I’ve been working with SAI students and their cell phone options abroad for almost 14 years now, and I can officially say it hasn’t gotten any easier over the years! With Europe finally getting rid of some roaming issues, things are getting better; however, there still is the difficulty with connectivity and the different band frequencies that are used in the U.S. versus abroad. Not to mention the issue of wifi availability with the ancient stone buildings in so many European cities. When it comes to cell phones, things just aren’t simple and there isn’t one size fits all!
I know what you’re thinking, your biggest fear is having to travel abroad without your smartphone: “I need to stay connected” “How will I call my family once I arrive?” “How will I contact my roommates or friends?” “How will I get GPS on my phone to navigate while I’m traveling?” Don’t worry, I completely understand – it’s almost like having to leave part of yourself behind when your phone isn’t traveling with you!
I’m sure you can agree that there is a strong sense of security when you have a cell phone that works abroad – it seems to just put you at ease (along with your parents, who are waiting for that call that you’ve arrived safely!). After all, SAI requires you to have a contact number while abroad for emergency purposes.
Well, I’m here to help!
First, take a deep breath, and think about what option you’ll want to take when it comes to your communications abroad. Consider:
- Will I need to use data?
- Will I need GPS access for traveling?
- Can I just get by with making calls and texts only, and not use data?
- Do I want the cheapest means of communication?
Answering these questions will help you decide whether you will need a data bundle with a small amount, or a large amount of data allotment; or just a simple call and text plan with no data (pay-as-you-go).
Here are your main options when it comes to cell phones abroad:
1) Bring your own phone and use your own U.S. provider’s international service:
This option means bringing your own smartphone with you and ordering an “international plan” through your own U.S. provider (i.e., Verizon, AT&T, etc.). This may be the easiest option since you are already familiar with your own smartphone, and it has all of your apps and contacts already installed. I can’t say it’s the cheapest option though, since the rates typically are higher than if you were to rent directly from a provider abroad.
2) Bring your own phone and rent an international SIM card from PicCell wireless or another provider abroad (Vodafone, TIM, etc.):
This option means bringing your own unlocked smartphone with you abroad and registering for a host country SIM card through PicCell Wireless or a local wireless shop upon your arrival (i.e. Vodafone, TIM, etc.). If you decide on this option, it may be more cost effective, however, you will need to make sure your phone is unlocked so the International SIM card will work. In addition, your APN settings will need to be setup upon inserting the SIM card (this is due to the different band frequencies that are used abroad). Sometimes the SIM will work without having to adjust your APN settings; if this happens, consider yourself lucky! Most of the time, this is not the case.
- If you choose to rent from PicCell Wireless, you can register while in the U.S. and receive your SIM card in the mail before you leave, along with your assigned number. You will be guided through the APN setup process during orientation; in some cases, a PicCell representative will be present during orientation for any questions or problems that may occur.
You will need to register with PicCell at least 14 business days in advance of leaving the U.S for this option (20 days in advance preferred).
- If you choose to rent/buy a SIM card from a local store such as Vodafone, TIM, etc., you will need to get this information directly from those providers. SAI on-site staff may be able to help you find the best options, but it will be your responsibility to compare offerings and make the final decision.
Just remember to get your phone unlocked, or the International SIM card won’t work! If you think your phone may already be unlocked, you can test it by taking out your SIM card and inserting one of your family or friend’s SIM cards with a different carrier than you to see if it works. If it does, then your phone is unlocked.
3) Rent both the phone and SIM card from PicCell or another provider abroad (Vodafone, TIM, etc.):
This is a good option for those who are unable or unwilling to unlock their smartphone, or those who want the cheapest means for communication (without data).
- If you just want calls and texts (no data), you can register for a basic phone and SIM from PicCell. This is the cheapest way to go, as the rental phone is free (paid for by SAI); however, you pay for traffic/usage of incoming/outgoing calls and texts. Note: some students choose to pair a basic phone with their personal smartphone used only when connected to wifi.
- You can also purchase a smartphone from PicCell to be used with a PicCell International SIM card (with data). The phone is yours to keep after purchase, but you will have to return the SIM card upon your return to the U.S. You will need to register with PicCell at least 14 business days in advance of leaving the U.S for this option (20 days in advance preferred).
- Or, you can rent/buy from another provider abroad (Vodafone, TIM, etc.). You will need to wait until you arrive abroad, and visit one of the local carrier stores to rent or purchase a local phone and SIM and set up your plan. Please note that, while you will likely get better rates and plans by using a local provider, SAI will not be able to provide assistance.
When to Decide:
Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?! This is a lot of information to take in, but it’s important to decide what route you’ll be taking ahead of time. That’s because if you go with using PicCell, the free shipping option runs out 14 business days before you leave. I can’t stress enough that this is business days, and does not include weekends or holidays, so it’s typically 20 or more days in advance you should be registering. Don’t wait until the last minute!
A few things to keep in mind:
- For security purposes, SAI requires that you have a functioning phone number abroad – we need to be able to reach you! If you make any changes to your cell phone plan, please don’t forget to let your SAI Program Coordinator know, as we keep your phone number on file.
- Do plenty of research ahead of time, and remember it’s completely up to you what route you choose to take for your phone.
- PicCell offers the convenience of receiving your items prior to departure, so when you touch down you’ll already have a functioning phone.
- However, using a local plan is usually the cheapest option. This option requires more effort, and potentially a few days of having to use your US number while you are working out your local plan options. In these cases, we recommend that you purchase a very minimal international plan from your US provider to hold you over until you are all set up abroad.
I hope this sheds some light on the subject and makes your decision making a bit easier. For more information on your cell phone options abroad, please see Cell Phones. If you have any questions or concerns, or just want to talk your cell phone issues out with someone, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My job is to make things as easy for you as possible, so you can focus on your studying and life abroad.
One more thing – I encourage you to use free communication apps over wifi as much as possible, as it’ll really save you money:
- WhatsApp – free calls and texts to other WhatsApp users
- FaceTime – free video chat (Apple only)
- Viber – free calls and texts to other Viber users
- iMessage – free texts (Apple only) – turn off “Send as SMS” in phone settings.
- Google Voice – free calls and texts to other Google Voice users
- Skype – free calls and messaging to other skype users