How to Use Your Cell Phone Anywhere in the World

See recent posts by Margot Bigg

Want to stay connected overseas without having to buy a new phone? Here are a few handy methods for using your cell phone anywhere in the world. 

Switch up your SIM.

Photo credit: mroach, Flickr

Photo credit: mroach, Flickr

For years, one of the biggest issues faced by U.S. travelers attempting to use their phones overseas was the fact that many American carriers — including Sprint and Verizon — use the CDMA network type rather than the more global, GSM network standards. Without getting too technical, CDMA phones don’t generally use SIM cards while GSM phones do (note that some newer CDMA devices now have SIM slots to enable them to access the 4G network, and a few models can be used on either CDMA or GSM networks). In other words, if you have an older phone and use Sprint or Verizon, chances are you might have to purchase a new device while overseas or simply stick to using Wi-Fi. 

However, if you do have a GSM phone (if you use AT&T or T-Mobile, you likely do), getting phone service overseas is as simple as inserting a new SIM card. Well, almost. You’ll still need to make sure that your phone is unlocked; if you bought it outright from your carrier, the unlocking process likely will involve a phone call asking your provider for an unlocking code, but if you are locked into a contract and have yet to fulfill the minimum terms of said contract (often two years of service) or if you are still paying your phone off, the process might be a little more complicated. 

The bottom line is that if you want to get a new SIM (or micro SIM or nano SIM as the case may be) to be able to use your phone abroad, make sure your device will support it before you leave home. 

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Make you home plan an international plan.

One of the easiest ways to lose a lot of cash on your next overseas trip is by using your phone on roaming mode; some carriers charge huge amounts of money for even the simplest services — such as making a quick call to check your voicemail or even receiving a text from a loved one. But while using your phone on roaming overseas is far from ideal in nearly all situations, there are some cases where it might not be such a rotten deal. When it comes to international texting and data, T-Mobile is easily the best provider, and those using the provider’s Simple Choice plans can get free unlimited texting and data around the world. AT&T offers one-time and recurring add-ons, or Passport packages that come with varying amounts of international data, free unlimited texting, and discounted calling rates. Sprint and Verizon also offer packages for the Americas, but given that they are limited by their use of CDMA networks, frequent international travelers should probably avoid these carriers to begin with.

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Embrace Skype.

Photo credit: Kārlis Dambrāns, Flickr

Photo credit: Kārlis Dambrāns, Flickr

International travelers have been using Skype to phone home for years, and if you have it on your phone you can either use it to videoconference other users or simply rely on it more like a phone over the Wi-Fi network. While it’s free to call other users over the platforms, you can also call phones directly around the world for a minimal per-minute fee; you’ll just need to load up on credit ahead of time (minimum is $10). As long as you keep using the service, your credit won’t expire (and if it’s about to, Skype will send you a reminder that its time to make a phone call — even calling a random number and hanging up will do the trick). 

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Use instant messaging platforms to text.

In many parts of the world, pay-as-you-go plans are the norm and unlimited texting is not. In places where cell phone users are charged a fee for each text they receive, texting apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Viber are super popular, and though you’ll need phone service for the initial setup, once the app is installed and your account is verified, you can easily text across the platform any time you are connected to Wi-Fi. Just make sure you download one (or all) of these popular apps before you leave home; while app popularity varies from country to country and between age groups, WhatsApp is the world leader, with around one billion users as of 2016 (for some perspective, that’s nearly 15 percent of the planet’s population). 

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Take your maps offline.

Google Maps is easily one of the handiest smartphone mainstays for overseas travelers, but you may be surprised that it can be used offline, at least in some places. While the process for doing so varies slightly from device to device (and, in some cases, depends on what version of your device’s OS you’re using), you’ll generally need to pick a location, zoom to the area you want to save, and then download it for offline use. While it works pretty well in major Western European cities, do note that you may not be able to download maps for places that use different alphabets. 

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