On my first trip to Japan, I decided to forgo international data on my cellphone. I figured I could rely on public Wi-Fi, but I regretted not having data on my phone when I became lost. From that experience, I learned to download offline maps and a translation app beforehand if I know I won’t have data.
But now, I almost always have data when I travel via my international phone plan, or through a physical SIM I buy at my destination or an eSIM I purchase online.
There are many reasons why you may want to remain connected while abroad. In this guide, I’ll compare the best international phone plans. Note that many plans function differently in Canada and Mexico from other international locations. This guide focuses on the best phone plans for U.S. residents who travel outside North America.
First things first: You might not need an international phone plan. If you primarily need data, using a different SIM on your trip may be the simplest and cheapest solution. Some apps even support text and voice communication over data connections.
If your device supports eSIM, you may be able to purchase a data plan for your destination through an app like Airalo. Over the past year, I’ve purchased and used the following Airalo eSIMs either to gain data in a destination not served by my primary international phone plan (Google Fi) or to get less-expensive data than what Google Fi provides:
- Global (84 countries): 20 GB over 180 days for $89
- Japan: 20 GB over 30 days for $26
- France: 20 GB over 30 days for $36
- Fiji: Three GB over 30 days for $19.50
- U.S.: One GB over seven days for $4.50
If your device doesn’t support eSIM, you could still purchase a local SIM card at your destination. For example, I bought a monthlong SIM card with unlimited high-speed data in Vietnam for less than $10. But data is significantly more expensive in some destinations, and it can be difficult to determine exactly what you’re getting when you purchase a physical SIM card. As such, I’ve mostly stuck with a physical Google Fi SIM card and Airalo eSIMs instead of using local SIM cards.
If you plan to use eSIM or a local SIM card, you should ensure your phone is unlocked. A locked phone won’t be able to accept any other SIM cards until it is unlocked.
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- Cost for one line: $20 (plus taxes and fees) per month plus data usage costs for the Flexible plan or $65 (plus taxes and fees) per month for the Unlimited Plus plan
- Data abroad: $10 per GB (with free data after six GBs per month but slower speeds after 15 GBs in a month) in more than 200 destinations for the Flexible plan or free (but with slower speeds after 50 GBs in a month) in more than 200 destinations for the Unlimited Plus plan
- Voice abroad: 20 cents per minute from more than 200 destinations (and calls via Wi-Fi to the U.S., Canada and Mexico are free)
- Text abroad: Free from more than 200 destinations
I’ve used Google Fi as my primary cellphone plan for most of the past six years. I’ve had a few connectivity issues in the U.S. — where Google Fi currently uses the T-Mobile network — including in Tampa, Austin and New York City. However, I keep Google Fi primarily because I usually get high-speed data as soon as I turn airplane mode off, and I can seamlessly receive calls and texts on my U.S. number while traveling internationally.
You might be tempted to only use Google Fi when traveling outside the U.S., but doing so isn’t a good idea. After all, the Google Fi terms of service state:
The services are offered only to residents of the United States. The Services must be primarily used in the United States (territories not included) and are not intended for extended international use. Further, the services are designed for use predominantly within our network. If your usage outside our network is excessive, abnormally high, or causes us to incur too much cost, we may, at our option and sole discretion, suspend your Google Fi account, terminate your service, or limit your use of roaming.
Google Fi has shut down some U.S. residents who used Google Fi primarily outside the U.S. So, I recommend avoiding extended international use and using Google Fi more in the U.S. than abroad if you don’t want to get shut down. I buy eSIMs to decrease my Google Fi usage in some destinations, especially when I can purchase a package through Airalo for significantly less than $10 per GB (the amount I pay Google Fi for data on my Flexible plan).
Google Fi is the best international phone plan for U.S.-based travelers who want fast data without hassle while traveling abroad. Plans become slightly cheaper as you add more members. In my travels with Google Fi since 2016, I’ve only failed to get any service in three locations: parts of Alaska, the all-inclusive resort I lived out of for a month in the Dominican Republic and Liberia.
