International Roaming Plans
With all the competition in the field of international communication, major mobile carriers are now offering more cost effective international roaming plans.
How does it work?
If you are already a mobile customer, you simply ask your current carrier to add an international roaming package for the period of your time abroad (except for T-mobile customers). Usually add-on roaming plans are good for 30 days, and can be renewed for additional months. These plans can be a life-saver for a spontaneous trip abroad or even a short study abroad program for those that want to avoid the hassle of unlocking their phones and looking for a local SIM. However, these plans would prove to be way too expensive for anything other than a few months abroad, unless you happen to be a T-mobile customer. T-mobile offers its customers international roaming for no additional charge.
For other carriers, you get a package of text, talk and/or data for a fee while you roam outside of the US. Simply call your carrier and ask about the available packages, tell them your destinations and dates, and when you go abroad, you can use your cell phone as you would normally (keeping in mind the limits of the package you purchased).
What’s the Catch?
While pre-purchasing a roaming plan is more economical than roaming without a plan, there are several things to keep in mind before signing up.
- Where you’re going
- Even if you purchase an international roaming plan, you may not be covered in certain countries if your carrier doesn’t have a roaming agreement with local carriers. Also, some countries may not be included in your data package, so you might pay as much as $20 per megabyte, even though you signed up for a flat-rate data plan.
- Overage costs
- If you go over your allocation, you could still end up with a huge bill in overage charges.
- Device compatibility
- You still need to make sure your device is compatible with the destination’s cell and data network, as well as the frequencies it uses to deliver these services.
- Data speeds
- Depending upon the country, your carrier, and the international carrier agreement, you may be limited to 3G or even 2G data speeds.
- Data-only plan?
- If your carrier has cheaper, data-only plans, it might be worth combining that with some of the international calling mobile apps mentioned in our article on VOIPs [INSERT LINK]. You can use your data for talk and text and potentially save money.
What providers are there?
For the purposes of this section, we will focus on American carriers, but the same questions should be considered for any international roaming plan provided by a carrier in your own country. We will discuss roaming with European carriers in the next section.
- AT&T is a GSM carrier, and offers the largest variety of international roaming plans that covers the largest number of countries. Click here for a list of countries covered by AT&T’s global add-on packages. Each add-on is based on a 30-day period. You can cancel before the 30 days is up and get the package pro-rated. You have to be a customer of AT&T to get these add-ons, but they also offer data-only roaming packages specifically for iPad users.
- Although Verizon is a CDMA carrier in the US, Verizon customers can add international roaming packages provided your phone is a tri- or quad-band phone. Because Verizon is a CDMA carrier, the number of countries it covers is more limited than AT&T. Therefore, if you are a Verizon customer thinking of using your phone abroad, use the company’s interactive travel planner to be sure you will be covered in all your destinations.
- Although also a CDMA carrier, Sprint offers an international roaming plan, which looks a lot like Verizon’s rates. All calls and texts are billed at the same rate while roaming, regardless of the destination. They will also provide you with a GSM-compatible phone for your trip, since most Sprint phones are not able to work abroad.
- T-mobile’s international roaming plans are very different than other carriers and may eventually change international roaming all together. Essentially, T-mobile’s Simple Choice Plan allows US customers to get unlimited data and messaging in 120 countries as part of their normal monthly bill. Calling is $0.20 per minute from international destinations. The data speeds are limited to 2G, but you can purchase additional “data passes” for faster service. Here is the list of countries covered by T-mobile. If you can continue to afford your current monthly bill on T-mobile while you are studying abroad long-term, you can easily stay on your plan and take advantage of its unlimited international roaming.
Advantages and Disadvantages of International Roaming Packages
- Can use your current phone
- Hassle-free: no phone to buy/unlock, or SIM to install
- Avoid contract cancellation
- Know what you'll pay ahead of time
- Keep your current number
- Avoid renting an international phone
- Probably more expensive than a local SIM
- May not be available in all countries
- Friends abroad must call an international number
- Cost-prohibitive for longer stays abroad
- Phone may not work with destination's cell frequencies
If you have a European carrier, whether as a citizen or an international student, you will no longer need to worry about roaming charges when you visit another European Union country, according to new legislation that goes into effect in December 2015. This will only affect European carriers, NOT those using non-European carriers traveling in Europe. For example, if you are an American studying abroad in Europe and using Verizon, you will be charged international roaming charges, which could be different for every country you visit. However, if you are an American fully enrolled in a university in Germany, and you pay a monthly fee for 500 minutes with a German mobile provider, that package will simply extend into any EU member country.