Cell phone with passport and map

Last Updated on August 15, 2019 by Larissa

Several years ago I traveled to Israel on a business trip and ran up a $900 mobile phone bill in 3 days. The coverage was good and the connection so clear that when the phone rang I forgot I was 8,000 miles from home and in “roaming mode.” BIG OOPS! It was a huge wake-up call (pun intended) that I needed some tips for using mobile phones overseas.

Most major cell phone companies offer some type of international plan, meaning the phone you have in your home country will work overseas. Coverage in populated areas is typically good and international alliances between carriers makes the voice/data/text experience seem like you’re in your own backyard.

using a cell phone overseas

Such good connections make it easy to forget international roaming charges, which can really add up. If you answer a call from a friend who didn’t realize you were out of the country you might be spending several dollars on a conversation that could easily wait until you were back home. Meanwhile, surfing the ‘Net to check out bistros near your hotel for dinner may end up costing more than the meal itself.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid these costs. We’ve picked up a few tips for using mobile phones overseas that will help prevent running up huge bills:

Capitalize on WiFi

Save your web surfing for when you have access to a WiFi connection. Some hotels and resorts charge a hefty daily fee for internet access, so consider your potential usage and do the math to determine if it’s cheaper than roaming charges from your home carrier. Fortunately free WiFi is available in shops and cafes the world over, seek those out to do your surfing.

Helpful tips for using cell phones overseas

Use VoIP for voice calls

Many carriers now allow WiFi calling with your own phone number. In cases where this doesn’t work, use phone apps such as FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp and Viber to place voice calls over an Internet connection. This is particularly useful when you are communicating with someone in the country you are visiting, since for them calling or texting to a foreign number can be expensive. While traveling through Prague last summer virtually every local we met used WhatsApp to connect with us–including our 70-year-old Airbnb host!

Also: resist the urge to answer calls from home while you’re out and about; even the simple act of telling a friend you’ll call them later can add to your bill. Leave a voicemail message that you are out of the country. Chances are they will tell you to call when you return home.

Communicate via texts

For many cellular carriers, texting is the cheapest way to communicate. Check before you travel to learn what they charge for texting in the country you’ll be visiting; they may offer an international texting plan for a flat fee. In the US, T-Mobile offers unlimited text and data while traveling in over 140 countries at no extra charge for contract customers, along with a fixed per-minute fee for voice calls. We used this on our recent trip to seven countries Europe and found texting worked everywhere (the data is at local cellular speeds, which can be slow, so we saved our internet use for WiFi).



*note: When investigating international texting with your carrier, be sure to get the rates for texting from a foreign country. Many carriers also offer plans for texting from your home country to a specific overseas destination (often popular with people who have relatives there). The fees are usually different.

Purchase a local SIM card

Those traveling for extended periods in a given country may find it useful to have a local phone. Provided a phone is “unlocked” you can purchase a SIM card in that country which will give you a local phone number and service. In the US, many phones are “locked,” meaning they are tied to a specific carrier while you are under contract. Check with your US carrier about unlocking a phone. If unlocking is not possible, purchase a cheap prepaid phone in said country for local calls and use your smartphone with WiFi for everything else.

*note: If you opt to purchase a local phone or SIM card for extended travel, check with your home carrier about suspending your service before you leave. In some cases you can have your monthly fee deferred until you return home.

These tips for using mobile phones overseas have saved us a lot of unnecessary fees over the last several years. We spent three months in Central Europe last fall and I managed quite well with texting and VoIP. I only had about $3.50 in roaming charges, for one call when I was nowhere near WiFi. I’ve come a long way.

Local Hero phone booth Scotland

Using these tips you shouldn’t end up like this poor guy, scrambling for a pay phone. 🙂

We’re global nomads who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.