- Cost for one line: $60 per month for the Essentials plan, $70 per month for the Magenta plan, $75 per month for the Go5G plan, $85 per month for the Magenta Max plan and $90 per month for the Go 5G Plus plan
- Data abroad: Free for up to five GB of high-speed data (in 11 European countries for the Magenta and Go5G plans, and in more than 215 countries and destinations for the Magenta Max and Go5G Plus plans) and then free for up to 256 kilobits per second in more than 215 countries and destinations for Magenta, Go5G, Magenta Max and Go5G Plus plans (no data outside North America is included in the Essentials plan)
- Voice abroad: 25 cents per minute from more than 215 countries and destinations for the Essentials, Magenta, Go5G, Magenta Max and Go5G Plus plans
- Text abroad: Free from more than 215 countries and destinations for the Essentials, Magenta, Go5G, Magenta Max and Go5G Plus plans
Before using Google Fi in 2016, I relied on T-Mobile when traveling internationally until I grew tired of slow data speeds. However, the plans have improved, and many travelers swear by T-Mobile as their international phone and data plan. T-Mobile customers can avoid slow data by purchasing international passes to add to their existing plan as follows:
- International 1-day pass: 512 MB of high-speed data and unlimited calling for 24 hours for $5
- Five-GB international pass: Five GB of high-speed data and unlimited calling for 10 days for $35
- 15-GB international pass: 15 GB of high-speed data and unlimited calling for 30 days for $50
Long-term and frequent international travelers should note that T-Mobile says the following about its plans:
Not for extended international use; you must reside in the US and primary usage must occur on our network. Device must register on our network before international use. Service may be terminated or restricted for excessive roaming.
Additionally, T-Mobile’s terms and conditions state you are not permitted to use T-Mobile services if it “results in more than 50% of your voice and/or data usage being Off-Net (i.e., connected to another provider’s network) for any 2 billing cycles within any 12-month period.” There have been instances of T-Mobile shutting down travelers for roaming excessively. So, don’t go with T-Mobile if your primary usage won’t be domestically on T-Mobile’s network.
Other international phone plans to consider
Finally, you may want to check your current provider’s options if you only occasionally travel internationally. Here are some options that are available as optional add-ons for many AT&T and Verizon plans:
- AT&T international day pass: Pay an extra $10 per 24 hours for unlimited high-speed data, talk and text in more than 210 destinations. You’ll only be charged for days (as determined by your local U.S. time zone) you use data, make or receive a call or send a text message while in a destination covered by the international day pass.
- Verizon TravelPass: Pay an extra $10 per day per line for unlimited calls, texts and data (data speeds decrease after two GBs in a day) in more than 210 countries. You’ll only be charged for days you send or receive a call, send texts or use data while abroad.
- Verizon international monthly plan: Pay an extra $100 per month for 250 minutes of talk, unlimited texts and unlimited data (data speeds decrease after 20 GBs in a month) in more than 210 countries.
You could also check out U.S. Mobile’s plans. U.S. Mobile plans don’t include calling or texting from outside the U.S. Still, the Unlimited Premium plan offers up to 10 GB of international data, and most plans let you buy eSIMs for more than 100 countries from within the U.S. Mobile app.
Mint Mobile could also be a viable solution if you’re on a budget and don’t travel abroad frequently. Although Mint Mobile doesn’t offer any international data, text or voice on its plans, you can purchase international roaming credits and then use them to text, talk and use data in more than 210 countries and destinations. Rates for talk, text and data vary based on the country you’re visiting; they usually cost about 25 cents per minute for talk, 5 cents per text and 20 cents per MB of data. If you don’t plan to use much data — after all, you’d be paying a massive $205 per GB in many countries — Mint Mobile could be a feasible option.
Most cellphone plans allow you to pay as you go for international use, but these rates are almost always excessive. As such, frequent international travelers should find a different solution because pay-as-you-go costs will add up quickly.
Having a functioning international phone plan when traveling abroad is important for travelers who want to stay connected. Traveling as a digital nomad, I’ve found Google Fi is by far my best option for fast data, modestly priced calling and free texting in most destinations. However, I supplement my Google Fi plan with eSIMs in some destinations to gain access to less-expensive data.
If you already have T-Mobile or a plan that offers international add-ons, you may want to stick with your plan. Otherwise, it’s worth considering an eSIM or a local SIM card. You can buy eSIMs ahead of your trip, and it’s usually possible to pick up local SIM cards at the airport when you land in a new country.