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How To Use A Mobile Phone Abroad (Without Getting A Crazy Bill)

Planning on traveling abroad? Don’t forget about your cell phone usage. International cell phone usage can be very expensive if you don’t plan correctly. That is, if your phone even works at all. Here are some tips for making sure that you have an affordable working phone.

How to Use a Mobile Phone AbroadUsing a cell phone abroad can be a little tricky.

You might have heard horror stories of visitors having no way of getting in touch with people while traveling because their phones aren’t working. Or even worse, returning home from their trip only to find $4,000 phone bills.

But just like using a credit card abroad, it just takes a little preparation to ensure you have the best trip possible while keeping your finances safe. Here’s how to use a mobile phone abroad with no worries:

Be sure your phone is compatible

Bringing your phone on your trip may not even be an option. Some phones in the U.S. aren’t made for international travel and won’t work. Many phones from AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM (global system for mobile) and will work on your trip. But many phones with Sprint and Verizon Wireless are CDMA (code division multiple access) which isn’t meant for global travel. Call your carrier to see if your phone will work.

Switch to an international plan

Even if your cell phone does work, you definitely want to call your provider before traveling to see what the charges are for international calling. Some companies allow you to activate international calling for the duration of your trip to reduce massive phone bills.

But keep in mind that even if you are enrolled the international plan, it may not include the specific country you are visiting. Plus, you still can be charged per minute for talking on the phone. The best thing to do is call your provider’s customer service with your questions and to be aware of all the charges. Besides phone calls, ask what the charge is for text messages and data usage, which could be quite expensive.

Your carrier most likely has a guide for whether or not your service works in a specific country and how much international calling fees are for that country. Here are the international guides for the main carriers:

Consider purchasing a  SIM card

Depending on your phone, you may be able to replace the SIM card to avoid international calling fees. You can purchase a SIM card  in the country you’re visiting. This way, you’ll get a local number and you can call places in the country you’re visiting for a lower cost.

Turn off automatic updating and other data

Every time your get an e-mail or a Facebook update, you’ll be paying for it. Instead, go to the settings of your phone and turn off all automatic updating. When you call your provider, ask them about this, and they can walk you through turning off anything in your phone that is automatically updated or connected to data.

Buy an electricity converter

Don’t forget an electricity converter if you’re to traveling to a country that requires it. You’ll need this to charge your phone.

Don’t forget:

  • When you’re using your phone abroad, dial 011 before the area code to call the U.S.
  • Keep in mind that while “911” is the number to call for emergencies in North America, it isn’t a universal number. Find out what the emergency number is for the country you are visiting.
  • Store important numbers in your phone including:
    • U.S. Embassy
    • The international number for your credit card company and bank since the 800 number won’t work
    • The hotel where you’re staying and your airline
    • Local police and hospital where you’re staying
    • Any emergency contacts
  • Put these above phone numbers, as well as any other important numbers, at another place other than your phone. This way if your phone gets lost, stolen or runs out of battery life, you have access to them. E-mail them to yourself and an emergency contact back home and write them on a piece of paper to keep with your other important documents.

Alternatives to using your phone

If your phone doesn’t work abroad, there are other affordable options to keep in touch with family back home.

Skype  Download Skype to your laptop for video calls. As long as the person you’re trying to contact has Skype downloaded for free, you can call them.

Calling cards – Purchase a calling card to use at payphones or your hotel phone. You’ll have no surprise bill when returning.

What about you? Have you made expensive mistakes when using your mobile abroad? What would you recommend?

Published or updated on April 22, 2013

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About Kristen Kuchar

Kristen Kuchar, author of Mac n' Cheese to the Rescue, is a food and travel writer working with numerous notable publications on both print and online. A firm believer that traveling and great food don't have to compromise finances, she's always finding great ways to save. She is currently living in Chicago with her husband Mark. You can follow her on Twitter @KristenKuchar.


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  1. Natalie says:

    Hi! Another huge and often used option for internationally phone use is getting a temporary phone wherever you are traveling. You can prepay so you won’t get a crazy bill. I was reading this hoping to get more information on that. What info do you have on that? Thanks!

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