One of the biggest questions we had and received prior to taking a RTW trip was, “How are you going to keep in touch?” In cities, we were pretty comfortable with relying on wi-fi, but what about outside of cities, where our travel was sure to take us? If you find yourself in this same boat, keep reading. This post covers your options, how to choose a phone plan, and our experience choosing how we will keep in touch while traveling abroad.
What to do with your phone?
Of all the pre-trip decisions we had to make, “What to do with our phones while traveling?” probably took us the most time and research. We must have googled “phone plan for international travel” at least 30 times before leaving on our trip, and we still didn’t have an answer by the time we left. Here’s what you need to know:
International Phone Plan Options
Coming from the U.S., there were many providers offering international phone plans:
- T-Mobile: Many travel bloggers recommend T-Mobile’s international plan which is, as of this post, $150/month for 2 lines. However, T-Mobile recently changed the rules so that at least HALF of your data must be domestic. If over 50% of your data is roaming internationally over 3 months, T-Mobile will terminate your service and not let you re-connect. This can be avoided only for if the accountholder is in the US military and deployed abroad.
- Verizon: Verizon has an international plan that could have worked for us, but at $10/day per line, we think it prohibitively expensive.
- GoogleFi: GoogleFi, at a minimum $20 per month per line, could be a good option for many travelers; however, your monthly cost really depends on how much you use it. In addition to the $20/month, international calls sans-wifi are $0.20/minute and international data will cost you $10/GB. Texts though, are free. Just make sure to check that where you’re going is covered in their network.
Alternatively, you could buy a temporary SIM card in each country and use that for emergencies.
International SIM Cards
Buying a SIM card abroad is easy. You usually have to pay a sunk cost to purchase the SIM card and have it installed, and then purchase extra minutes/data whenever you run out. Keep reading below for a summary and tips should you choose this option.
- A local SIM card will allow you to make calls, send texts, and access data in whichever country you are in.
- You will have to purchase a new SIM card and have it installed in each country . Prior to crossing the border to somewhere new, do some quick research on phone companies.
- Some minutes/data purchases have an expiration date. Don’t purchase the maximum amount of minutes or data offered. Do ask if there is an expiration date.
- Take advantage of internet at restaurants, cafes, and your hostel! We’ve found that most plazas even host free wifi. Connect and do what you need to do to not waste your precious data.
- **Before installing a SIM card, make sure to ask if there are any restrictions for travelers.** Read more below on why NOT to install a SIM card in Colombia.
Make Sure Your Phone is Unlocked
Before you leave the country, it is essential to make sure your phone is unlocked.
If you’re purchasing a new phone, make sure it’s unlocked. If your phone is already under a yearly contract, talk to your carrier about terminating the contract or buy a new phone with a new number.
Keep Your Same Number Using GoogleVoice
GoogleVoice is an internet-based service that forwards calls and texts from one phone number to another device that has GoogleVoice installed. When you purchase a SIM card in a new country, you will get a new phone number, which may be challenging for continuous communication with friends and family. With GoogleVoice, you can keep your old phone number and have any calls and texts to your old number automatically forwarded to your new number. Keep reading below for tips.
- For a one-time fee of $20, we ported our phone numbers to GoogleVoice. This allowed us to keep our same phone numbers, so that we wouldn’t need to update friends and family with a new phone number every time we got a new SIM card.
- GoogleVoice asks that you link your account to an active phone number for full functionality (so that calls are forwarded to you wherever you are). However, it will only let you link a domestic phone number. Since we don’t have an international phone plan through our domestic phone number, we can’t do this. No matter, GoogleVoice will still forward texts and missed call notifications to you via email and/or the GoogleVoice app. You’ll get these notifications whenever you have wi-fi or data is activated.
Remember, GoogleVoice acts as a middleman so that calls and messages to your old number are automatically forwarded to your new number via your GoogleVoice account. The way we are using it, GoogleVoice sends us notifications (when we are on wi-fi or have data activated) of texts and missed calls. Given your new number is an international number, GoogleVoice will not automatically forward calls, only missed call notifications. While you won’t get calls forwarded, this is super helpful for forwarding texts (hello, two factor identification).
We recommend using GoogleVoice and local SIM cards instead of an international phone plan. This does present some challenges with continuity, as you will necessarily receive a new phone number whenever you buy a new SIM card; however, various other wi-fi based communication methods (such as GoogleVoice, WhatsApp, and social media) can help with that.
Based on our research and experience, this was the most economical option. After paying the one time sign up fee for GoogleVoice our total cost for SIM cards is approximately ~$15/month.
- All prices and durations are as of late July 2019.
- Colombia has really weird phone laws. For some reason, all phones that enter Colombia and use data must be registered with the Colombia government. Any phone that you put a SIM card into that is not registered will be blocked by the Colombia government. If blocked, the phone will not connect to data anymore in Colombia. It will still work with WIFI but that’s it.
- We recommend NOT getting a SIM card in Colombia. We rarely, if ever, had a problem accessing WIFI in all parts of the country (even in the small town of Buenvista while working on a coffee farm we had WIFI). If feel you need to have a phone, we recommend buy a cheap flip phone in Colombia (there are soo many electronic stores) and using it for calls only and using you smart phone for Instagram, ESPN, and Offline Maps.