Explained: International Phone Plans For Travelers

This guide will cover the differences between European phone plans for travelers of every kind, to help you save money and stay connected.

No matter where in the world you’re going, it has become essential to stay connected to the online world too, for navigation and moving with ease. In this article, I will go over the things to know ad consider when purchasing international phone plans for travelers, to keep you connected without paying more than you need. 

Changing to a phone plan that works where you are can be confusing, overwhelming, and can get extremely expensive if you don’t know what to look out for. Keep reading to understand the different digital elements at work and some of the best options to consider

Getting the best phone plans in Europe is essential for affordable travel.

Table of Contents

Will My Phone Work Abroad?

Luckily with the globalized world we are in now, there is a lot in place to make it easier for us to stay connected. This makes it easier to switch phone plans to fit where you are, but there are some key definitions and things to understand to navigate the confusing language that phone carriers use, so you can pick the best plan for you!

Phone Plan Basics

A phone plan is a general term for the essential services of the phone, either through call & text, or data. They are definitely not synonymous and one may be much more important than the other! It’s essential to assess what you need available on your travels and make sure to adopt a new phone plan that works best for you. 

Almost every phone plan comes with a call & text plan, which is the allotment of minutes you can spend talking on the phone and the number of messages that can be sent and received within a specific time. With many smartphones, there is unlimited call & text per month, so you don’t even have to worry about it! However, this is something that is not included in every travel phone plan. There are usually limitations to where you can call, for instance, you likely will not have unlimited calls overseas. 

The data plan is set in terms of gigabytes (GB) for a period of time (10 GB/30 days) or it can be unlimited so you can connect without any limits! This is what connects you to the internet and allows the use of Google Maps, searching on a web browser, and using social media platforms. If a phone plan doesn’t include a data plan, then it can only connect to the Internet via WiFi (and hotspots).

Mobile Technology - CDMA vs. GSM

When mobile communication was created and widely used in the 1980s, there were different technologies that dominated the industry, including CDMA and GSM. This is essentially the way that cellular devices (phones) communicate to get an internet connection- or frequency bands – associated with the second and third generation (2G and 3G). So, when your phone is on 3G data, it is either using CDMA or GSM technology.

CDMA phones can connect to CDMA networks, and GSM phones can connect to GSM networks. We can leave the specifics of how that communication works up to the engineers, and just go over which carriers use which communication technology.

Since the technologies are different, they aren’t always interchangeable. It’s important to know which technology your phone uses, and where that will and will not work. Newer devices are capable of working on both, so this shouldn’t be a concern for too many people unless your phone is older.

Unlock Phone

Many phone carriers “lock” a user’s phone so that it cannot be switched to another carrier. For example, if you purchase a phone with Verizon, it is ‘locked’ to the Verizon company for 60 days after purchase. This becomes a major barrier in switching phone plans while traveling but can be dealt with with a few steps. Historically, unlocking a phone while still under contract would have voided the contract, but most carriers have gotten away from this so you can take control of where you can use your phone, and with what company. In fact, many companies sell their phones unlocked! The process depends on the carrier, and further guidance can be found from the experts here

*You cannot move forward with some of the options until your phone is unlocked!

Read More - Check out this article to see all of the Essential Phone Apps for International Travel!

International Phone Plan

Many phone plans have built-in international coverage, which may include the areas you’re traveling. For example, many phone plans in Europe include coverage within the EU, and phone plans in the US often include coverage in Mexico and Canada. You should definitely look at your current plan’s coverage to see what is offered because it might already be the solution you’re looking for! 

It is important to note that these plans often limit you in data usage at 4G/5G rates, and then kick you down to 2G/3G. With everything, read the fine print to know what this is actually going to look like while in use, and understand if it will meet your needs!

When traveling outside of the regular coverage areas, many domestic phone plans have International Plans made for use while traveling. This is usually a daily fee for a certain amount of minutes/texts, and the same amount of data that was on your domestic plan. While this is a very convenient option, it can get ridiculously expensive, especially if you’re traveling for more than a few days. For example, in the US I used Verizon, which has an international plan called ‘Travel Pass’, where I could essentially have the same benefits of my plans at home anywhere in the world for an additional $10/day. This was useful for the first day that I landed since we didn’t have any internet connection to get to the bus stop and to our Airbnb, but would have cost a fortune to use any longer. 

