How to Get Cell Data Abroad

We’ve all been there: you land in a new country, walk out of the airport, and are immediately bombarded by dozens of taxi offers. Taxi drivers yelling at you, waving their ID’s, etc. You know most of them are trying to scam you – why else would they be so excited to see a discombobulated foreigner? You also know that you don’t know the right price. And you have no cell data, so you have no way to find out! An aggravating situation.

BUT – it’s a situation with an easy fix. I almost always have data available when I arrive in a new country, and it’s a huge help. And it’s not even expensive – you don’t have to end up like these people with a $13,000 data roaming bill! Here are three of the easiest ways to make sure you’re never left data-less in a foreign land again.

Have a cell plan that includes international data

This mostly applies to Americans – although perhaps there are similar plans in other countries. But in the US, every traveler should have either T-Mobile or Google Fi. Why? Both of these plans come with free, unlimited international data in nearly every country in the world! You just land in a new country, stick your normal SIM card into your cheap travel phone, and your cell phone works just like at home. No international roaming fees for data like you’d have on Verizon or AT&T. And not only that – you also have Wifi calling to make FREE calls in the US, and you have unlimited texting (at your same number) as well – too easy!

The only drawback of T-Mobile is that the international data is slow. It’s 2G, or 128 kbps to be specific. That’s plenty fast for Google Maps, but don’t try watching videos on it. But you didn’t go traveling to watch videos on your phone, did you? However, T-Mobile now offers international data passes, which give you high speed data and are a great deal. In many countries, these can be as cheap or cheaper than a local SIM. There are a few options:

  • 30 day, 15GB – $50
  • 10 day, 5GB – $35
  • 1 day, 512MB – $5

I used the 30 day pass on our recent trip to Asia and it was flawless. High speed data, with tethering allowed, and no need to buy new SIM cards in each country. Highly recommended!

Google Fi on the other hand provides high speed data wherever it’s available. This is super nice, and I might switch over from T-Mobile soon!

But doesn’t T-Mobile suck? No. Not sure what else to say – I’ve had it for over 5 years with no service problems. In fact, they are much more pleasant to deal with than Verizon or AT&T (could any company be worse??).

Get a local SIM card

If you don’t have T-Mobile or Google Fi (or some other international plan), getting a local SIM is the best choice if you’re staying in a country for more than a few days. In most places in the world it’s easy to pop into a local wireless store (or sometimes just a 7-11 or street stand) and buy a pre-paid SIM card for your unlocked phone (here’s how we did that in Peru). Usually, these are VERY cheap – just a few US dollars for a data-only plan that comes with a couple GB of data. Stick the SIM into your phone, and you’ve got high speed data and a local phone number (useful if you need to call a taxi or restaurant, etc). Just make sure you look up your phone so that you know what size SIM card (micro or nano) you need in advance, and keep track of your data usage!

Do look up the local rules and available plans before heading out to get a SIM, though. In some countries, you need to bring your passport, and there often are a bunch of plans available that can be a bit confusing if you haven’t looked them up in advance!

Buy a pre-paid global SIM card before you leave

This is the most expensive option, and is probably not necessary for most travelers. But if you are switching countries frequently and can’t use T-Mobile or Google Fi, buying a SIM card that works in multiple countries in advance might be a good option.

If you’re looking for a data-only SIM, which is usually what I would want, SIM cards from GigSKY are probably cheapest. You buy the SIM from Amazon, and then load it with the plan you want. Be sure to check how much data rates are for the region that you’re traveling to before buying the SIM – they vary a lot! In Europe the prices are reasonable ($50 for 5GB over a month), where as in the Middle East or Africa prices are much higher than buying a local SIM.

For most travelers, one of these three methods will let you quickly and cheaply have cell data while traveling. This is a HUGE advantage – having T-Mobile has changed the way I travel, making new country arrivals so much less stressful.

How do you get data while traveling? Let us know in the comments!

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