International Roaming

Oh, you'll have to pay extra for roaming data outside the U.S. — the question is how much​

We're headed over to Germany next week for IFA — and we're also doing a bit of talking about carriers and how they work this week as part of Talk Mobile 2013, so it seemed like a fine time to take a look at how the major U.S. carriers stack up when it comes to data overseas.

It helps to remember how all this stuff works. Back in the early days of cell phones, you'd be (more or less) confined to a restricted region. Stray outside that region, and suddenly you're "roaming." What that really means, in a nutshell, is that your carrier then has to pay another carrier for your phone to work. And that costs money.

Fast forward a few years, and those roaming charges disappear. "Free roaming." Now, we just use our phones wherever the hell we want to in the United States. And that's the way it should be. But head outside the U.S. of A., and suddenly you're roaming again. And that means it's time to pay the piper. You might get slightly lower rates in Canada or Mexico (thanks, neighbors!), or you might not.

International data isn't cheap. Your best bet is to find a local prepaid SIM card. But that's not always easy — and there's really something luxurious about stepping off a plane, firing up your phone ... and it just works.

And so we've gathered up the international data rates for the four major U.S. carriers — Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. These are all with various international "plans" that you'll add to your account (with one pay-as-you-go exception for Verizon), and so if you're not consistently heading outside the U.S. on a monthly basis, you'll need to be sure to turn off the service once you're home.

In October 2013, however, T-Mobile changed things up a bit by offering free international data, albeit at a much slower speed than that you'll get in the U.S. Still, it's free.

Here's how it all stacks up:

AT&T

  • $30 for 120 megabytes
  • $60 for 300 megabytes, plus 1 gigabyte of AT&T International Wifi
  • $120 for 800 megabytes, plus 1 gigabyte of AT&T international Wifi
  • No overages, you just get charged for another cycle's worth of data.

Sprint

Canada/Mexico

  • $30 for 55 megabytes
  • $75 for 175 megabytes
  • $125 for 325 megabytes
  • $4 per megabyte if you go over

Multiple-country pack

  • $40 for 40 megabytes
  • $80 for 85 megabytes
  • $10 per megabyte if you go over

T-Mobile

As of Oct. 20, 2013, customers on Simple Choice and New Classic plans will receive free data outside the United States. But it comes with a caveat — speeds are limited to 2G, or around 128 Kbps, much slower than what you'd be used to back home. But, hey. It's free.

We'd recommend one of T-Mobile's international data passes, however. Available are:

  • Single-day pass: $15 for 100MB
  • 7 day-pass: $25 for 200MB
  • 14-day pass: $50 for 500MB

For our money, we'd just go with the $50 option.

If you're on a legacy plan, you'll instead pay:

  • $10 per megabyte in Canada on Rogers
  • $15 per megabyte everywhere else

Verizon Wireless

  • $25 per 100 megabytes
  • No overages. You just get charged another $25.
  • If for some reason you want to pay as you go, it's about $2 in Canada, $5.12 in Mexico and $20 per MB in the rest of the world.

The bottom line​

Again, folks, when traveling outside the United States, it's cheaper to get a local SIM card, if you can. We also recommend staying on Wifi whenever possible. 

If you just have to have roaming data, though — and there's nothing wrong with it so long as you're willing to pay up — it's important to do the math. Sprint and T-Mobile are significantly more expensive than AT&T and Verizon. Not that you'll likely have much of a choice when it comes to switching carriers just for overseas use, but comparisons are good.

And as always, if you have any questions about using your phone overseas, check with your carrier. Here's where we compiled these pricings from:

 
There are 44 comments

markbc says:

Great information and good advice.
You do need to unlock your phone (best prior to travel) if switching sims and even if you plan to use the carriers international roaming, you need to ensure it's active when you get there (awkward to call back from Hanoi or Hong Kong and try and get it added or turned on to your service!).

nexus15 says:

It's worth reminding sprint and Verizon customers this is only if the phone works Overseas. Most don't.

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Adnoxaei says:

Thankfully, many recent Verizon LTE devices are SIM unlocked "world phones" right out of the retail box. 13 of the 23 current Android devices they sell are unlocked GSM capable world phones. I feel like Verizon should be advertising that they aren't as incompatible as they used to be...

My Galaxy SIII even has GPRS/EDGE/GSM (850/900/1800/1900); HSPA/UMTS (2100). It's nice to know that I can take it overseas with no issues.

mhmmdy123 says:

Sprint phones working Overseas better than in USA and it has clear voice too.
But when I travel always I use Wi-Fi or, just buy me a cheap phone for the time I am in the country I`m going to. It`s way much cheaper than any carriers.

singelectric says:

... or buy a Nexus or any unlocked device and just get a local SIM card. That's what I do, and it has never failed. Google Voice is also great if you're US-based, since you can still check voicemails using your data plan, and send and receive SMS from your Google Voice #.

