For most westerners cell phone data plans are a necessity. In the US we have Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint as our main players. In the UK there’s O2, Vodafone, EE, and Virgin Mobile. In both countries smaller carriers piggyback on the big networks. But if you’re going from the US to any other country, you’re not going to find the same mobile companies from back home.

So how do you stay connected abroad? Last time we visited the UK I did a lot of research beforehand to figure that out. At the time we were on Verizon at home and their international roaming charges were way too expensive. I really didn’t want to pay $10 a day for data, especially with the amount of Instagramming, Facebooking, and Twittering we do. We needed to figure out what our options were and hopefully the hours I spent will save you a bit of time in figuring things out for your next trip to Europe.

Using your US-based mobile plan abroad

Most cell phone service providers in the United States offer an international roaming option for an additional charge. The two exceptions to this are T-Mobile and Sprint (disclaimer: as of this writing Jessica and I are T-Mobile customers) which include unlimited international data, at really slow speeds, in their latest base plans. Verizon and AT&T both charge an additional fee for international data access. The breakdown looks like this:

  • AT&T offers a $10/day International Day Pass, a $40 monthly pass that lasts for 30 days, and pay-as-you-go-pricing for $2.05 per megabyte
  • Sprint offers free text and data at 2G speeds in most of the world or LTE global roaming passes for $5/day or $25/month
  • T-Mobile offers unlimited text and data in 140+ countries but limited to 128 kbps (that’s slow!), if you pay an extra $5/mo for a One+ plan that speed gets doubled. It seems they also have data passes similar to the other two providers, but the website is unclear about their cost.
  • Verizon Wireless offers a $10/day Travel Pass, a monthly international data allowance of 100MB, and pay-as-you-go pricing of $2.05 per megabyte.

If you have the money and don’t want to hassle with finding a deal, it’s likely your current mobile provider offers an easy way to travel with, essentially, the same service you enjoy at home. But, boy, are you going to pay.

For those of us who want to save a bit of money, there are other options.

Getting a mobile plan abroad

The good news is that if you want to save some cash on international cell phone data, Europe, Ireland, and the UK make it pretty easy to buy a SIM card and pay-as-you-go at a reasonable price. As a bonus, you get a local number. But there are two big things to check on before you leave.

Make sure you have an unlocked, world cell phone before you leave

First, make sure you have a cell phone that will work worldwide. If you’re on AT&T or you have an iPhone 6 or above (and some versions of the iPhone 5/5s), you should be okay. The problem is that US carriers operate on two different signal types (GSM or CDMA) while most of the rest of the world runs on GSM. That gap has closed in the last few years and most smartphone makers now make “world phones” that can work on either standard… but better safe then sorry.

Second, get your phone unlocked before you leave. If your device is from AT&T or Verizon you need to get it unlocked so that it can accept SIM cards from other networks. Usually you can do this by taking your phone to a carrier store or giving them a call. If you bought an iPhone using the Apple payment plan, it’s already unlocked. And the same with phones from T-Mobile. Just in case, here’s a good guide to unlocking your device on any carrier.

Or, you might want to just buy an unlocked backup phone (or maybe you have one in a drawer somewhere) and leave your primary device at home. Amazon has some great and affordable options.

How do you get cell phone data abroad? Buy a SIM card

The UK and Europe have different wireless carriers than the US does and they all have slightly different pricing and benefits. If you’re traveling in Ireland, you’re going to spend more on data plans compared to other countries. The process is basically:

  1. Compare rates (“tariffs” over there) among the various carriers
  2. Buy a SIM card
  3. “Top up” your data
  4. Switch the SIM card in your phone and get it activated

Mobile carriers in the EU are starting to consolidate coverage meaning that if you’re traveling within the EU you may not need to buy a separate SIM card for each country or pay for international roaming. With Brexit still pending, though, don’t expect to get that benefit from the UK to mainland Europe.

If you’re in the UK or Ireland I recommend finding a Carphone Warehouse store — they’ll help you figure out what sort of plan you need for the time you’re visiting and give you a good price. Last visit to London, we ended up just going into a Vodafone store and getting SIM cards there because we couldn’t find a convenient Carphone Warehouse. But in Dublin, Carphone Warehouse was one of the first stops we made.

What to do with multiple SIM cards

If you’re replacing your SIM card you want to be super careful about not losing the one from back home. So before we left home I picked up this credit card sized GPG2 Mobile Safe Case. I like it because it stays closed with a spring and has a sticky interior surface that will hold your SIM cards and a SIM card tray removal tool. It’s small and easy to keep in a pocket or in your bag. Highly recommended.

SIM cards for our cell phone data plans

The global SIM option

The last option I’ve seen is the use of “global SIM cards.” I haven’t used this myself mainly due to the mixed reviews I saw during my research. From what I can tell, global SIM card providers essentially piggyback off of established carriers and resell cell phone data. They charge you a flat rate for data used abroad that’s slightly higher than paying for a data plan on a native network.

While you may get charged a bit more for data coverage, the SIM card is supposed to work in any country they service. This essentially gives you data roaming anywhere in the world. The reviews I read, however, had mixes of high praise and large disappointment. I’m not confident enough to try it out myself, but with a quick Google search you can find out all the information you need. If you try it and it works, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Final thoughts

There are a number of ways to go about staying connected when abroad. I recommend thinking through how much data you might need — are you going to be shooting and posting video or a lot of photos, for instance? If you need basic access for things like maps and texting you can get by on the cheap. But if you’re planning to post a lot of media be prepared to spend $20 or more for a month’s worth of data. That’s still a steal compared to $10/day!

If you have other questions or your own tips for staying connected in another country, let us know in the comments.

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