to New Zealand and Bali. (Two places they say they have coverage.)
Service & Perks
Service has been better than Verizon in Alaska and San Diego. As for the other features, I love that I can stream music without worrying I’m going to run out of data. The one time I tried the mobile hotspot, it was fairly slow, but I didn’t have great service. It still worked for email and other basic tasks.
Buying an iPhone
If you don’t want to buy a used iPhone online like I did (from the now defunct MobileKarma.com — bad call, Suz!), then you can finance a new one through T-Mobile. If you have good credit, you don’t have to put any money down, and you’ll simply get charged $25/month on your bill. You can pay an extra $10/month for JUMP, an insurance plan that also allows you to upgrade for free once half your phone is paid off. (Wishing I’d done this!)
Lastly, it’s easy to change your plan. I haven’t even been using much data while I’ve been home in Alaska (since I have frequent access to wifi), so I downgraded to the 1gb plan for a savings of $10/month. I’ll upgrade once I start traveling again. Customer service has also been good: You can immediately get a human when you call by saying “Representative,” and all of the agents have been friendly and helpful.
I almost wish I had bad things to say about it, so this review wouldn’t seem so one-sided — but so far so good!
Which cell phone carrier do you use for international travel? Would you recommend it?
And no: T-Mobile did not ask or pay me to write this post. If they want to sponsor my future travels, great — but I haven’t received a call yet.