NoNexus says:

Quite honestly if I were to spend greater than a week in a country outside the US, I would buy a nexus and get a simple when I get there. Or buy a throw away phone in the airport

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icebike says:

Keep your old phone in working order.
On a month long visit to Great Britain, my wife was the only one of her party that had a unlocked phone and a "3" sim for something like $25.

The others were afraid to turn their phone on.

Just when you need Google Maps is not the time to have it become way to expensive.

Schattenan says:

Man Phil, you will have a tough time in Germany. Alex has a far easier and better experience due to the fact that the EU limits roaming costs to around .50€ per MB. Still very expansive...

jwyche007 says:

Holy shit you're better off buying a nexus and a local Sim then going with T-Mobile.

#HOLOYOLO

NFLPLAYBOOK says:

At those prices the question becomes, is having a fun while traveling really even worth it. I would rather go phoneless than to pay that. If I owned a business and one of my employees handed me a bill for data like that I would fire them.

mmark27 says:

Local SIM, or which is often easier, a MiFi device. Japan is the best for this, Europe, meh. Eitherway, a MiFi will share that data with your lappie toppie and or tablets too. Just my $0.02

geoff5093 says:

I'm glad so many new phones from Verizon are coming SIM unlocked these days, even for domestic SIM's.

DannyAves says:

If you have a business you can get the T-Mobile Open Europe data plan which is valid in 28 countries and gives you unlimited data but the first 500MB at 4G for $50.

I used it this year in 6 countries in Europe including Germany.

dovlek says:

And this is why CDMA sucks!

NoNexus says:

Umm T-Mobile is gsm and they with sprint are the most expensive This way. Looks to be 50/50 to me

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dovlek says:

I mean locked devices! Lol

exdroid says:

I think USA is the only one that still uses cdma while the rest of the world uses gsm.

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cliberti says:

Japan is CDMA only

CDMA is also prevalent in Zimbabwe. Of course there is gsm here too ;)

mhmmdy123 says:

It`s depend on how much do you travel! If you`re not traveling out the USA you`ll be okay... In this case the CDMA it`s a good phones and good carriers. If, you`re traveling a lots go with GSM.

VMdoug says:

I have 9 different local (country) SIM cards I carry with me. Google Voice is great as well as Skype. I forward my US number to Skype when I'm traveling, then I can forward Skype calls to the number for the SIM card in that country. Yes, you get charged by Skype but it's like $0.02/min so it's not much and you don't miss calls (you just get calls at odd hours). All the SIMs and call forwarding isn't exactly "easy" but it sure beats paying the data rates quoted above.

Gekko says:

how easy is it to "get a local SIM card" and what is that cost for example in Mexico?

NoNexus says:

They have them in the airport but you can get them cheaper in the Mexican equilivent of a 7/11

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Gekko says:

sweet. i could use another trip to Cabo or Cancun.

nilleo says:

I went to Europe this summer, and just walked into a cell phone store to buy SIM cards. Reading and discussing the details and fine print in a foreign language is a bit of a challenge, but I found that most people weren't out to screw you when you tried to explain what you were looking for. Some countries even had a phone store within the airport. I had a really good experience with Vodafone SIMs. The worst experience buying a SIM was in Spain where the sales man told me I'd be getting data, but then it turned out I needed to pony up another 10 euro to "activate" it; conveniently, he didn't mention this until I had paid him the 5 euro for the SIM and activated it.

dovlek says:

I just got one from México, 200 pesos and you have 500 min 100 txt and 250mb data

Gekko says:

"Take note, however, that Mexican police hold no quarter with gringos. Make sure to keep your head about you while you sin to avoid paying bribes or serving jail time for bad behavior. Sinning the rest of the time is easy; just say, "Dos cervezas, dos disparos de tequila y dos mujeres por favor.""

i love Mexico.

cliberti says:

Can't speak for every part of the world. IN the UK they have vending machines in the airport with all types of SIM cards on multiple carriers. Another thing to mention is that all recent Verizon phones have the SIM slot unlocked as required after they picked up some spectrum.

android_app says:

Got a telcel sim card last week due to work trip. 4 bucks for the Sim. 15 bucks for 1gb of data. Bought it at the airport.

greatgoogly says:

One thing to remember is Germany has some pretty strict laws as to who can purchase any sort of phone plan there, even prepaid. Not to say some sellers won't fudge, but as a general rule you have to show an ID that has a German address and possibly give a German bank account number. They may have loosened these up to include citizens of the EU, but Americans trying to pickup a prepaid SIM may ran into trouble. One of the reasons that I switched to ATT was because T-Mobile basically gang rapes it's customers on roaming data at $15 per MB. Yeah, $120 for 800MB on AT&T is pretty expensive, but I at least won't end up having to file bankruptcy for using it. 800MB on T-Mobile would be $13,200!!!! Especially outrageous considering T-Mobile is still owned in large part by the German company Deutsche Telekom!

