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Traveling abroad? How to choose between a SIM card, eSIM and international plan

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Kim recently got a call from Mary in Ventura, California. Mary had been on a trip out of the country when she was forced to re-route to Germany during a storm. Mary was using Consumer Cellular and couldn’t get her phone to connect to the free local Wi-Fi at the airport.

There was a long time between flights, and Mary was stuck. She got a hotel room to talk to her family and use the internet to pass the time. When she returned home, Mary asked Kim what she could have done in that situation. Here’s what Kim had to say.

Call your carrier

If you’re ever stuck abroad, the first thing to do is call your carrier. In Mary’s case, she needed to authorize Consumer Cellular to turn on her international plan. This would have let her call, text and use data internationally.

Some phone service providers have this turned on by default but others, such as Consumer Cellular, require you to opt in. Here’s how to turn on international calling and data services with some leading service providers. 

How to turn on international services with T-Mobile

T-Mobile offers free international texting and data in more than 210 countries worldwide. International calls cost 25 cents per minute. Data is free, but your connection gets throttled when you exceed the daily allowance (unless you pay to upgrade).

This basic coverage is included by default in the Magenta and Magenta Plus service plans. If you participate in one of those plans, you don’t have to call to activate it. 

T-Mobile also allows subscribers to purchase an international data pass that upgrades them to high-speed data while they travel. This add-on is available as a one-day, 10-day or 30-day package. 

  • Call T-Mobile customer service at 800-937-8997 if you are inside the U.S.
  • Call 1-505-998-3793 if you are already traveling abroad.

How to turn on international services with Verizon

Verizon offers several international calling plans to choose from. You can pick between a $10 per day Travel Pass, a prepaid plan, a pay-as-you-go plan or a regular monthly billing agreement. 

  • Call Verizon customer service at 800-711-8300 if you are inside the U.S.
  • Call 1-908-559-4899 if you are already traveling abroad.

How to turn on international services with AT&T

AT&T offers subscribers an international talk, text, and data pass that is good in more than 210 countries. It costs $10 per day to participate. Participation in this plan is not automatic, so you must turn it on by calling customer service.

  • Call AT&T Customer service at 800-331-0500 if you are inside the U.S.
  • Call 1-314-925-6925 if you are already traveling abroad.

How to turn on international services with Consumer Cellular

Now we get to Mary’s carrier: Consumer Cellular. Like Verizon and AT&T, the carrier requires you to turn on international roaming before accessing local services.

International roaming would have allowed Mary to connect to the airport Wi-Fi and make calls to her family. Consumer Cellular’s International roaming charges range from 10 to 50 cents per minute for talk, text and data. 

  • Call Consumer Cellular customer service at 888-345-5509 if you are inside the U.S.
  • Call 1-505-998-3793 if you are already traveling abroad.  

Consumer Cellular’s per-minute roaming costs can add up fast. Mary could also have considered getting a local SIM card or purchasing an eSIM code online if she needed to spend more time calling or surfing the internet during her layover.

Buy a SIM card at the airport

SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module. It’s a small chip that connects your phone to a local provider’s network. Overseas, Mary’s regular SIM card was like a fish out of water. Purchasing a local SIM card would have allowed her to access nearby networks. 

All you need to do is remove the sim card in your phone and replace it with the new one. An international SIM card costs about $30, so if you get one, make sure you’ll use it enough to justify the expense.

Mary was only going to be in Germany for a short time, so buying a SIM card would have been a bit of a waste for her. It still would have been cheaper than a hotel, though.

RELATED: 5 flight and airline scams to know about before you book travel

Purchase an eSIM card online

Mary could also have purchased an eSIM card online if she had known about this in advance. When you buy an eSIM card, it works like a fast pass for the local cellular network.

You set it up before you leave, and it works as soon as you land. It will also keep your original SIM information intact and running in the background. This means that your regular phone number continues to work as usual.

Here are some of the top eSIM options for overseas travel:

  • Google Fi – The Unlimited Plus plan costs $40 per line per month and includes coverage for overseas travel. Calls are still $0.20 per minute, but texts and data are free and unlimited. A flexible plan option includes free texts, 20 cents per minute calls and $10 per GB of data. 
  • HolaFly – Setup is as easy as scanning a QR code. Country-specific plans cost $20 to $47 per month and include calls, texts and up to 500MB of data daily. 
  • Tello – All Tello eSIM plans include free unlimited calling and texting to more than 60 countries globally with up to 5GB of data for around $20 per month. 

Make sure you plan, no matter which cell phone plan you use when traveling abroad. This saves you money and makes it easy to make calls once you get off the plane.

When Mary landed in Germany, it was too late for her to get things set up easily. She was in a tight spot, and her phone could not connect to the airport’s local Wi-Fi. There was no way to purchase an eSIM card online or look up the international customer service number for Consumer Cellular. 

You’ll want to take care of some other things before you travel. Try giving your credit card company a heads up and taking backup photos of your passport and other important documents, just in case.

Kim loves answering readers’ questions and enjoys sharing money-saving tech tips. If you have a question, you can ask Kim for advice at komando.com/contact-us/askkim.

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