Going on an extended international trip? Get a local SIM

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers two travelers some insight on the best ways to save money on their wireless service while traveling abroad.

It's taken a while, but it's finally getting easier and more affordable to use your cell phone almost anywhere in the world.

Network and device technologies have evolved, making it simple and cost-effective to pop a SIM card into almost any unlocked phone and get service, whether you're an American traveling abroad or a foreigner visiting the States.

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In Europe, roaming fees have been slashed. And in the US, wireless companies have begun designing more affordable international roaming plans for traditional postpaid customers, as well as prepaid and SIM-only offers that can be used by travelers as well.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice to two travelers looking for the best deals. One is a US college student heading to Europe for the fall semester, while the other is a US expat returning home for the summer.

If extended international travel is in your future, check out the column for some tips and useful information.

An American abroad

Dear Maggie,

I am going to be a junior in college this fall, and I will be studying abroad in England for the semester. I have an iPhone 4S from Verizon, which Verizon has told me can be used internationally. The customer support person I spoke to said I just need to call them and have it unlocked.

My real question is what should I do for service. I have read your article on CNET about different cell phone options for going abroad. It seems like for my situation the best choices are either an international SIM card or a local SIM card. My worry is that with a local SIM card, if I travel to another country in Europe for a few days, I won't be able to use my phone.

Also, if I get a local SIM card, I am unsure if that will allow me to text people in the US or not. I mostly use my phone to text and check social media and emails. I was wondering if you could answer some of these questions or have any other recommendations?

Thanks,

Mike

Dear Mike,

The most cost-effective solution for you is to go with a local SIM card while you're studying abroad. That's because you're going to be in the UK for an extended period of time, which means that roaming from a US carrier, even with an international plan, will be very expensive. You could get an international SIM card, but that also will cost you more over this longer period of time than if you simply get a local SIM card.

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CNET Screenshot

I reached out to my CNET colleagues in the UK to ask them which service would be best for you given your situation. And they recommend you get a SIM card from the carrier Three. Not only does Three offer terrific rates for prepaid customers, you could also do a month-to-month postpaid service that might give you more voice and data to use for a more affordable price tag. Since you will be in the UK for at least a few months, even a month-to-month service could offer you a better-than-typical prepaid plan. In order to figure out which type of plan is better for you, you'll have to look at what's offered and think about how much voice, data, and text messaging you plan use each month.

Three is also a good choice for you because it has a program called Feel at Home that will allow you to use your Three service in several other countries without incurring hefty roaming charges. It works for prepaid deals as well as for the contract plans.

The free service covers 16 countries, including France, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Italy, Austria, and Ireland. The way it works is that you will be able to use the voice, text messaging and Internet data service that you get with whatever package you sign up for in the UK when you're traveling in these countries.

The program works in several Asian countries too, as well as the US. But I'm guessing most of your travel during the semester will be in Europe. It's a little annoying that the Feel at Home program isn't offered in every European country. For instance, it's not available in Spain or Germany, even though it's offered in France and Austria. But it's still better than nothing.

The other good news for you is that the European Commission has recently reformed roaming rates among various European countries. The result is that as of July 1 of this year, roaming charges for voice, SMS text messaging, and data service are dramatically lower than they had been.

Thanks to to these new rules, it will cost you no more than 19 cents a minute to make a call and no more than 5 cents a minute to receive a call. And text messages will cost no more than 6 cents to send or receive. The biggest cuts in roaming come to data service, which has been nearly halved. Rates used to be as high as 45 cents per megabyte and now they can only be as high as 20 cents per megabyte.

What this means for you is that even if you're in a country where Three's Free at Home program isn't available, roaming won't break the bank.

One thing that my UK colleagues pointed out to me is that to benefit from the Feel at Home program, you have to be a Three customer for at least 30 days. So just keep that in mind if you are jetting off to another country your first month into your study abroad program.

Now onto the second part of your question. What should you do about staying in touch with friends and family in the US? Unfortunately for you, calling and texting friends and family in the US from the UK will still be a bit pricey. But with Wi-Fi and an inexpensive data plan you can get around these costs.

For instance, you can use voice over IP services like Skype to make phone calls using your data connection or a free Wi-Fi hotspot. And you can use apps, such as WhatsApp, to send text messages over the Internet without incurring the expensive text message fees from your carrier.

And since you have an iPhone, you can also chat with other iPhone users using iMessage. This app also uses the data network instead of a carrier's SMS network to send texts. And you can also FaceTime with other iOS users, which also uses data instead of the traditional voice network.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck during your semester abroad!

Coming home

Dear Maggie,

I am originally from the US, but my husband is from the UK. We moved to England last October to be closer to his family. This summer I am going back to the States with my 2-year-old daughter to visit with my family for the month of August.

I know that you have offered other people advice about taking their US cell phones to Europe, but I was wondering if you could help me figure out how to get cell phone service using my UK smartphone here in the US. Should I get a local SIM card? Buy a cheap prepaid phone from Wal-Mart? Or would it be better for me to keep my UK plan and roam while I am here?

The only person I'll likely be calling back in the UK is my husband, and we'll probably just use FaceTime so he can chat with our daughter. I will mostly need my phone to make plans with friends and family while I am visiting for the month.

Let me know what you think.

Thanks!

Homesick Expat

Dear Homesick Expat,

If it's possible to get your existing iPhone unlocked, I'd say the best option for you is to simply get a prepaid SIM card when you come to the US.

You will be assigned a US phone number, which you can give out to friends or family. If you have a Google Voice account, you can also use that number with your new SIM card and existing iPhone.

If you are a Three customer, you would be able to roam for free here. But it only allows you to call other UK numbers as part of the plan you subscribe to in the UK. If you call US numbers, you'll be charged heftier fees. Since you need this phone mainly to make plans and catch up with friends and family here in the US, the US SIM card is a better bet for you.

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CNET AT&T screen shot

Because your UK iPhone uses the GSM network technology, you will only be able to use your phone with another GSM service in the US. This means the main carrier options you have for buying a SIM card are AT&T or T-Mobile, and any of the prepaid brands that use those networks. For instance, AT&T recently bought Leap Wireless's Cricket brand. The Cricket service now offers nationwide GSM and LTE coverage using the AT&T network.

T-Mobile also bought MetroPCS, another regional wireless operator, and it offers lower cost plans via this brand too. There are also several resellers using T-Mobile's network.

All of this is to say that you should check out your options. See which service offers coverage where you need it, and then compare the prices. In general, AT&T is going to offer better coverage than T-Mobile, which is mostly confined to offering service in cities. So if you will be traveling in and out of major cities or to more rural areas, I'd suggest going with AT&T or a brand that uses this network.

AT&T's GoPhone service is very reasonable, and it should be easy to find an AT&T store to get set up with your service. If you think you will be talking, texting, and using mobile broadband a lot, you can sign up for a monthly plan. The $60 a month plan will give you 2.5GB of data and unlimited voice and text messaging.

If you don't think you will need that much data, voice, or text messaging, AT&T also offers less expensive packages starting at $25 per month. You could just do the traditional prepaid model and pay only for what you use.

The best way to get this service started is to go to your carrier in the UK and make sure your iPhone is unlocked. Then when you arrive in the US, you can swing by an AT&T store and pick up your SIM card and set up your service.

Keep in mind that depending on the model iPhone you have and the GSM carrier you choose in the US, you may not get 4G LTE service. You should still be able to access 3G data. But if you find your mobile data service slow, find a Wi-Fi hotspot for most of your Net needs.

I hope this advice was helpful. Safe travels to the US, and enjoy your visit with friends and family!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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