If you are leaving the United States and would like to use your own mobile phone (versus a rental that doesn't have all your data and cool apps), you may wonder what your options are. Here are six ways you can travel with your cell and stay in touch with whomever you need to contact.
1. Go wifi only.
This is the cheapest option and may suffice if you only need to make calls from your hotel room or can wait to find a hotspot. Obviously, though, this won't cover you if you're in the middle of nowhere or can't find Internet access.
Also, you'll need to have an app that operates on wifi, which may not work from a foreign country or may only work to call someone else with the same app. If you run into credit card problems on your trip, are you going to be able to Skype with your bank?
2. Do nothing and use your regular plan.
Yikes! If you thought your trip was expensive, just look at your phone bill when you get home if you use your regular plan out of the country. Even if you have a simple phone that doesn't push data constantly like a smartphone, and even if you don't make any outgoing calls, you'll still be responsible for paying for incoming calls and text messages. This is really only an option if money is no object or if your employer is reimbursing you while traveling.
3. Get a temporary foreign plan from your carrier.
Some cell phone carriers have temporary plans that you can use for a month or less in a foreign destination. Often these are limited to certain countries, like Mexico, Canada, and parts of Western Europe, and you may have restrictions on how much data or how many minutes you can use. Also, your roaming rates may still be crazy high--not ideal.
4. Get a long-term foreign plan from your carrier.
Long-term foreign plans are available these days, as carriers realize many people travel frequently to the same destinations and don't want to lose their cell phone coverage. This is a good option if you are either taking a long trip or go to the same country often. This can be costly, however, if you're only leaving town for a week or two, because you'll generally pay a higher monthly fee, plus an activation fee and possibly other charges to switch plans. Most carriers today offer plans for Mexico, South America, Canada, Europe, and parts of Asia, with other locations possible.
5. Buy an international SIM card.
If you want your cell phone to work in virtually any country--great if you're doing a tour of Europe or the Middle East, for example--you can purchase an international SIM card that should work anywhere you have a cell tower. These cards usually let you load the amount of minutes or data you want, and you can top off your account online if you need more.
The catch is that you need to have an unlocked phone for this, and many people have difficulty getting their carriers to unlock their phones. This could be due to an outstanding balance, being a new customer, or other things that put you at risk of leaving their service.
The answer then is to use a phone unlocking service. This is a company that can get you the access code you need to unlock your phone, so it will work with any carrier, not just the one you have now. Phone unlocking has come a long way recently, and with some services, you can even get your code sent online within a few hours for a nominal fee.
6. Wait and buy a local service SIM card at your destination.
The next least expensive option to using only wifi is to wait until you reach your destination and buy a SIM card there. This also requires an unlocked phone, but that's an easy step if you follow the advice above. If you travel from one country to another, simply purchase a new SIM card at each destination. Nowadays, you can find inexpensive local SIM cards at airports and train depots.