Use Your Phone Overseas Without Spending Big Money Using SIM Cards!

Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.

Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.

When traveling overseas, cell phones and tablets come in handy for keeping in touch with folks back home, finding your way around, and making reservations.  But international plans with carriers like AT&T and Verizon are still pricey.  So how can you stay online when traveling abroad?

SIM Cards Can Make It Easy To Use Your Cellphone Overseas Without Spending BIG Money
Buying a SIM Card at Your Destination Is an Inexpensive Way to Use Your Phone Overseas

Find out how you can pick up a SIM card when you reach your destination and whether or not this is the best option for you!

What’s a SIM Card?

A SIM card is a tiny chip that goes into your phone.  SIM cards are used by your wireless provider to identify your phone.  So if you switch carriers, you need a new card.

When you’re overseas, you can switch to a local carrier and use their network for calls, data, and texting.

SIM Cards Can Make It Easy To Use Your Cellphone Overseas Without Spending BIG Money
This Little Chip Is Inexpensive and Can Keep You Online When Traveling Outside of the US!

SIM cards are often easy to find and very affordable!  You typically choose a plan and prepay for the data and calls you plan on using during your stay.

In Bangkok, Emily’s friend was able to pick up a SIM card at a kiosk right in the airport’s ground transportation area, when she arrived.

Depending on where your travels lead you, you can also find SIM cards at:

  • Convenience stores
  • Local wireless carriers
  • Street vendors
  • Vending machines

She paid ~$12 for 30 days of service which included:

  • 1.5 gigabytes of data at up to 3G speeds
  • Free access to Wi-Fi Hotspots
  • ~20 minutes of calling

She was also able to use her phone as a hotspot when the Wi-Fi at the hotel didn’t work well.

This is more than enough to check email on the go, use Google Maps, and make a few quick phone calls to book a last minute hotel stay and arrange transportation.  But you can choose from a variety of plans for 1 that meets your needs.

How to Use a SIM Card on Your Next Trip

Step 1 – Backup Your Data

Make sure you don’t lose any of your contacts, photos, etc. by backing your phone up to your computer before you get started!

SIM Cards Can Make It Easy To Use Your Cellphone Overseas Without Spending BIG Money
Make Sure Your Information Is Safe Just in Case!

Step 2 – Unlock Your Phone

Most carriers will only unlock your phone if it’s paid off.  So if your phone was subsidized by a 2-year contract, your wireless company won’t help you unlock your device until your contract is up.

But these steps vary for each carrier:

SIM Cards Can Make It Easy To Use Your Cellphone Overseas Without Spending BIG Money
Unlocking Your Phone Will Enable You to Use Different Carriers
GSM phones from carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile are most compatible with overseas wireless carriers, but some CDMA phones from Verizon and Sprint may work as well.

If you don’t have a phone that you can unlock, you can buy 1 at Amazon or Ebay.

Or earn a phone (worth up to $650) when you sign-up for the Citi AT&T Access More card and complete the minimum spending.

Step 3 – Do Your Research Before You Arrive!

You can save yourself a lot of time and frustration by looking up information about the best carriers and where to find SIM cards before you leave the US.

You may not have internet access when you arrive, so it’s best to be prepared.  The folks on Flyertalk have created a page listing posts with information about SIM cards in various countries.  There’s also a Wikia page with information about options around the world.

What Are the Drawbacks to Using SIM Cards?

Picking up a SIM card is not always as easy as dropping by the kiosk on your way out of the airport.  In some places they can be difficult to find.

And if you’re in a country where not many folks speak English, you may not understand what type of plans are available.

Plus, some SIM cards only work within the country.  So if you have plans to skip around to several different countries during your trip, you may have to pay ~$10 to ~$30 each time.  Which can really add up!

T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan

Link:   T-Mobile Simple Choice

Link:   International Wireless Plan Comparison

Folks who do have plans to visit several countries during their trip, may do better with T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan.

SIM Cards Can Make It Easy To Use Your Cellphone Overseas Without Spending BIG Money
T-Mobile Makes Staying Connected Overseas Simple

The Simple Choice Plan costs $50 per month and with this plan you’ll get:

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data when on the T-Mobile network
  • Unlimited text and data in ~120 countries (if you travel outside these countries, you’ll pay 50 cents per text and $15 per megabyte of data)
  • 1 gigabyte of 4G speeds (where available) per month (unused data rolls over to the next month)
  • Wi-Fi calls and texts to and from the US are free
  • All other calls cost 20 cents per minute

There’s also NO contract so you can sign-up just for your trip abroad and then cancel when you return.  It’s important to note that you still must pay 1 month at a time.  So if you only need the plan for 2 weeks, you will still have to pay for a full month.

But with T-Mobile,  you may have to deal with with SLOW 2G speeds and spotty service.  T-Mobile claims 3G speeds in nearly all of the UK, but 2G in Thailand.

Check out T-Mobile’s coverage map to see what service is available where you’ll be traveling.

Google’s Project Fi

Link:   Google Project Fi

Link:   Google’s Project Fi FAQ Page

Google’s Project Fi may soon provide a fantastic solution for using your cell phone inside and outside of the US.  But for now, this service is available by invitation only.
SIM Cards Can Make It Easy To Use Your Cellphone Overseas Without Spending BIG Money
Google’s Project Fi Is a Promising Step Forward in Wireless Service!

You can request an invite, if you have a Nexus 6 phone.

Project Fi has partnered with Sprint and T-Mobile and will automatically switch you to the network that provides the best service based on your location.  There’s NO contract.  The current base pricing is $20 per month which includes:

  • Unlimited calls and texting within the US
  • Unlimited international texting
  • Use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for free
  • Wi-Fi calls to the US for free

Data is $10 per gigabyte.  And if you don’t use all of your data, you’ll receive a statement credit towards your next bill for the remaining amount.  Like the T-Mobile Simple Choice plan, you’ll have service in 120+ countries and pay 20 cents per (non-Wi-Fi) call.

I’m looking forward to seeing the future of Google’s Project Fi!

Bottom Line

SIM cards can be an affordable and easy way to stay connected when you’re traveling abroad.  You can typically purchase plans that offer calling and data for just ~$10 to ~$30.

That said, folks visiting several countries may save more money with T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan.  And you won’t have to worry about locating and switching out SIM cards.  This plan costs $50 per month and with it you get free data and text, while phone calls cost 20 cents per minute.

But do the math to determine which option will work best for you!

And while currently available by invitation-only, Google’s Project Fi is potentially a  game changer!

How do you stay connected when traveling abroad?

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

Join the Discussion!

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments