How to Use Cell Phones Abroad

Keeping up with old friends in your homeland and new friends in your newly discovered land can be quite a task when you don’t have the most efficient form of communication. It’s the 21st century, you don’t need to huddle around a cyber café trying over and over to send a snapchat of a cute stray dog while some gross old person is looking up questionable material on the computer next to you!

This post is your simplified guide to using a phone in a foreign country without getting bent over by your service provider!jeune-femme-telephone-cellulaire

Method 1: Using your same phone and same plan

So let’s say you’ve got a brand new iPhone and you can’t go without using it for your trip abroad. Good news! You can simply go to your carrier and sign up for an international plan. While this is not the most cost effective plan (some charge upwards of $15/MB for data!), it is very simple and a good strategy for short trips.

Forbes has a great article on this if you’d like to read more!

But, let’s say you’re going to be gone for more than the standard 30 days and need to use a phone. Here’s where it gets tricky.

Method 2: Unlocking your phone.

Buying a SIM card and using it in a foreign country is actually fairly cheap. Most countries have a lot of competition between companies (unlock the US’s oligopolistic domination of the biggest cell providers) that drive the rates down. However, if you have a phone in the US, it’s not as simple as bringing your old phone and shoving a SIM card up in there.

Service providers do this thing called “region locking” on cell phones where only their SIM cards can be used in the phone. Luckily, this was recently deemed illegal by the US Congress and most service providers will gladly unlock your phone for you given your contract has expired and you don’t owe any money on your account. But (because it couldn’t be that easy, could it?), it’s easier for them to unlock a GSM phone than a CDMA phone. Let me put it a little more simply for you: If you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile (GSM), congrats! You just have to wait for your contract to expire and you canrequest to have your phone unlocked and it should be simple (give them about a week to unlock it). If you’re using any of the other cell phone services (CDMA), you might be out of luck. Although it’s required by law, they make it harder to unlock their phones without jumping through hoops and long, complicated customer service calls. Digital Trends has a great article going into more detail (since I am oversimplifying a bit) on the methods of unlocking your phone with all service providers.

While there are services online that allow you to unlock your phone using special codes, the reputability of these services are still (to me at least) unknown. For example, one website claims to be able to unlock your Sprint phone for $30. A subsequent reading of the reviews shows mixed results. Will I risk it for $30? Nope. Instead, I’ll do Method 3…thumbnail_DSC01868

Method 3: Buying an unlocked phone

Buying an unlocked phone is much easier because:

  1. You don’t have to deal with your cell provider’s customer service to get your phone unlocked
  2. You don’t have to wait for your contract to expire
  3. You can use this phone ANYWHERE in the world

There are some disadvantages. Mainly, it’s a little more expensive. Not as expensive as buying the international plan for your current phone, but more expensive than unlocking your phone. But, be careful where you purchase an unlocked phone!

Although you can do a simple search on Amazon for “unlocked cell phones”, reading the reviews shows that some of the phones aren’t what they say they are and some are overpriced. How do you get around this?

Newegg is a reputable site for electronic goods and has a whole slew of unlocked phones for great prices. You can find any phone your heart desires! Here’s the link.

ALWAYS make sure that the phone says “unlocked GSM”. If you’re unsure, check for info on GSM phones. They post specs of phones, reviews, and lots of other great info!

Although you can get a simple brick or flip phone for really cheap, I’d recommend forking over a little extra for a smartphone. Why? Having access to internet and GPS services is essential for travel, and although you could use Wi-Fi with your current phone without paying anything, certain places don’t have the bet Wi-Fi availability or speed (for example, I do a lot of travelling through Central America and the image in the beginning of this post about the cyber café is a reality).


So… what about me?

What would I do if I were you? I’d buy the Samsung Galaxy J1 mini and use a foreign SIM card. The Galaxy J series is Samsung’s own unlocked phones that are quite cheap and a great value. Although the J1 isn’t close to the newer Galaxy S models in terms of specs and design, it gets the job done. Using an unlocked phone also has another advantage: you can use it in the US with a provider like Straight Talk or Ting (which have the most competitive rates out there).

You can find many other phones for great prices as well. If you’re an Apple person, you can find an old iPhone 4 for less than $100 on different sites. Some other cheaper smartphones that you should consider include: ZTE, Huawei (pronounced Wah-Way), Nokia’s Lumia series (if you’re willing to try out Windows Phone), or FIGO.

If you have the extra cheddar and want a REALLY good smartphone to use abroad, I’d recommend the Nexus 6P. The Nexus series is Google’s flagship phones that are the best deal on high quality unlocked phones. It will run you about $500, but if you’re looking for a good phone that you wanna use for the long haul, it’s a great choice (a similar phone by Samsung, LG, or Apple will run you much more).

Don’t be afraid to explore and ask around more for unlocked phones on the internet, Newegg isn’t the only site out there! Just make sure you read the reviews and make sure you’re not overpaying.

Again, this post over simplifies a lot and some of this information could be outdated or inaccurate as time goes on. Speak with your sell service provider before making any big purchases or changes to your phone.

Let’s Recap

So yes, using a cell phone in a foreign country is quite a hassle. Hopefully this has been a helpful guide! Here’s a quick summary in case you don’t feel like reading:

  1. You can purchase an international plan for short trips that are a bit expensive
  2. If your contract is up on an AT&T or T-Mobile phone, they will unlock your phone for you and you can use a foreign SIM card in your phone
  3. You can purchase an unlocked phone online and use a foreign SIM card in it



About the Author:


Matt is a great friend of mine and a fellow travel enthusiast!  He guest wrote this post for me, and I have learned so much from him! If you have any questions for him, please visit my contact me page and I will put you in touch! Or comment below and he can reply!

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