Summary - International Phone Plan

PRO's
  • Great for short-term travel (< 3 days)
  • Most convenient
  • Contact with home country
  • Keeps home country phone number
CON's
  • Typically very expensive (roughly $10/day)
  • Cookie-cutter plans
  • Data limits

Local SIM card

If you’re traveling for more than a few days, the recommended option is to go with a local SIM card. SIM stands for a Subscriber Identity Module, which connects the phone to a wireless network provider and stores information like account info and subscriber phone number. By purchasing a local SIM card for your destination, it is essentially getting a local short-term phone plan and a local phone number! There are a few considerations to make when going with this option. When you change your number, you no longer can send and receive messages and calls from everyone back home with your home country number, however, you can call and fully immerse in the destination so you can call a restaurant or a taxi company.

Without a SIM card, your phone is essentially a camera that is WiFi dependent for anything else! Most wireless providers offer various plans for data packages and length of time. This option makes it very affordable to select a plan that is specific to your travels and at a reasonable price. A SIM card can be physically inserted into your phone, and many newer smartphones have eSIM compatibility which can be purchased and installed virtually, so you’re ready to travel before leaving home!

Check out my articles on phone plans for specific countries to get helpful suggestions and discounts!

Physical SIM

Historically, SIM cards have been physically inserted and removed from the phone, allowing it to change plans. To do this, a user would need to purchase a SIM card beforehand online or find a seller in the destination country to purchase a SIM, and manually switch it out. Most providers have plans specific to travelers (3 days up to a few months), so you can the plan that fits your schedule and data needs. 

One major perk of getting a physical SIM is it can include call & text AND data (unlike an eSIM). While this is a relatively easy option, you may be stuck without data when you land in a foreign place if you didn’t set it up before you left! With some older phones, the physical SIM is the only option, which can be purchased online and shipped to you before you leave. Many major airports sell SIM cards (at a slightly higher price), or you can navigate to a local telecom store to start a new plan. 

*Many websites and apps use 2-factor identification through a text message to your registered phone number. By switching your SIM card, you will not receive these messages which can be a headache to deal with!

eSIM

Luckily, newer phones have adopted an eSIM capability, or electronic SIM. This allows the transition to a foreign phone plan to take place online, and be activated when it is needed! eSIMs essentially work the same as a physical SIM with a few differences. 

An eSIM is purchased through a company that works with a specific provider. For example, you wouldn’t purchase an eSIM through T-Mobile, you would get it through a company like Nomad which uses the T-Mobile network. So an eSIM includes a middle-man, which is super helpful since the company is usually specialized in just eSIMs for better customer service! Since an eSIM is embedded virtually into a phone, it can work with the physical SIM, so you would receive messages to your old number as well!

*There are some settings to ensure you don’t get astronomical international roaming charges, by keeping all data restricted to the eSIM.

One major difference between a physical SIM and an eSIM is that eSIMs do not have options for call & text, since it doesn’t give you a local number. This is a DATA-ONLY option! This may prevent you from calling local restaurants, a taxi company, or anything else in your destination country. An option to get around this issue is that local places are often on WhatsApp in many countries where tourism is popular. WhatsApp is an essential travel app to stay connected, especially without a local number. 

eSIMs are made for travelers, so the options are much more flexible and convenient for you! This includes regional plans that extend beyond a specific country’s connection so you can move across borders without worrying about your internet connection. An eSIM plan can be purchased on your smartphone, and activated at any time within 30 days of purchase! 

Summary - Local SIM Card

PRO's
  • More affordable than International Plans with a domestic service provider
  • Customizable packages for specific needs
  • Transfers to a local phone number (SIM)
  • A lot of options
  • Easily activated from your phone (eSIM)
  • Regional and global options
CON's
  • Requires additional planning & activation
  • Transfers to a local phone number (SIM)
  • Doesn’t include local call/text (eSIM)
  • Risks non-coverage period if not purchased before leaving home country
  • Risks losing domestic SIM (your old number would be gone forever)

How To Purchase an eSIM

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It is now easier than ever to update your phone plan to meet your needs almost anywhere in the world, with eSIMs. Unless your travel requires a reliable way to call & text locally, an eSIM is the way to go. On our global adventures so far, we have found most places in traveled areas have WhatsApp, so this hasn’t been a problem at all! 

While the following list doesn’t include all of the companies that offer eSIMs, they are the most popular with the best service options. This list includes Nomad, Airlo, and HolaFly.

