I’m a big believer in unplugging from gadgets while on vacation, but I also understand how something like a smartphone comes in handy while traveling, especially overseas.
A smartphone helps you stay in touch with family and friends back home, and lets you instantly share cool photos to social networks. And it’s especially useful when you’re lost or trying to translate something in a foreign language.
But if you’re not careful, it can also end up costing a small fortune. The first time I traveled abroad with a smartphone, I came home to a stomach-dropping, $300 cellphone bill because I went over my data allotment.
Needless to say, I’ve since learned a few things. So here’s a guide that (hopefully) will help you if you’re looking to use your smartphone while traveling out of your service area.
Get an international plan with your carrier
Good for: Travelers who don’t want to deal with the hassle of swapping out equipment or figuring out local phone plans at their destination.
All the major U.S. carriers offer international plans that you can add to your existing cellphone service. It’s the easiest and most convenient choice, since you can use your same phone number, and often the same device. But the downside is that it’s usually much more expensive compared with the other options listed in this guide.
Here’s a breakdown of each provider’s international plans. To keep things simple, I chose the international plans that included the largest number of global countries. For international rates for calls and messages to Canada and Mexico, check your carrier’s website.
Out of all the carriers, T-Mobile offers the best deal on international texting and data. If you already have one of the carrier’s Simple Choice plans, which start at $50 a month and get you unlimited voice, text and data at home, you also get unlimited data and texting in more than 120 countries at no extra charge. Meanwhile, international calls cost 20 cents per minute.
The one catch is that you won’t get the fastest data speeds when traveling abroad. It’s fine for checking email, social networks and even some light Web browsing, but it’s not great for things like streaming music or video. You can buy high-speed data passes, which start at $15 for a single-day pass and 100 megabytes of data.
AT&T offers several different international packages that bundle voice, text and data coverage in more than 150 countries.
The $30 Passport plan includes unlimited texts, 120MB of data and unlimited Wi-Fi at participating international hotspots. International calls cost $1 per minute. For $60 a month, you get 300MB of data and calls at 50 cents per minute. And the $120 Passport Pro plan offers 800MB of data, while the rate for international calls drops to 35 cents per minute.
Before choosing one of these plans, I’d recommend using AT&T’s online data usage calculator to figure out how much data you plan on using while abroad. If you go over your allotment, you get charged overage fees (between 15 cents and 25 cents per megabyte), which can add up pretty quick.
Sprint has more of an a la carte menu for its international options. If you want to make calls, you’ll need to subscribe to the Sprint Worldwide Voice add-on, which costs $4.99 per month. You’ll also still be charged a per-minute rate for calls, though they’re at a discounted rate with the worldwide voice add-on. For example, international calls made from Barcelona cost 99 cents per minute with the add-on, and $1.99 per minute without.
But compared to AT&T, Sprint is stingier with its data packages. There are only two options: $40 for 40MB of data per month and $85 for 85MB. And for every megabyte that you go over, you’ll be charged $10 (!).
Finally, text messages cost 50 cents to send, and received messages range between five cents and 15 cents, depending on what country you’re in.
Sprint (and Verizon) customers should be aware that not all of the carrier’s phones will work abroad. You need an international-capable phone that supports both the GSM and CDMA networks. You can find a list of supported devices on Sprint’s website.
Similar to Sprint, Verizon charges separately for each international feature, and offers global coverage in about 150 countries. For discounted international calls, you can subscribe to the carrier’s Global Voice Plan for $4.99 per month. Sent text messages cost 50 cents each, and received messages cost five cents.
There’s only one international data plan: $25 for 100MB. If you go over that before the end of the month, you’ll automatically be billed another $25 for 100MB of data. Data speeds will depend on where you are traveling.
A list of Verizon’s global smartphones can be found on its website.
Get a local SIM card at your destination
Good for: Those staying abroad for an extended period of time.
If you’re going to be in a country for an extended period of time, one of the cheapest options for using your smartphone overseas is to buy a local SIM card once you arrive at your destination. This way you can take advantage of local calling rates, and usually get a larger data allotment and faster speeds for less than what you’d pay by adding an international plan with your domestic carrier.
For example, if you’re traveling to the United Kingdom, you can get a SIM card from Vodafone for around $26. This also includes one gigabyte of 4G data, plus unlimited calls and texts within the U.K.
For those who aren’t familiar with what a SIM card is, it’s a little chip that stores personal information like your mobile number and carrier services. You can usually find it on the side of your handset (look for a little slot with a pinhole) or behind the battery cover.
Going the local SIM card route does come with some challenges, though. Among them is the fact that you need an unlocked smartphone (meaning that it’s not locked for use with a specific carrier). Verizon’s LTE phones come unlocked out of the box, but AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint will only do so under certain conditions. You also need to make sure the phone is compatible with the network used in the country you’re visiting. Your carrier can help you with any questions.
Other drawbacks include not being able to use your existing number, and a potentially confusing activation process if you don’t speak or understand the local language.
As an alternative, you can buy a prepaid international SIM card before taking your trip. Companies like OneSimCard and Cellular Abroad offer such products, but be aware, they tend to be a little more expensive.
Use Wi-Fi whenever possible
Good for: Any traveler. Heavy data users.
Another affordable option for staying connected during your globetrotting adventures is to use Wi-Fi. Depending on where you go, you can find Wi-Fi at hotels, local cafes and even public spaces. Once connected, you can use apps like Google Voice, FaceTime and Skype to make free calls, or WhatsApp to send free text messages. You can also browse the Web, watch videos and upload photos without eating away at your data plan.
A note of caution: If you’re using free public Wi-Fi, be careful not to send any sensitive or personal information like passwords or credit card numbers through your phone, since hackers often target public hotspots.
For travelers who anticipate using a lot of data and are worried about overage fees, a more affordable alternative might be to sign up for a mobile Internet access service like Boingo, or to rent a mobile hotspot.
Boingo offers a mobile plan that provides unlimited access to more than one million Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide for two devices. The service costs $4.98 for the first month, and $9.95 every month thereafter. You can terminate your subscription at any time without penalty, but you have to let Boingo know in writing. Also, before signing up, make sure Boingo offers coverage in the area where you’re traveling.
Renting an international mobile hotspot is a little more expensive. When my colleague Ina Fried and I travel to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress wireless show each year, we rent one from a company called XCom Global for a daily rate of $14.95. It’s another gadget to carry around, but it has saved me a few times when I found myself without a reliable cellular or Wi-Fi connection.
My last piece of advice: Try to put your phone away when you can, and just enjoy the sights and sounds of your travels.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.