Understanding International Data Plans

Don’t Forget to Make Arrangements With Your Cell Provider Before Going Abroad!

It may seem like a simple reminder, but too many times my friends have asked me moments before their trip, “oh so what should I do about my phone?”


First step, start planning ahead of time. Depending on your phone provider, they may have incredible fees for just being abroad, let alone using any data. Call them or search online, but preferably call them and find out immediately what your roaming fees are, what your international data plan is and what speeds are offered. Here is a sample script that you can use if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Hi, I’m about to leave on a trip to ____(country)_____ on ____(dates)_____.

Is my phone unlocked, if not can you please unlock it for me.

Please tell me what my roaming fees are.

And what are the fees for calls, texts, and data usage?

How much data will I have per day?

What is the speed of that data?

How much will I be charged if I go over?

What packages are available for me to purchase?

How much will I be charged if I go over?

Depending on your phone provider, you may be shocked at the astronomical fees they charge you to use your own phone and data while abroad. If your phone is locked, you may be stuck dealing with these fees. If your phone is unlocked (meaning you can use any SIM card), you may be able to buy a local sim card when you travel. And if you are a bold explorer or a Luddite, you may want to forego the use of your data altogether.

Practical Reasons Why You Need Data While Traveling Abroad

Besides the obvious safety consideration, your trip may be a lot more difficult without the use of data.

  • You probably will be very lost and need a map (you can download this beforehand but it may be problematic still).
  • Wifi is scarce sometimes. If you are meeting up with fellow travelers, it is very likely you could be delayed, they could be delayed, and you end up missing connections. It is sometimes inconvenient to find and connect to wifi to message your companions.
  • Rideshare apps. Need to get somewhere fast? Luckily, Uber, Grab, MyTaxi, or some other ridesharing app will probably work in your country, but that needs data too.
  • Health reasons. Dietary restrictions mean you’ll need to google what’s in stuff so you don’t eat whatever you’re allergic too.

Buying A Data Sim While Abroad

If you are traveling to a country where data is cheap (like Malaysia or Thailand), it can be a great deal to purchase a local SIM card. They will often have kiosks right in the airport or in local malls where you can ask a few questions and buy a contract-less data sim for cash. They will need a copy of your passport, a picture works fine too. In my experience, the data offered at the airport is not too much more expensive than that offered in town. But do make sure to shop the providers in the airport against each other.

A local sim will allow you access to fast data and local calls and texts (like to a restaurant, coworking space, or Uber) for super cheap. Using this will avoid any roaming fees that may be assessed with your own service. The only downside is that you will miss the calls and texts that come into your regular number. There are a few ways around this:

  1. A dual sim phone. If your phone offers dual sim capabilities that means there are two sim slots in the side. You have the ability to choose which one you want to pull your data from and which one for your calls and texts. You will incur roaming fees if any, but your data can come locally, which is often the most expensive thing. I recommend screening your calls and returning them via Skype or email.
  2. A forwarding service. Some providers allow you to view your calls or texts online or have them temporarily forwarded to another number.  Call your provider to see if this is possible for you.
  3. My personal favorite is Google Voice. This is every traveler’s secret weapon. Google Voice offers you a phone number (sans SIM card) that is carried over WiFi. This means you can access it anywhere you have an internet connection. So here’s how to set up your Google Voice account, and here is how to forward your calls to it.

Who offers the best international data plan?

In short? Google Fi.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with your traditional service provider and feel like taking a bit of a risk, I get it. I was too, which is why I switched to Google Fi. As I write this, they offer unlimited calls and texts for $20 a month, with data added for $10/GB with a monetary cap at 6GB. And the kicker is, it’s the same deal internationally. This is pretty much unheard of, because since Fi’s selling point is they use multiple carriers towers, their speeds are fast. How fast? Check out the Points Guy’s article on comparing it with Sprint in Europe. Spoiler: Fi wins by a landslide.

Interested in making your international experience way better? You can sign up for Fi with my affiliate link and we’ll both get $20!

Enjoy your trip! And don’t get caught with surprise roaming fees!

Leave a Comment