Definitely, the only way to go here is a local SIM and an unlocked device (or perhaps just rent a local phone in the airport). This is true even if you have to spend $199.00 on a Nexus 4. The international data rates on any carrier in the U.S. are just plain silly.

Ningboren says:

I am with Verizon and when I went to China in 2009 it was about $45 a month for unlimited data; but when i went back to China in 2011 i have to shut off mobile data on the phone and using Wi-Fi wherever I can.

planoman says:

I travel to Europe occasionally and buy the data SIM. Was just in Denmark last week and bought a Telus 3GB data SIM for about $25 USD. Use skype for calls and of course gmail. Used my S4 and the speeds are pretty good. But then again they have wifi everywhere in Denmark. On trains, buses...literally everywhere!

outlooker says:

So T-Mobile charges $1500 for 1GB of data on international roaming? You could buy seven Nexus 4s at that price!

Posted via a naked Nexus 4 running 4.3 (No cover for me!)

Channan says:

$15 per MB x 1024 MB = $15,360

:|

Compared to ... well ... pretty much every other countries' carriers ... all carriers in the US suck. On a trip a few years back, needed to make a 40 minute phone call over AT&T. Keep in mind that I had already paid AT&T extra so that talking in a foreign country wouldn't be considered roaming. That 40 minute call was almost $400. In retrospect it would have almost been cheaper to buy an unlocked cell phone in the country that I visited and just use their carrier. Which is what I did on later visits ;)

Will never, and I mean NEVER, buy a carrier locked phone ever again.

For between $20-30 USD you can get a sim card in the Philippines with 20Gb of data that is good for a month. Only stipulation I found was that you could only use 800Mb of it a day. Still, if you need more, just go get another sim...

Panther353 says:

One other option, rent a mobile WiFi device. I do this when in Japan for about $100 USD per month unlimited data. I can use my phone, tablet and notebook where ever I go.

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Panther353 says:

One other option, rent a mobile WiFi device. I do this when in Japan for about $100 USD per month unlimited data. I can use my phone, tablet and notebook where ever I go.

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KamilG225 says:

I'm actually happy to see this article posted because I leave the US once every few years and never really knew what was actually available when it came to data plans internationally through my carrier, Sprint, or any other US carriers. Last week I visited Poland and rather than purchasing an international data plan (which I didn't even look into) I simply bought myself a local SIM card. That local SIM card came with 1 GB of data for roughly $6. I would have been satisfied with 1GB of 3G service but they actually offered HSPA+ which was insanely quick and had great coverage. I paid $6 for what would have cost me $9,235 through Sprint. :O That put me in shock when I calculated it. I understand why it would cost a lot, but to think $6 compares to $9,235 is laughable.

kolyan2k says:

On MTC Simcard now instead of T-Mobile USA.....paid $30 bucks for unlimited SMS, 300 minutes, and 4GB of 4G. Can always pay more for minutes or another 7-8 bucks for extra 2GB

hockey1299 says:

I have heard many people turning on Airplane mode when roaming. That is not necessary at all. I travel many times through out the year. I have never had a big bill if i had a bill it would be $20 or less worth of charges.. The way is to leave Mobile Network ON But leave Data Roaming OFF. At this point you will be able still to get incoming calls and texts. You dont get charged for incoming texts aslong you have a some kind of texting plan you use at home. You wont get charged for incoming calls aslong you dont answer them. But if you do answer texts or calls roaming rates can be easily trackable and controlled. Also it another good idea to maybe buy a travel pack if you want..
By doing this way you can keep your original phone # which helps a lot.

bonedatt says:

I'm with T-Mobile and I did exactly what you're suggesting on my trip to Africa last year. I left data roaming off and I did not answer incoming calls. However I was able to call right back to the U.S with Wi-Fi calling for free. Overall, nothing beats getting a local SIM card though especially as those in the country you're visiting will have to pay international call rates to call you if you keep your home SIM. On the data side, nothing compares to this:Tmobile USA just announced today, 10/10/13, free global data roaming in over 100 countries.

AT&T has a $65/mo unlimited domestic and international data plan accessible to business accounts.

farhancma9 says:

Hello Joshua

Is that plan available to new customers? How about to those who have business lines for 2-3 years but without this plan, is it available to them? What is the cheapest voice plan required to avail it? Do FAN discounts apply on voice and this data plan?