I’m an only child. In my almost thirty years, I’ve learned that all of the responsibility is on me. Without anyone else to think of, my parents worry about me gallivanting around the world, often alone, even though I’ve proven myself a capable traveler.
How can you affordably stay in touch while abroad? Most US cellphone carriers’ international roaming fees are punitive. Telcos have been known to markup the cost of text messages by 6,500% or more.
Can you really trust them to charge you fairly while traveling?
Over time, I’ve refined my international calling and texting strategy. Keep reading to learn how to make and receive calls and texts while abroad. Yes, you can be reached while abroad without passing along any costs to your friends and family at home.
What You’ll Need
The first step in this system is to have the right gear.
You’ll need an unlocked cell phone so that you can use prepaid, local SIM cards for calls, texts, and data.
In most countries around the world, you can buy a local SIM card, pop it into your phone, and be ready to make and receive local calls and texts cheaply. By using a SIM card with a data plan, you’ll be able to circumvent the carriers’ international calling and messaging prices.
Some carriers will unlock your phone for you if you explain why you need to unlock it. You can also find instructions online for unlocking (jailbreaking) your iPhone or Android phone.
You can buy an unlocked phone online, but they’re often very low quality or very expensive.
I recently discovered that the iPhone 5 and later models are unlocked global phones. I use Verizon in the US but can use local SIM cards while traveling without having to contact Verizon, pay anything, or do anything to my phone.
Extra Pack of Peanuts has a great guide to unlocking and using a SIM card with almost any phone.
Pick up a local SIM card at the airport when you land or at a phone store or convenience store.
Armed with an unlocked phone and a SIM card, you’re ready to set up this system for staying in touch.
Make Cheap International Calls
Set up your Skype account, if you don’t have one already, and buy Skype credit for calling internationally. Rates start at 1 cent per minute.
Calling the US costs 2.3 cents/minute but can be even cheaper if you buy a monthly plan of sixty or more minutes.
The Skype app works much like a native phone app. You can choose a contact to call or use the keypad to dial any number.
Per minute rates will be charged to your Skype account. The person receiving your call will not be charged anything.
Receive Cheap International Calls
Once again, Skype is the best solution. Using a Skype number to receive calls is the latest addition to my communication arsenal.
A Skype number is a local number in your home country that you can give to friends and family for contacting you while abroad.
A Skype number costs $18 for a 3-month subscription or $60 for a 12-month subscription.
The subscription will allow people to call you, without any extra charges, regardless of where you are in the world. By default, you will answer the call in Skype on your computer, phone, or tablet.
To make your Skype number even more useful, set up Skype call forwarding to your local, in-destination number. You’ll get this number when you set up your local SIM card.
Finally, use Skype’s Caller ID feature to set which number is shown when you call someone from Skype. You can show your original mobile number (from home) or your new Skype number. Use the latter so that people at home can easily return your missed calls.
Please note that with call forwarding, you will be charged Skype’s per-minute rates. However, all of Skype’s fees and rates are so low that this is more than worth the convenience.
With a Skype number and call forwarding, your friends and family can dial a local number in their home country and you can answer the call anywhere in the world.
It’s like magic.
The only cost is $5-6/month for a Skype number plus a few cents per minute for the forwarded call.
The simplicity and cost of this system still amazes me. Thanks, Skype.
Send and Receive International Texts
Phone calls aren’t always necessary. Sometimes you just want to quickly check in. Or send a picture of a funny sign.
The recent surge in popularity of cross-platform messaging apps makes sending texts or pictures easy and free.
I use WhatsApp, which is free to download then $0.99 after the first year. With over 450M registered members, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app.
Facebook recently acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion. That’s a b, not a typo.
Depending on where you are in the world and your level of disdain for Facebook, you may consider an alternative app. They all work and look the same. Use the one that your friends and family already use.
If you and the person you’re texting both have iPhones, you can use the native iMessage app for free over WiFi. Facebook Messenger is another option, although it may eventually be deprecated in favor of WhatsApp.
Download WhatsApp or your app of choice before you leave. Set up your account and invite anyone you want to stay in touch with to download it too.
Most apps look like your native messaging app with sections for contacts, chats, and settings.
The best part about these apps (aside from their price) is that you can use them from your 3G/4G data plan even while away from WiFi.
You can find links to our other travel app recommendations here.
Can T-Mobile Revolutionize International Roaming?
With Skype and messaging apps, staying in touch is now very easy. However, these are still workarounds. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to download anything or give your friends a new number to reach you.
US wireless carrier T-Mobile may now be the traveler’s best friend. I’ve been considering a switch from Verizon to T-Mobile for their new customer-friendly policies.
Then Nomadic Matt wrote about T-Mobile’s One Plan.
With a qualified plan, you get unlimited international data and texting. Calls are priced at $0.20/minute. The latter is about 10x the price of Skype but reasonable if used in limited doses. This plan works in over 120 countries.
I’ll be doing more research and possibly making the switch to T-Mobile this year.
Anyone else use T-Mobile? How do you like it?
With two apps and some work before you leave, you can make and receive calls and texts anywhere in the world without incurring exorbitant fees from your carrier.
Unlock your phone and use a local SIM card for calls and data.
For international calls, buy a Skype number and set up call forwarding once you have a local number.
For international messaging, download WhatsApp or an equivalent app, so that you can text and picture message for free without a WiFi connection.
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