U.S. travelers spend billions—yes, billions—of dollars annually to stay connected while traveling abroad. Last year alone, companies paid $7.3 billion to keep their employees connected with Wi-Fi and roaming data, according to research from Amba Hotels. That study showed that the average U.S. business traveler spent $15.10 per day in Wi-Fi and roaming fees. By 2018, international data roaming fees for all consumers are set to generate $42 billion in revenue for wireless providers, according to Juniper Research, a telecom consultancy.
In other words, we’re all spending way too much on cell service. Whether you’re traveling on business or simply want to share your vacation in real time on social media, this definitive guide to saving money on international roaming will keep you from spending a fortune.
Use your existing plan
Despite the costs often associated with roaming, some U.S. carriers do make it affordable to use your phone abroad. In fact, T-Mobile includes data roaming in 120 countries on its Simple Choice Plan; other carriers offer affordable options if you’re willing to study the fine print we outlined in a recent issue of Condé Nast Traveler.
Rent a device
Renting a cell phone that works abroad is another way to avoid data roaming charges. Cellular Abroadhas a range of phones that work internationally, from the most basic device to an iPhone 4s. (The very latest phones are not available from the company.) A basic Samsung flip phone rents for around $40 per week, while an iPhone costs $70 per week. Thanks to cloud-based storage of contacts, it’s possible to rent a phone, download your information, and use the borrowed device as if it were your own.
Act like a local
If you’d rather take your own phone, you’ll first need to make sure it’s “unlocked,” meaning it can be used on any cellular network not just the one you typically use. AT&T will let you unlock your device permanently once your contract expires. Before that, AT&T will let you unlock up to five times per year for international travel. (Click here for more specifics.) Some Verizon phones—including the iPhone 5 and 6—are sold unlocked, and the carrier has its full rules on the unlocking process online.
Once your phone is unlocked, you can purchase a local SIM card in your destination and use your phone on the local network. You’ll have to pay a few dollars for the SIM card—and spend part of your trip inside a cell phone store—but typically you can get good local pre-paid rates this way. Vodafone, one of the top carriers in Europe, for example, sells SIM cards that provide 100 megabytes of data anywhere in a 35-nation “Europe Zone” for about $4.50 per day. (Most people use less than 100 megabytes every day.)
Try a travel-specific plan
MTX Connect, a mobile operator that provides data-only plans, has launched a new pay-as-you-go service for U.S. travelers going to any of 30 European countries. Prior to departure, you request a free MTX SIM card for your unlocked tablet or smartphone. Upon arrival, your device will connect to the local cellular network and work as usual. A basic plan costs about 10 cents per megabyte—enough to send about 10 emails without any attachments—and there’s also a daily plan that offers unlimited data for 24 hours for €10 (about $11). For heavy data users—or those on longer trips—a one-gigabyte plan is available for €49 ($53).
Go Wi-Fi only
Of course, you could always just turn off your cellular data—and remain connected: Simply switch your phone to airplane mode to prevent any background downloads then enable a Wi-Fi connection to freely access the internet using hotspots in your destination. Apps that let you talk and text as if you were on a cellular connection have proliferated, and some of the most popular include WhatsApp, Kik, Viber (for texting) and FaceTime, Skype, and KakaoTalk (for voice). Worried there may not be enough Wi-Fi connectivity for this to be a viable option? Don’t be: Europe alone has more than 44 million hotspots, and the number of wireless access points in Asia has increased nearly 300% since 2013, according to figures from iPass and Maravedis.