The 411 On International Travel and Smart Phones

You’d be naked without your smart phone in your pocket, and crossing an ocean won’t change that feeling. But it will change your bill. Unless you plan ahead, international roaming fees can quickly jack up the cost of using your phone. And using your existing handset may not be the most economical way to travel. You could rent a phone or buy an international SIM Card, or perhaps you need to buy a new device altogether. Read on to find the best option for you.

1) Use your existing phone

Whether or not this option is possible all comes down to bands. The U.S. and Canada use the 850-MHz and 1900-MHz GSM bands, while Mexico uses the 1900-MHz GSM band. The majority of the rest of the world uses GSM technology on the 900-MHz and 1800-MHz bands. AT&T and T-Mobile phones sport SIM Cards and work almost anywhere because they are quad-band phones, meaning they run on 850-, 900-, 1800-, and 1900-MHz frequencies, but buying an international SIM Card will save on roaming charges. Sprint and Verizon Wireless operate on CDMA technology, which is used only within the U.S. These carriers offer some world phones, meaning they also work on GSM networks. Assuming you have one of those, you’ll be able to use your handset overseas.

While the per-minute fee varies among countries and carriers, expect to pay between 59 cents to $4.99 per minute. AT&T offers standard international roaming rates, as well as several international travel plans. The AT&T World Traveler plan costs $5.99 a month, which will give you a discounted per-minute rate that varies from 59 cents to $3.99, based on the country to which you’re traveling. And you can discontinue the plan at any time with no penalty. Using a DataConnect laptop plan with a 5GB limit for $139 per month, you’ll incur international data usage charges at 2 cents per kilobyte. Or, if you enable a global data add-on to your BlackBerry or iPhone plan, you’ll pay $24.99 per month for 20MB, $59.99 per month for 50MB, $119 per month for 100MB, and $199 per month for 200MB.

Sprint offers international roaming rates from 10 cents to $4.99 per minute if you have one of Sprint’s GSM-capable phones, such as the BlackBerry Tour, HTC Touch Pro 2, or Samsung Intrepid. Sprint’s International Voice Roaming Discount Plan can be added to your existing plan any time for $4.99 per month, plus per-minute fees. The Worldwide Data plan requires a one-year commitment, and will cost $69.99 per month when attached to a Simply Everything, Everything Data, Everything Data Family, or Business Advantage Messaging and Data plan. For one-time or infrequent international data use, there is a 2 cent-per-KB charge.

T-Mobile’s version of international roaming is called WorldClass service, which can be used with your current phone as long as you activate it (for free) before you leave. There is no additional charge per month for the service—just the flat per-minute roaming rate based on the country you’re visiting. And with T-Mobile Internet, you can access the web from locations around the globe for $10 per MB in Canada and $15 per MB in other countries. Charges will vary depending upon the amount of data you send and receive.

Verizon Wireless’ Global Value Plan costs $4.99 per month, which cuts the per-minute fee by 30 to 60 cents per minute. For example, calling home from Austria will cost 99 cents per minute with the Global Travel Program, versus $1.29 per minute without the plan activated. For access to e-mail on your smart phone, you’ll want to activate GlobalEmail for $64.99 per month (when added to a voice plan), which includes unlimited data usage.

2) Rent an international

SIM Card

Assuming your existing phone is GSM-compatible, another way to stay connected abroad is to rent an international SIM Card. While you could wait to arrive at your destination and buy a SIM Card on the spot, will rent you one for $9 per week or $29 per month, and you’ll be able to distribute your temporary phone number to friends and colleagues before you leave. The per-minute voice-only fees will vary based on where you’re traveling, but from Europe it can be as low as 59 cents per minute. So, if you limit phone time to an hour, you could spend less than $50 for a week of calls, but no e-mail or data usage.

The key to using a rented SIM Card is getting a SIM unlock code for your handset. If your account is in good standing, an AT&T customer service representative will need to speak to you in the store or over the phone before giving you the unlock code. T-Mobile will hand over the code for your phone if your account has been active for 90 days and if the return or exchange period has ended for your phone.

For international web access, you can rent a USB data card from with 200MB of data included for $199 per month and a setup fee of $19.99, plus $8 per MB over 200. But all that can get expensive in a hurry; you’re better off looking for an Internet café.

3) Rent a phone

Sprint offers phone rentals for international travelers, which cost from $29 for one week to $200 for three months, not including shipping and airtime fees. You can choose from the basic Nokia 3120 or the premium Motorola V3 RAZR, which will work on GSM networks in Africa, Australia, and Europe. The high-end option is the Nokia 6630 WCDMA world phone, which you’ll need when traveling to Japan. You can place rush orders for next-morning delivery by calling 888-226-7212.

Third-party rentals are also available through such sites as Telestial. It costs $7 per day for one to five days or $3.50 per day for 10-plus days with 30 minutes included, plus a $19 return-shipping fee. Other choices include Cellular Abroad ($18 per week), and Cellhire ($125 credit card authorization, $19 per week, plus $19.99 setup fee and shipping costs).

Incoming calls will cost you between 89 cents and $3.99 per minute depending on your location, and outgoing calls will range from 99 cents to $3.99. Cellhire lets you take your existing U.S. number with you for an added 49 cents per minute to incoming call charges, and Telestial charges 19 cents per minute to use a U.S. number. Outgoing text messages are generally about 79 cents each, but incoming messages will likely be free.


It only takes one or two rentals a year to cover the cost of buying an internationally enabled phone, which you can use whenever you like, and you’ll keep the same phone number regardless of where your travels take you. If you leave the country only once a year for a week or less, however, a phone rental may be a better option.

Anna Attkisson
Managing Editor
A lover of lists and deadlines, Anna Attkisson heads up features and special projects for, in addition to covering social networking and accessories. She joined the LAPTOP staff in 2007, after working at Time Inc. Content Solutions where she created custom publications for companies from American Express to National Parks Foundation.