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Using Your Cell Phone Internationally

To use your cell phone oversees, you'll want to explore your phone options to make sure you have what you need for your international travel.

Young man in sports coat walking, looking at smartphone, and smiling.

There was a time when vacations meant getting away from it all. We could decamp for a remote beach, unplug and live in a world of blissful -- if temporary -- isolation.

Now that we're in the digital age, that notion seems quaint. We live, work and entertain ourselves on our smartphones. The thought of being unable to access them while traveling or living abroad is an unpleasant one for many of us. Additionally, our phones play an essential role as we try to navigate unfamiliar new environments.

With that in mind, let's take a closer look at what you need to know about cell phone service when traveling or living abroad.

Options for Overseas Cell Service

"Can't I just use my current phone when I travel?"

It's a reasonable question, and one of the first things any traveler or expat probably considers. Yet the truth is that cell phones don't always work seamlessly across borders. This is due in part to technological differences. Some U.S. wireless carriers, for example, use different systems than those found in Europe.

Newer phones generally have the ability to log onto multiple networks, so this is a problem that is more likely to afflict those with older model smartphones. If you're planning on traveling with your existing phone, it's essential to check and see if it is compatible with multiple networks (CDMA, GSM, etc.).

The other downside to using your own phone overseas is the potential for extremely expensive international data roaming charges. Some carriers offer free international roaming; others do not. It's imperative to determine your status before departure, as these fees are often very steep. It's also possible to purchase an international data plan from your carrier, though this is also fairly expensive.

Another option is the use of a pre-paid international phone. Today's lower-end cell phones are incredibly inexpensive compared to cellular products of just a decade ago -- you can purchase a phone and a data plan for well under $100.

Not only does this help you avoid compatibility issues and costly roaming fees, it also allows you to keep your primary (and likely far more expensive) phone in storage until you return.

There are some downsides, of course. Transferring contact information and other personal data is time-consuming and cheaper pre-paid phones lack the functionality of high-end smartphones. Yet if you're looking for the simplest option, this is it.

Finally, you can always choose to forego your cell phone altogether. These days, WiFi is so widely available that it's possible to skip the phone if you're going to be in large, urban settings. This is definitely the least expensive way to go, though you will spend some time seeking out free public WiFi. Security on public networks is also a concern for those who need to store or transfer sensitive data.

The Takeaway

Cell phones are an indispensable tool these days, so overseas travelers need to be diligent when exploring their options. By reviewing the information outlined above, you can make the appropriate choice for your international excursion.