Smartphones are fairly essential to modern life, but so is internet access: There’s little point in having apps that can hail cabs, order food, translate languages, navigate between locations, and post to social media if they can’t actually get online. Free, public wifi is becoming more ubiquitous, but cellular data access remains very important very often—and if you’re heading outside of the country, these are your options.
Before you do anything else, check what your carrier is going to charge you for using data in the country that you’re visiting. You need to check how much data you get, how much extra it’s going to cost you, and how speedy your web access is going to be. These sorts of deals have evolved through the years to be less expensive and difficult to set up, and going for one might end up being the best of your options.
We won’t cover every carrier deal here, but take AT&T for example: It offers a $10-per-day International Day Pass that gives you calls, texts, and “high-speed data” in more than 200 countries worldwide. AT&T also says that “data will be drawn from your domestic plan allowance with the same data and speed restrictions”—so you are limited in some ways by your current plan. It’s probably a better deal than the alternative on AT&T, which is paying $2.05 for every megabyte of data.
If you’re on Google Fi, on the other hand, then the same deal that applies in the US also applies outside the US, as long as you’re in one of the countries where roaming is supported. On the Unlimited Plus plan, you won’t pay any extra for the data you use on international networks, and if you’re on the Flexible plan then you’ll pay the same $10 per gigabyte rate that you do when you’re at home. Texts are free and you’ll pay $0.20 per minute for calls from abroad.
To get data over a cellular network away from home, you need to turn on data roaming. On the Pixel version of Android, from Settings pick Network and Internet, then SIMs, then make sure Roaming is enabled; on Samsung’s version of Android, open Settings and choose Connections, Mobile networks, and enable Data roaming; and on the iPhone, from Settings select Cellular, then Cellular Data Options, and turn on the toggle switch labeled Data Roaming.
It can work out cheaper and easier to buy a SIM card or an eSIM that’s local to the country you’re visiting, effectively turning your handset into a local phone. There are more options for this than you might have realized, including international SIMs that work well in multiple countries, though you will need an unlocked smartphone to be able to do this—and one that will work on international 4G and 5G networks.
Travel sites are packed full with advice about which SIM packages will be good for your trip, and you can sometimes order in advance before you even set off on your trip. Prices and the ways of going about buying SIMs vary widely by destination, from SIM-selling kiosks at the airport in India to prepaid SIMs for Australia that you can pick up on Amazon. You need to look into the carrier options for where you’re headed, and that should then narrow down your choices.
If your phone has eSIM support, it’s even easier to get set up. A site such as Airalo can manage everything through an Android or iOS app—you just pick your destination, pick from one of the eSIMs that are on offer, and then everything else is taken care of for you through the app (including your payment). At the time of writing, for example, you can get a UK eSIM for $15 that gives you 5GB of data for 30 days. Or, get an International eSIM by OneSimCard for $10 plus however much data you’re going to need.
The downside of this is, unless you have a phone with dual SIM support, you’ll have to keep swapping between numbers—and that might make it difficult to stay in touch with the people at home. You do need to do your research in terms of data speeds and limits, as well as how long your SIM or eSIM is going to be valid for, but if you’re prepared to put in the time and effort to check out the options, then this can save you some money.
The final option for your travels is to buy or rent a wireless hotspot device, which connects to the cell network in the country that you’re in and creates a small wifi network that you can then stay connected to constantly—your hotspot goes wherever you go, which means that you’re always online via wifi and your phone doesn’t have to worry about making a direct connection to the cell towers in the country in which you find yourself.
At first this might seem like an overly complicated and expensive solution—and it definitely won’t be the right choice for everyone—but it has the advantage of enabling you to quickly get multiple devices online at the same time. If you’re carrying a lot of gear with you, or if you’ve got other people with you on the trip, this can make a lot of sense and be the most convenient option (you might also be able to get your fellow travelers to chip in for the price of the hotspot).
The Netgear Nighthawk M1 is a good example of what we’re talking about: Yes, it costs several hundred dollars, but it’ll give you up to 4G speeds for up to 20 devices, it’ll recharge your other gadgets over USB, and it comes with a screen so you always know how much data you’ve used. Consider that it’ll probably save you from some dreadful hotel and airport wifi as well, and it starts to look like pretty decent value if you travel a lot. It keeps you connected at home, too—you could use it as a backup to your broadband.
Also worth a mention is the Urozetta Cloud Pro, which combines an eSIM-supporting physical hotspot with an app that will take care of all the eSIM ordering for you—you don’t need to mess around with actual SIM cards, just fire up the accompanying app when you get to a new country and choose the best offer you can find. Again, the initial outlay is definitely on the expensive side, but if you take a lot of trips with a lot of gadgets, then this device could quickly become indispensable.