Once an eSIM plan is purchased online, you will have an activation period where a QR code can be scanned, or a code entered online to activate the purchased data plan. The apps will guide you through the settings on your phone to help you switch your data plan from the physical SIM to the embedded eSIM so you avoid any unwanted roaming charges. All 3 of these companies have great apps for Android & iPhones, where you can purchase and activate your plan, monitor your data usage, and manage your account. 

Nomad

Nomad is a great option for travelers enjoying long-term stays since almost all of their plans are for a period of 30 days, with the option to add additional data. This option also has regional plan options for APAC, Nordic, Oceania, and Europe, which can all be scaled up or down depending on needs. For example, the Europe plan can include either 25 or 35 countries so you can save money if you don’t need the full coverage. 

For additional savings, use the code TAYL58RX at checkout to save $3!

Country-Specific [Example]
  • 1 GB / 30 Days = $5 USD
  • 3 GB / 30 Days = $11 USD
  • 5 GB / 30 Days = $16 USD
  • 10 GB / 30 Days = $24 USD
  • 20 GB / 30 Days = $34 USD
Regional eSIM [Europe Example]
  • 1 GB / 7 Days = $6 USD / $9 USD
  • 3 GB / 30 Days = $14 USD / $17 USD
  • 5 GB / 30 Days = $17 USD / $18 USD
  • 10 GB / 30 Days = $24 USD / $26 USD
Global eSIM [109 countries]
  • 1 GB / 7 Days = $20 USD
  • 3 GB / 30 Days = $48 USD
  • 5 GB / 30 Days = $54 USD
Nomad eSIM is a great option as a phone plan in Europe.

Airlo

Airlo has a large variety of service options for over 85 countries globally. Through Airlo, you have the option of selecting a country-specific phone plan or one of their regional or global options depending on your travel schedule, including Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, LATAM, and MENA. While Airlo has a lot of plan options, it does NOT offer unlimited data plans. 

 

For additional savings, use the code TAYLOR8492 at checkout to save $3!

Country-Specific eSIM [Example]

  • 1 GB / 7 Days = $4.50 USD
  • 2 GB / 15 Days = $8 USD
  • 3 GB / 30 Days = $10 USD
  • 5 GB / 30 Days = $14.50 USD
  • 10 GB / 30 Days = $24 USD
  • 20 GB / 30 Days = $33 USD
Regional eSIM [EUROLINK Example]
  •  1 GB / 7 Days = $5 USD
  • 3 GB / 30 Days = $13 USD
  • 5 GB / 30 Days = $20 USD
  • 10 GB / 30 Days = $37 USD
  • 50 GB / 90 Days = $100 USD
  • 100 GB / 180 Days = $185 USD
Global eSIM [85 countries]
  •  1 GB / 7 Days = $9 USD
  • 3 GB / 15 Days = $24 USD
  • 5 GB / 30 Days = $35 USD
  • 10 GB / 60 Days = $59 USD
  • 20 GB / 180 Days = $89 USD
Screenshot from Airlo phone application to demonstrate esim uses

HolaFly

HolaFly is a great option for any traveler who wants to have Unlimited Data while abroad. This is a great option for Digital Nomads who want to guarantee a stable connection or anyone who wants peace of mind while traveling! Unlike Airlo and Nomad, HolaFly doesn’t offer a Global coverage package, but there are country-specific and regional packages, with no difference in price. Since there is no difference in data allotments, the plans only differ in the number of days of coverage. 

Country-Specific eSIM & Regional eSIM Example

  •  5 Days = $19 USD
  • 10 Days = $34 USD
  • 15 Days = $47 USD
  • 20 Days = $54 USD
  • 30 Days = $64 USD
  • 60 Days = $84 USD
  • 90 Days = $99 USD

Summary - International Phone Plans for Every Traveler

Phones have become a necessary tool in this digital age, and they allow us to expand our experiences through research, documenting, and sharing our travels. Having a phone plan that is reliable and works for your needs can mean the difference between rushing around from WiFi hotspot to hotel for a connection, and enjoying the journey worry-free. Luckily there are a few options to choose from to guarantee you’re connected no matter what. Although you can keep your domestic plan with International Travel add-ons, this option is definitely expensive, which is why I recommend going with an eSIM. 

By going with the eSIM option, it will allow you to manage your data without any language barriers or delays, and ensure you’re getting the best deal for what you need! Although this doesn’t allow you to have a local number, by pairing the eSIM with WhatsApp you will have full connection to everyone and most local places too!

Read More - Check out the other Necessary Steps to Start Your Slow Travel Journey.

Posted by Taylor Mallaber

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