I get a ton of really interesting questions from readers every day. They usually come piling in from Facebook or land in my email, and even if I can’t get to every single one of them, I try my best to relay as much info as I can. One really interesting question showed up recently that I just have to take a moment to address. It comes from my friend Steve, who writes:
“I’m preparing for a trip to Spain and Portugal in a few weeks. I have an iPhone 7 with AT&T, and because of my contact AT&T will not unlock my device. I’m trying to find an affordable way to have cell phone access while overseas because, unfortunately, the Internet is a necessity and it’s very expensive.
The most cost-efficient way is to buy a SIM card when I arrive and pop it into my phone (on average it’s less than $100), but AT&T won’t unlock my iPhone because I’m in a contract. I’ve reached out to family and friends for an unlocked phone, but no one has a spare or a device compatible with the European carriers (GSM).
Several things I’m considering are renting a phone, paying my contract’s ETF, purchasing a factory-unlocked phone, or purchasing an international plan on my US line – all of which are not cost-friendly of at least $150.
Are there any options I’m missing you can recommend?”
This is a fantastic question! The quirks of taking your phone along to another country can make things pretty complicated, especially if your phone’s locked. Having an unlocked phone means that you can use any SIM for any network, anywhere, rather than be tied to a single network. This is fine, as long as you have your carrier do it. Carrier unlocking frees up your phone, while Bootloader unlocking, or jailbreaking in Apple-speak, lets you to load custom software onto your phone. But it also negates warranties and getting help from Apple if the device malfunctions, so I recommend Carrier unlocking all the way!
As Steve notes in his question, picking up a SIM card when arriving to your destination is usually the cheapest, easiest way to continue your cell service as you travel abroad, as long as your phone is unlocked by the carrier. But — and this is a big “but” — you have to have your phone totally paid off or pay the remaining balance on the cost of the phone before you’re allowed to unlock it. Bummer!
If your phone is still locked by the carrier, and you’re still paying it off, you can still use it as you travel, but things get slightly more complicated. Here are your best bets:
Believe it or not, the big-name wireless carriers don’t actually want you to ditch your precious phone when you hop on a plane to another country. That’s why the two biggest carriers have temporary international passes available, and for very reasonable prices. Here’s how it breaks down:
AT&T: International Day Pass. $10 per day for full service to over 100 countries. You only have to pay for days when you actually use the service — so if you find yourself hanging out by a hotel pool with wifi for a day or two, you don’t even have to pay the day pass fee. List of countries is available here.
If you’re a Sprint customer, you can check out the multi-country data roaming add-ons that are available for between $30 and $80, and if you’re on T-Mobile, the company has a special web tool that lets you put in a country and get the best rate or specific plan available.
Wifi and VOIP
For many travelers, especially those on vacation, calling around, surfing the web, or playing with apps isn’t a super high priority, and can usually wait until you’re relaxing in your hotel, resort, or bed-and-breakfast. If that sounds like you, you might not need to worry about day passes at all, because wifi can really save the day.
Using a wifi connection along with Facebook’s voice and video calling features, Skype, or any other internet-based calling apps lets you have the same conversations you’d have while using your cellular service, without the added cost. Of course, with a wifi connection, all your data needs and covered, too, which means updating apps, sending photos, or posting things to social media are all totally doable.
Have any other thoughts on traveling abroad with a cell phone? Be sure to let us know by sending a comment or email!
Steven’s followed-up with a few more tips he picked up going through this process:
“Hey Jenn: Thanks for the article! I heavily appreciate your suggestions! I ended up getting my phone unlocked by switching to T-Mobile.
Although T-Mobile offers free data/texting in 140+ countries, they have two promotions where you can BYOD from any carrier and they’ll reimburse you for the ETF fees. A catch is if you’re not a Verizon customer (“switch from the red” promo), you need to get a phone from TMO; I got a $75 flip phone, and I’m still shocked TMO still sells them. So far, I’m quite happy with T-Mobile because their coverage is almost identical to AT&T and their monthly rate is much cheaper! If you know anyone who is thinking of doing the same, please let them to know it is much easier to pay the fees off and unlock the device before switching! If not, AT&T will give you the runaround like they did with me yesterday.”
“I should note since I am getting my phone unlocked, I purchased a Three.co.uk pre-paid 30-day SIM card from Amazon for $40 which includes 12GB of high-speed data (I think it’s only 4G, not LTE), 3000 text messages and 300 minutes of calling. Three also has free roaming in a handful of countries so I’m able to test it out here before I go!”
THANK YOU Steven – we loved hearing from you and expect photo updates during your trip! Have a great time!!!