In this day and age, having a working smartphone is a necessity. Whether it’s contacting friends to meet up, finding a good local restaurant, or even uploading a new selfie to Instagram, our lives are driven by constant connectivity. Although short term vacations can be a good time to disconnect from the constant buzz of notifications for a few days, longer stays ultimately require finding a way to get online again. In this post, I’m going to tell you how to make sure you can affordably use a smartphone anywhere in the world.
The first step using your phone internationally is checking to see if it is network unlocked. Many carriers lock your phone to their network if it was purchased through a payment plan, so be sure to call your provider and ask if you can get your phone network unlocked before leaving home. In some cases, you may need to pay off the remainder of your balance before unlocking the phone, so be prepared to explore some other options if you are going on a shorter trip.
My personal recommendation especially to frequent travelers is to buy a phone that is network unlocked out of the box and buy a cell phone plan separately. This can be somewhat more expensive upfront, but buying international versions of phones that are network unlocked will save you more money down the road. For a specific model, I recommend the OnePlus 5T. It has some of the best specs all around in the market right now, comes network unlocked out of the box, has the fastest charging speeds of any phone on the market, has dual sim capabilities so you can keep your old sim in your phone, and it sells for a much more competitive price than other flagship devices (looking at you iPhone X).
The next step in ensuring you have a good connection abroad is checking which carrier bands your phone supports. This is where it starts to get messy. As a brief overview, the two main radio systems that cell phones use for communication are CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobiles). Most of the world uses GSM due to the fact that Europe mandated the technology by law in 1987, but CDMA is still used extensively in the US by carriers like Sprint, Verizon, and US Cellular. To summarize the most important aspect, GSM phones store customer information on a removable sim card while CDMA phones can only be switched by the carrier. The easiest way to make sure your phone is compatible with a specific carrier in a new country is using a website called www.willmyphonework.net. Not only does this website let you know if your device will work across all networks (2G, 3G, and 4G LTE) it will also tell you which frequencies are used by that carrier. This is especially useful because you may find that some carriers support your phone model, but some provide you with only 3G while others will ensure you get 4G LTE speeds. So if you are paying for 4G speeds, make sure your phone is actually supported at those speeds to get what you pay for.
The final step is finding a plan that works best for you. This can depend greatly on where you are going and the length of your stay, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll try to offer a few starting points. If your trip is shorter than a week or two, it may be worth calling your provider to see what their international rates are and pay as you use it, but roaming data is generally extremely limited in quantity and speeds, which will result in very expensive overage charges if you are a heavy user. The next best option is to buy a local prepaid sim, and there are plans that can be purchased for a week or even up to a month directly at the airport. If you take this route, just do some research beforehand to make sure that you are getting the best deal and coverage based on your phone model and budget.
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