In today’s world staying connected has become increasingly important. And thanks to technology, you can be connected in most places you travel without breaking the bank. Even as a minimalist traveler, I carry a smartphone with T-Mobile wherever I go. I use it for GPS, online guides, photos, notes, emails, calls and messaging. A Smartphone can easily replace and consolidate many of the items you might carry, reducing your baggage overall. All of my pictures I take on my phone, leaving the camera behind.
Picking the right smartphone to take on your travels is important.
Most smartphones will work, but be sure that it is GSM capable and network UNLOCKED. Having a GSM capable and network UNLOCKED phone will allow you to utilize local cellphone networks while travelling, giving you more flexibility.
Cellphone networks operate on primarily two different systems, GSM or CDMA. Verizon and Sprint are both CDMA carriers. GSM, or Global System for Mobile, is used by AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as almost every other carrier in the world. Most smartphones are quad band so even If you have a Verizon CDMA phone, it might still be GSM capable.
You are also going to want to make sure your phone is network UNLOCKED. When cell phone carriers give you a cellphone, they lock it to their network so you are unable to use it on any other carrier. A simple Google search will yield many options to unlock your phone.
So what service options do you have while travelling?
No service at all, only Wi-Fi.
This is by far the cheapest option, but also the least convenient. You can carry a smartphone abroad, and just connect to Wi-Fi whenever it’s available. Once connected, you can browse the internet and use apps like LINE and WHATSAPP to make calls and texts over Wi-Fi. This is becoming more and more viable as Free Wi-Fi hotspots are now commonplace in many parts of the world. This is a great option for the budget minded, and if you travel primarily within cities, it works great. You can usually pop in to a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi whenever you need to make a call or search the internet.
Prepaid global SIM cards
Almost everywhere you go in the world; there are kiosks at airports, malls and train stations selling local prepaid phone sim cards. You can buy these cards, plug them in to your GSM and UNLOCKED phone, and pay for service as you go. This is usually a good option if you are going to be staying in one place for a while. I will usually employ this option if I am in one place for a few months or longer. This allows me to make phone calls fairly cheap and get reliable local service.
Major Carrier International Plans
All of the major US Carriers like AT&T and Verizon, offer extended International Plans at a considerable price. These plans vary widely, but typically they cost at least $30 a month, in addition to your basic service. Even at this rate they usually dramatically limit your data and texts and charge you upwards of $1.75 a minute for calls. I would only recommend this option if you are out of the US for only a few days a year. Otherwise there are many better options out there.
I put T-Mobile in to their own category, because they have changed the game. If you buy their no contract service at $50 a month, you get unlimited data (Only 2GB of it is high speed) and unlimited talk and text. Included in this plan for FREE is unlimited free texting and data while travelling to 140+ countries around the world. Calls while in most countries costs only $0.20 a minute, but I usually only make calls over Wi-Fi.
For my purposes this is the best option. I’m in the US enough that a good domestic plan is critical, but as soon as I step off the plane in any of 140+ other countries, I have service. It’s a good feeling. The service is automatic with any of their non-prepaid plans, and you don’t have to activate it before you leave home.
There’s a bit of fine print to the service, but overall its straightforward. The only issue I have come up with is they say you will be penalized if you use the global coverage more than the domestic coverage. I have yet for this to be a problem even after staying abroad for extended periods of time. Check out their website for more info.
I currently carry a Samsung Note 4 with T-Mobile service. If I am in one location abroad for an extended period of time, I will pick up a local SIM card.
All of these options are viable depending on your circumstances. I have personally used them all at one point or another. Figure out what works for you based on your needs and implement it. A combination of these might be necessary, or just one option may be all you need.