Ask Help Desk: How to use your phone while traveling abroad

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After a rocky start to the summer travel season due to high prices and crowded skies, the prospect of relaxing in some far-flung locale seems just a little more attainable. Flights are getting cheaper, at least by a little. And for now at least, the dollar is on par with the euro, a feat that has some people thinking about ways to make the most of it abroad.

The euro is equal to the dollar. Here’s why it matters.

For some of our readers, dealing with this wanderlust has them wondering what they should do with their phones when traveling overseas. And unfortunately, finding the right answer can be trickier than people expect.

Why? Well, the “best” solution hinges at least a little on your travel style. And it doesn’t help that the roaming deals offered by U.S. wireless carriers aren’t always straightforward.

That’s where the Help Desk comes in. We put together a brief guide to walk you through the options for staying connected while living your best tourist life. If you have treasured technology travel tips of your own, share them with us at yourhelpdesk@washpost.com.

In the meantime, here’s where you should start.

If you have a plan with AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, and you passed a credit check when you signed up, you have the most options available to you. Other services, like Mint Mobile and Consumer Cellular, have roaming plans that charge you for every little thing. And some brands, like Tracfone, don’t have roaming features at all.

Once you know what you’re working with, take a moment to think about your travel style. Are you a loner, content to stay off your phone and live as the locals do? Or are you more of the travel influencer type, meticulously documenting each moment online?

Some of you may even want to disconnect entirely, which I can confirm is a wonderful way to spend a vacation. In that case, consider leaving your phone in airplane mode, disable data roaming and jump on WiFi networks when the need arises. (Just be careful about what you do while connected to them.)

Weigh your international options

Not all wireless plans are created equal, and the way they think about international roaming can differ pretty wildly. Here’s how different companies handle it.

AT&T and Verizon are pretty similar

If you get a monthly bill from AT&T or Verizon, you have access to day passes, a very convenient international roaming feature. AT&T lets you use your devices the same way you did at home for $10 a day for the first phone and $5 a day for each additional one. Verizon offers the same feature for $5 a day per phone in Mexico and Canada and $10 a day everywhere else.

The benefit? You can send and receive calls and text messages with your existing phone number, plus use your mobile data at reasonably fast speeds for online browsing and streaming.

The problem is that these can get expensive pretty fast, especially if you have a whole family that wants to stay connected. At least AT&T stops charging for day passes after 10 days — Verizon keeps you that daily rate as long as you keep using your phone, though some of its 5G plans let you earn and save day passes for use on your next trip.

These companies offer some alternatives, but they come with their own (frustrating) limitations.

For AT&T customers who want to go without day passes, their only choice is to pay for each text and each minute of a phone call at obscene rates. Verizon mostly works the same way, with one twist: It offers an “international calling” feature for $100 per line that gives you 250 voice minutes, 1000 text messages and 5 gigabytes of data. In a word, ouch.

T-Mobile is easier, but comes with a catch

T-Mobile customers have it a little easier, since most of their plans have some free international features built in. The Essentials plan gives you free unlimited texting while abroad and charges calls at 25 cents a minute. The Magenta plan offers the same thing but adds unlimited data at 2G speed. Meanwhile, customers on the most expensive Magenta Max plans get those same features but with slightly faster — but still pretty slow — data service.

Even then, expect some frustration if you want to do more than basic online browsing, since T-Mobile says the standard speeds on those Magenta Max plans are far less than 1 megabit per second.

More than a few Help Desk readers have recommended Google Fi, a phone service that offers a lot of flexibility overseas. Under the company’s “Flexible” plan, you pay a set amount per month for each phone line — for one person, it’s $20 — plus $10 for each gigabyte of data you use in a month.

A few things make Fi a tempting choice for international use. First, you pay that same $10/GB of data whether you’re at home or cycling the winding roads of Girona. Google will also stop charging you once you’ve used a certain amount of data — for individuals, the cap is 6GB, or $60. You also can pause your service for up to three months at a time.

The catch? Google really doesn’t want you to use Fi solely for international use.

The company’s support website says if “a majority of your usage occurs outside of the United States over a consecutive 90 day period, you may have your international capabilities suspended.” Google is cracking down on how frequently you can pause your Fi subscription, too: “repeated or extended pausing may result, at our option and sole discretion, suspension of your Google Fi account,” says the company’s terms of service.

If you were thinking about using Google’s phone service full-time anyway, its international flexibility is a great perk. Otherwise, you may want to skip it and take our next suggestion instead.

Consider local phone service

If none of your wireless carrier options feel like a great fit, I’d recommend buying a SIM card from a local cell service provider once you arrive. Do a little homework before you fly and you stand to save a lot of money.

In Hong Kong, a favorite haunt, $15 gets you 8 gigabytes of data to use for Web browsing and calls through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram over eight days. In France, Orange offers “holiday” SIM cards that give you unlimited calls and texts inside Europe and buckets of data you can still use if you head to another European country. If you can, buy these from a local carrier store instead of generic travel SIM cards at the airport.

The only real downside is that you have to use a different phone number while abroad. That could get confusing for people you try to contact, and you cannot easily access passcodes sent to your usual phone number via text.

Taking advantage of them requires some prep work. First, you have to make sure your phone is unlocked. That means it can accept SIM cards from different carriers and work on their networks properly. Most American wireless carriers do not sell unlocked phones, but if your account is in good standing, you can request that AT&T or T-Mobile unlock a phone you bought from them. Verizon phones, meanwhile, are automatically unlocked after 60 days.

Alternately, if your finances allow, you could buy a separate unlocked phone for use while traveling. If you use a prepaid phone service like the ones we mentioned earlier, you could also buy an unlocked phone for travel, after checking its compatibility with your provider, that is. Prefer to stick with your own phone? Your provider may agree to unlock it for you.

Mint Mobile will unlock a phone you purchased from them if you meet certain criteria. After a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission a few years ago, the parent company of Tracfone is mandated to do the same. Since that company runs other brands like Straight Talk Wireless, Simple Mobile and Net10, you can ask it to unlock a phone you bought from any of them.