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Traveling Internationally with Your Phone? Here’s What You Need Know

Woman checking her phone in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany.
Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock

Does the thought of heading off somewhere without your phone leave you terrified? Well, here’s what you need to know about traveling internationally with yours.

Not All Phones Work Automatically

A few years ago, traveling with your phone was a little trickier, and it still can be if you’re using an older phone. There are two 3G standards: GSM (used by most of the world, and AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S.) and CDMA (used by Russia, Verizon, and Sprint). Some older phones were either GSM or CDMA, which meant if you were traveling internationally, you had issues. Thankfully, most major smartphones—like the iPhone XS, Samsung S10, and Google Pixel 3—work everywhere now. If you’re using a phone that’s more than five-years-old and are worried about whether it will work, contact your carrier for support or search the model number online.

The bigger problem now is not all phone plans support roaming by default. You often have to opt into it the first time you go abroad, so carriers can say you consented to the exorbitant rates—which we’ll look at in a moment.

If you haven’t taken your phone abroad before (or have only taken it to Canada or Mexico), it’s worth it to check if roaming is activated if you plan to use it. Either contact support or review the terms of your contract for defined international charges.

Roaming Charges Can Be Expensive

Default roaming charges tend to be ridiculous. We’re talking $2.00 per minute for calls, $0.50 per text, and (most horrifically of all) $2.00 per MB of data. So, watching a five-minute YouTube video would cost you about $500 and just opening Instagram could run about $20. As you can see, using default roaming charges is a terrible idea.

Verizon's Pay as You Go roaming rates.

Thankfully, most carriers now offer international roaming plans or add-ons to existing plans. For a daily or monthly fee, you can get significantly more reasonable roaming rates. For example, Verizon’s TravelPass costs $10/day and allows you to use your standard allowance of calls, texts, and data—up to 500 MB high-speed, and then unlimited at a slower speed. While that’s still pricey, it’s far more reasonable than default roaming rates. As long as you stick to your allowances, you won’t come home to any unexpected bills.

If you travel a lot, you have two good options:

  • Sign up for Google Fi. The rates are the same in over 200 destinations. At $10 per GB, it might be expensive at home or if you stream a lot of videos, but if you travel a lot, the savings are insane.
  • Get an unlocked phone (or get your carrier to unlock your current one) and buy local data SIMs. Even if you’re just staying for a few days, not having to worry about going over a set data limit is nice.

You’re More Likely to Lose It

Travel is rough on your phone. You’re far more likely to drop it, lose it, or have it stolen in a hectic, unfamiliar environment than when you’re just puttering around at home. You have to be extra careful and take additional steps to protect it—especially if you’re prone to breaking phones.

Before you take off on your trip, take these steps to protect your phone (and your data):

  • Back it up. Phones are replaceable, but photos of your child’s first birthday are not. Your data is far more important than the physical phone, so make sure it’s fully backed up. If you have an automatic backup, now’s the time to make sure it’s running. Follow these links to learn more about iPhone and Android backups.
  • Get a case. Brand new smartphones look great, but they’re not always practical without a case. The iPhone XS has a lovely but expensive-to-replace glass back, and the edge-to-edge screen doesn’t leave much of a safety margin if you drop your phone. A decent case can help protect your phone from damage.
  • Consider insuring it. This is, sometimes, not as easy as it sounds. You might not be covered for what you think you are, especially with travel insurance policies. To an insurance company, a lost phone usually doesn’t mean you left it in your hotel room or on an airplane; it means that an airline misplaced it. There might also be claim size limits, high deductibles, and awkward claim requirements. Make sure to check the small print if you decide to insure your phone or take out travel insurance and expect it to be covered.

It’s the Most Useful Thing You Can Bring

Young woman taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower with her phone.

So, yes, roaming charges are ridiculous, and there’s a chance your smartphone could be stolen, but the hassle is worth it. A smartphone is one of the most useful things you can bring on a trip because it does all its usual smartphone-y things. It keeps you in contact with your friends and family; you can stay on top of work, and—after a long day—you can binge some Netflix shows on it.

But your smartphone is also useful for loads of travel-specific things:

  • Navigation and getting around. Your smartphone makes it a lot easier to get around in an unfamiliar city. Google Maps can show you walking or transit directions to wherever you want to go. Uber and Lyft can call a ride that won’t scam you. You can look up local trains and bus times or buy tickets online. I don’t know how I’d navigate new places without my phone.
  • Keeping all your info in one place. Your smartphone makes it easy to access confirmation numbers, addresses, and anything else you need from your email account—no printing necessary! This is especially helpful if you’re coordinating a trip with multiple bookings.
  • Check in for flights and make bookings. Now when you fly, your smartphone can be your boarding card. It saves trees and makes your life easier. You can also make short-notice bookings for flights and accommodations. And because you can search for deals, it can help you save money on hotels.
  • Stay on top of things back home. Working remotely blurs the line between vacation and work time. Your phone enables you to stay on top of things, no matter where you are. If you’re squeezing in an extra few days away by “working from home,” your phone helps you maintain the illusion of being in the office.

Those are just the four things that immediately popped into my head. There are countless ways your smartphone makes travel better: it’s a camera, a research tool, and a communications device.

Because it’s so useful, there’s a good chance you’ll drain the battery more often while you’re away. Make sure you have the correct plug adapter so you can charge your phone in your destination country. It’s also worth investing in an external battery so you can juice up on the go.

My smartphone is never out of my pocket when I’m traveling internationally. If you’re taking yours with you, be sure to consider our advice—both before and during your trip.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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