The horror story goes something like this: A family returns from a trip abroad, and the glow from the vacation has barely begun to fade when a cellphone bill with hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars in international charges arrives. The phenomenon even has a name: bill shock.
Smartphones have become an indispensable part of international travel. You can use them to check in at the gate, go through borders, find your way around a foreign city and pay for breakfast at a sidewalk cafe. Now, it’s easier than ever to use your phone just as you would at home without getting a big hit to the wallet.
There are two major options: You can get a data plan directly through your phone company or you can swap out your phone’s SIM card, a small chip that stores data about you and your carrier — on newer phones, you can use an app that does the same thing. Here are some tips:
Pick the right plan
The three biggest U.S. carriers all offer some version of an all-inclusive international data plan. The prices and countries covered vary. Some take effect automatically when you cross a border, and others require you to sign up before your trip. Almost all of them send a text message detailing your options when your phone connects to a foreign network.
AT&T offers the International Day Pass for $10 a day, allowing travelers to use their phones much as they would in the United States. AT&T automatically adds a day pass when customers with unlimited plans connect to the network in a foreign destination.
Customers with this plan can use their phones for as many days as they want, but they’ll be charged only for a maximum of 10 days per billing cycle. The plan covers about 210 destinations, including Canada and Mexico. Some exceptions: Cuba and the Maldives.
Verizon has a similar offer: TravelPass, which gives customers who have Unlimited Plus, Unlimited Welcome and other unlimited plans the ability to talk, text and use data for $10 per day (there is no cap on how many days you can be charged in a billing cycle), or a monthly $100 pass. The first 2GB of high-speed data each day is included; after that, travelers get unlimited data at a slower speed.
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