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Always Connected: Finding the Best Mobile Phone Plans for Expats Traveling the World

July 4, 2016 expats / retirees

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Finding the Best International Phone Plans for Expats who Travel

Mobile phone plans for expatriates, especially those who travel for work, need to be chosen carefully.

Price is an important selection criterion, but not the only one. Reliability and reach (the number of countries available) can make or break a plan’s usefulness.

Country by country, plenty of deals can be found. Some offer cheap data, others cover international roaming, and some give you unlimited SMS and voice call minutes.

Here is what you need to know to navigate your options.

A Guide to International Roaming Plans, Sim Cards and more

If you’re travelling internationally for a short period of time, a new plan isn’t always necessary.

As long as your phone isn’t locked to a specific carrier, you can simply buy and insert a SIM card from a local carrier into your phone. If your older phone has a slot that’s too big for the SIM card, ask the provider for an adapter, a sort of frame that you fit the card into, and then slide it in.

“Most carriers will simply request passport information in order to obtain a local SIM,” confirm Mackensie Graham at The Next Web. “However, in countries such as Germany, Italy or India, some providers will only sell SIM cards to those who can show proof of residence. Other carriers who will sell to travelers can take anywhere between a few hours to a day to activate the SIM.”

If you buy a card before you leave, Graham advises, you avoid that lag time, but you’ll need to plan for the time it takes to have the SIM card shipped by the reseller.

Dual-SIM phones are another option. These are not only for travellers, but used by people who want the same phone with two service contracts, one for work and one for personal use.

Marie Brewis at Tech Advisor says the phones are also “ useful for maintaining two personal contracts … whereby one might offer a good rate on calls and texts, and the other offers unlimited data.” In the case of people who travel abroad for work, you can carry a local SIM for “for when you’re at home,” writes Brewis, “and another that is local to the country you’re visiting.”

When abroad, simply buy minutes in that country.

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Will my phone work abroad? Check out these tips

Since April 30 of this year, expats in EU countries have been protected from those shock bills experienced mainly by vacationers from outside the European Union. When you’ve got a mobile phone plan local to your EU country, and you’re using your phone in other EU countries, there’s a cap on how much you can be charged. Even better, as of June 15, 2017 roaming fees will cease to exist.

With the current cap, EU roaming fees for UK customers have been reduced by just more than 70 percent, writes Sean Keach at Trusted Reviews. He also says you don’t have to wait 12 months to get free roaming: “Roaming is already free, if you know where to look. Both Three and Tesco Mobile offer free roaming in a wide range of European countries (and beyond).”

Another method to foil roaming fees is the OneSimCard, an international card with two numbers, one for your home country and another in your choice of 60 countries. According to its Twitter feed, the company is currently giving “new customers in the UK a UK mobile number along with a European mobile number.” OneSim claims that by using their card, you can save as much as 85 percent on international roaming charges.

Yes, T-Mobile is International

Germany’s T-Mobile gets many recommendations from travelers for its 3G speeds.

T-Mobile’s customer service team tells us that anyone with a plan on the company’s network has access to EE in the UK, Telekom in Germany, T-Mobile in the Netherlands, and T-Mobile Polska in Poland.

Two major European countries, France and Spain, aren’t yet covered, but T-Mobile’s customer service team notes the company is “always growing.”

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Alternatives for Expats in France or Spain

In France, “you are likely to pay more for calls outside of an unlimited call package than if you used an expat specialist company,” says Bob Elliott, commercial director of UK Telecom and FrenchEntrée contributor.

“All the main French companies have products that are bundled to appeal to the French market which has a different call pattern made by the average customer and certainly few if any calls to overseas non-geographic marketing numbers used by banks, insurance companies etc.,” Elliott writes.

The team at Typical Non Spanish lists the four main phone and internet providers in Spain that offer packages (Movistar, Vodafone/ONO, Orange and Yoigo), with a shout-out to Pepephone, one of the smaller regional companies. Pierre-Alban Waters at Moving2Madrid also recommends a smaller provider, Tuenti, saying the “the big guys are 2 to 3 times more expensive than this contender.”

Other Options

If you prefer to use apps to stay in touch, Sophie-Claire Hoeller at Business Insider recommends you try Truphone. She calls it the best app for making international calls, and while it’s a bit under the radar, Truphone is “widely considered Skype’s biggest rival.” Truphone “lets you make free international calls over Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G to other Truphone users. However, you can also use the app to make super cheap calls to the less enlightened in your circle who don’t have Truphone (yet).”

Getting advice from other expats and travelers as to which carrier, plan and SIM card works best for them is probably the best way to find a solution that fits your situation. Another method is to find a site that compares services, such as Australia’s WhistleOut, where you can find a service provider or product that works for you. WhistleOut’s Alex Angove says “that visitors from most of Europe and Asia will be able to use an Australian SIM card in a phone they already own.”

No Phone? No Problem

If you’ve arrived at your destination and don’t have a phone that works in that location, there are workarounds. In his guest post at Nomadic Matt, Dave Dean from the travel tech site Too Many Adapters writes that you can buy a disposable phone, rent or buy a portable hotspot, or use a tablet with cellular capabilities.

And if you have to go Wi-Fi hunting, it’s not the worst thing in the world, he adds. “Your smartphone will still connect over Wi-Fi just fine, so replace calling with Skype or Google Voice, SMS with WhatsApp, and download a bunch of offline travel apps to use when you’re away from a signal. You’ll be surprised how well that approach can work, and not getting notifications all the time is quite refreshing.”

images by: Wilfried Thünker, Pexels, Kevin Phillips

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