Studying abroad is a valuable and enriching experience, and a smartphone can be an essential tool to have on hand while exploring a new country. It can help navigate foreign streets, translate languages, find the best places to eat or shop, and decipher tricky public transportation systems.
But to use all these great features, and to stay in touch with family and friends back home, you’ll need a phone plan that works for your situation.
Two options include getting a short-term international plan from your U.S. provider or getting a phone plan in the country you are visiting. Consider the pros and cons of each of these options and find tips to understand foreign phone plans, so you can decide on a plan that meets your specific needs.
Get an international plan with your current carrier
An easy option is to activate your U.S carrier’s international plan, allowing your phone to work in your new country exactly as it does at home. You get to keep your number, and it doesn’t cost friends and family back home anything extra to contact you. Keep in mind that an international plan will cost more than your domestic cell phone plan.
Some carriers offer a flat daily fee that lets you use the talk, text, and data that is included in your current plan, while others charge a certain amount for minutes, texts, and data. Ask your carrier about your international options and whether your current phone will work in the country you’re visiting.
Use WiFi and VoIP apps
One way to help limit your costs is to use WiFi as much as possible. Do your research ahead of time to see if free WiFi is available where you’re staying or studying.
If you can rely on WiFi, use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) apps that offer voice and video options, such as Apple’s FaceTime, Microsoft’s Skype, or Google’s Duo to call home. Messaging services like iMessage on an iPhone, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger can also help you avoid racking up extra charges for texts.
Just remember to turn off any automatic settings that use cellular data, such as app updates, before you connect to WiFi to prevent any unintended charges.
Choose a phone plan in your new country
A less expensive option is to get a phone plan in the country you’ll be living in. You’ll need a new, local phone number, meaning anyone that calls you from home will be calling an international number (unless they use a VoIP app). On the plus side, calling anyone in your new country won’t cost as much.
You’ll need a phone that is compatible with international SIM cards. All recent iPhones will work, and any Android phone that has a SIM slot will likely work (remember to check ahead of time).
Your phone will need to be compatible with the network in the country you are visiting, and you’ll also need to check that your phone is unlocked before you add a new SIM card. If your phone doesn’t fit these criteria, consider buying an inexpensive prepaid phone once you reach your destination. Prepaid phones are easy to get and can be found at most airports and at many convenience stores.
To get the best deals on a local plan in a foreign country, you need to have a local address and the ability to set up recurring payments. This means you’ll probably need to wait until you’re in the country to set it up. Research your options ahead of time so you can activate your plan as soon as you get there. Some plans might require you to sign a one-year contract, or you could opt for a monthly pay-as-you-go plan.
A pay-as-you-go SIM card is easy to buy and lets you add the amount of data, minutes, and texts you want. The options can range from unlimited data, text, and talk for a set amount of time to paying just for what you use, when you use it.
Having access to a cell phone while studying abroad can make it easier to navigate your new country and stay in touch with family and friends back home. Research and consider your options for an international phone plan ahead of time to take the stress out of planning, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the experience.
Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and contributor for Xfinity Mobile. She writes about mobile phone technology, consumer tech, small businesses, and green living for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications.