Avoid a phone bill shocker when going country-hopping

Everyone knows that using local SIM cards while traveling abroad is the cheapest option, but what if you're hitting multiple countries on your trip? CNET's Marguerite Reardon lays out your options.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read
Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Nippon News/Corbis

Spring break is almost upon us, which means it's time to dust off your passport and get traveling.

I've got a few tips to make traveling overseas with your cell phone a little less scary. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice about using your carrier's international service plan versus an international SIM card.

Dear Maggie,

My family is going on a European vacation this summer, and we'll be visiting several countries. I'm making reservations for various hotels and activities now, but so many places are asking for a cell phone number. I'm not sure what to do. Should I give my American cell phone number? I don't want to spend an arm and a leg on cell phone bills. I'm pretty clueless when it comes to technology and phones, so let me know what I should do.

Cautious Traveler

Dear Cautious,

You have a few different options for your travels this summer. You can absolutely give out your US phone number and use your existing phone and wireless plan while traveling abroad. But that's not your only choice.

You can also order in advance an international SIM card that you can put in your unlocked phone and use while traveling. This option will give you a European phone number, which may offer lower roaming rates than your US wireless operator. You'll have the SIM before you leave the US, so you'll be able to give out the number ahead of your trip. It will also allow you to prepay for your service, which may help you stay on budget while traveling.

Here's what you need to know to figure out which option is best for you. First, think about how you plan to use your phone while you're traveling. Do you plan to make local calls and to text with people while in-country? Do you need a phone to stay in touch with loved ones back home? Or will you mostly be using your phone to post pictures to Facebook and Instagram and to look up information about restaurants and other local sightseeing opportunities?

After you've thought about how you plan to use your phone, you can start comparing rates. Keep in mind that data usage is likely to be the most expensive aspect of roaming internationally, so using Wi-Fi wherever you can is best.

US carriers and international plans

Your normal wireless plan isn't going to work overseas. Instead, you'll be charged extra for any usage. Some operators, like T-Mobile and Sprint, offer customers free texting and data. But the data speeds are limited and you must check to make sure you're traveling to countries included in this plan (you can pay extra for higher speeds). AT&T and Verizon charge a separate fee for their international plans, which give reduced roaming rates.

Local SIM cards

Lots of people recommend getting a local SIM card when traveling abroad. This is usually the least expensive way to use a phone while traveling internationally. But it makes sense only for people who expect to stay in one country, and only if the stay is longer than a week. If you're visiting several countries in a short amount of time, it doesn't make sense to pick up a new SIM card in every country.

International SIM cards

Fortunately, there's another option. Companies such as GoSIM will send you an international SIM card in advance of your trip. You preload it with money, and it will tick down the amount as you talk, text or use data. It's a good idea to check the roaming rates on these cards before you purchase. Sometimes they're more than the rates a US carrier offers as part of its international roaming plans. But often they can offer deep discounts.

There are other advantages to using an International SIM. The GoSIM offers customers two phone numbers that can be used simultaneously. You get a UK number with a +44 number and a US number that starts with +1. This is helpful because it means you can have your US number forwarded to your +1 GoSIM number, so that friends calling you from the US don't have to pay for an international call. And at the same time, you can give out the European +44 number to local hotels, restaurants or any other local establishments that need to reach you on your travels. Both numbers will reach the same phone. Also you'll have these numbers ahead of time, so you can give them out as you make reservations.

One more piece of advice

One thing to keep in mind while using your phone abroad is that you may not always have access to the fastest 4G LTE network speeds available. This can be a big bummer if you're used to speedy networks in the US. That said, whether you're roaming with a US carrier or using an international SIM, you should be able to get decent coverage.

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.