And Wi-Fi dependence brings two more problems. First, availability varies greatly by country and region (you can check overall coverage on Wi-Fi finder apps or sites). Second, using public Wi-Fi can expose you to hackers; avoid it especially if you’ll be typing in banking and credit card information. If you want to eliminate much of that risk, read on.
T-Mobile and, since April, Sprint offer free 2G data service, free international text messaging and 20-cent-a-minute calling — with a couple of catches. First, it doesn’t work everywhere. Sprint’s plan currently covers just 22 countries, though that list will grow.
T-Mobile’s roaming is impressive if a bit overstated, covering 120 “countries and destinations” — not to be confused with 120 countries (Easter Island? Svalbard?) Check the lists to make sure your destination is included.
And, of course, that 2G connection can be painfully slow, though it is usually fast enough to use email and messaging apps. In my experience with T-Mobile, you’re frequently bumped up to 3G or 4G, but occasionally can’t connect at all. (If that happens, find free Wi-Fi and call your carrier through Skype for help.)
Upgrade Your Package
You can pay Verizon and AT&T for higher-speed international roaming packages, or pay Sprint and T-Mobile to upgrade to faster data. Some of those options are pretty good deals: Verizon’s monthly add-ons start with 100 megabytes of data for $25, and you can add 100 minutes of talk and 100 texts for an extra $15. (Again, check the list of countries.) AT&T has similar data packages, but they include unlimited texting. Both deals currently include free access to networks of paid Wi-Fi hot spots around the world. T-Mobile’s upgrade plans are more appealing than Sprint’s: 200 megabytes of high-speed data over one week for $25, good for a short trip.
You’ll also keep your own number, which means you won’t get a local number. But that is far less inconvenient than it used to be now that almost everyone abroad is using messaging apps.
International SIM Card
Lots of companies sell SIM cards that can be used in most of the world (or cheaper ones for Europe only): OneSimCard, Cellhire, Cellular Abroad’s National Geographic SIM, Telestial, the list goes on. Cards themselves usually cost about $20 to $30, often including some credit. And rates vary vastly by company and country, so make sure to check websites for details.
Pay special attention to the varied payment structures: You might prefer to prepay and let your balance tick down with use, buy a big chunk of data that will last for a while (but might go to waste), or pay per day for unlimited data. Also check if you can monitor your usage in real time, and take care if you choose to do automatic top-ups; it would be a shame if you were charged $79.99 for an extra gig as you waited in the airport for your flight home.
With a foreign SIM card, you won’t receive calls or texts coming into your home number. If that’s important, you can set up forwarding, which doesn’t always work, or frequently switch cards, which is a pain. You can get a dual-SIM phone (not for iPhones, though) or a two-SIM adapter, which can be awkward.
The smoothest solution is KnowRoaming’s international SIM “sticker,” which you attach to your current SIM card, magically turning it into two. The foreign SIM activates when you land in a different country, but you can manually flip back to your home SIM. It costs $29.95 plus usage, and rates are competitive.
If you’re headed to one or just a handful of countries, especially obscure ones not included in the above plans, consider purchasing a local SIM card.
The cheapest way to do this, at least theoretically, is to buy one when you arrive. This often costs just a couple of dollars (plus prepaid credit), but the ease of doing it varies greatly, depending on the registration process and access to English-language instructions.
Your other option is to order the country-specific SIM card before you leave, meaning it’s already registered and loaded when you land. Cellular Abroad, for one, offers a French card that gives you a month of unlimited calling and texts, one gigabyte of data and 110 minutes of free calls to the United States and Canada for $69.95 — not cheap, but perhaps worth it if it fits your needs.
Many of the same companies offer data-only SIM cards that are cheaper, generally, than those with a local number for calling and texting. They’re largely aimed at tablet users and are particularly attractive if you have T-Mobile or Sprint on your phone for cheap calling and free texting. Cellhire, for example, provides 200 megabytes of data for $25; it works across Europe and lasts 30 days.
There is also a free data-only SIM coming soon. It will be offered by Freedom Pop — which also provides free, but limited, domestic cell service — and includes 100 megabytes of high-speed data a month in a small but soon-to-grow list of countries.
For groups or travelers with multiple devices, a big money saver is to take those data-only SIMs and stick them in a Mi-Fi device — a personal Wi-Fi hot spot that is often less than $50. If your group is big enough and can live without a calling plan, that reduces costs significantly.
So, yes, it’s complicated; yes, you need to do your own research; and even if you’re thorough, there will often be hiccups on the road. Maybe we should try to get in touch with those aliens after all — if only we knew which SIM card has the best rates to the Andromeda Galaxy.Continue reading the main story
Turn off Data Roaming or prepare for a trip
Need to avoid roaming charges because you arrived at your destination without an international data plan? Turn off Cellular Data and Data Roaming.1,2 Open Settings and tap Cellular, or Cellular Data, or Mobile Data. Turn off Cellular Data, then tap Cellular Data Options and turn off Data Roaming.
Still planning your trip? Here are three ways to prepare:
Shop roaming plans with your carrier
Before you go: To avoid fees and higher rates, call your carrier or visit online to shop international roaming plans.
After arrival: Open Settings. Tap Cellular, or Cellular Data, or Mobile Data. Then tap Cellular Data Options and turn on Data Roaming and other settings suggested by your carrier.
Shop roaming plans with Apple SIM
Before you go: If you have an iPad with an Apple SIM, you can browse cellular data plans from select carriers in more than 90 countries, regions, and territories.
After arrival: Go to Settings > Cellular Data and buy a roaming plan that fits your needs.
Buy or rent local SIM cards
Before you go: You can usually3 buy or rent a SIM card for a specific country or region. Learn more from travel guides and websites related to the country or region.
After arrival: Replace your current SIM card with the new one. You'll need the original when you return home, so put your original in a safe place.
- When you turn off Cellular Data and Data Roaming, the cellular-data icon shouldn't appear in the status bar. Learn more about cellular data settings and usage.
- Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) doesn't support data roaming. While using data roaming on your iPhone, Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) will only be able to use Wi-Fi or your iPhone cellular connection.
- To use bought or rented SIM cards, you need an iPad (Wi-Fi + Cellular), unlocked iPhone, or SIM-free iPhone.
Check your data usage
If you exceed the data-usage limits of your international data plan, you might run out of data or notice slower network speeds. To check data usage, open Settings and tap Cellular, or Cellular Data, or Mobile Data. Then look under the Cellular Data heading.
Learn more about cellular data usage.
Get help when you have roaming issues during international travel
- Turn on Airplane Mode for about 30 seconds. Then turn it off again and let your iPhone automatically select the best network.
- If you see No Service in the status bar of your iPhone, open Settings and tap Cellular, or Cellular Data, or Mobile Data. Tap Cellular Data Options and make sure that Data Roaming is on. Then, to check that international roaming is turned on for your account, contact your carrier.
- If the date and time are wrong after you arrive, go to Settings > General > Date & Time. Make sure that Set Automatically is turned on.
Still need help? If so, here's what to do:
- Go to Settings > Carrier and turn off Automatic. Wait until available networks appear, which might take two minutes.
- Tap the carrier that you want.
- Go back to the main Settings screen and wait for your iPhone or iPad to connect to the network.
- If you still need help, try a different SIM card or contact your carrier for more information.