Your life may be location independent, but your cell phone plan isn’t.
If you’re getting directions on Google Maps, posting to Instagram, or using your phone as a mobile hotspot, you don’t want to wind up with an astronomical bill.
Sure, you can turn off your data and go wifi only, but that’s not an option if you need to keep an eye on your email while you’re on the go and remember to download things to your phone before you go…every time.
Yes, every cell phone carrier offers daily and monthly international plans. They’re fine if you travel for 2 weeks a year, but not if you’re on the road more than that. Check the fine print.
If you’re going to be in one country long enough, you can buy a SIM card. Your clients aren’t going to put up with your game of phone-number musical chairs, though.
Unfortunately, there’s no single solution. Here are the options — you’ll find the mix that works for you.
Google’s Project Fi allows you to access whichever local network or open wifi hotspot is fastest. You get unlimited text and talking in the US and unlimited texting and data. You don’t care about international calling because you can use Google Hangouts.
It works in 135 countries without any nonsense about international charges. If you’re outside of those countries, you can swap out a local SIM card. It’s $20 or $15 per person per month plus $10 per GB. They only charge you for the data you actually use.
We suffered through months of 2G living outside the US, but now they have a plan that gives you 4G in all of North America. Streaming music and videos is free from most services as long as you’re in North America.
When you’re outside of North America, 2G is not really fast enough to browse comfortably, but it’s enough to check email, get directions, and make calls over Google Voice. They have international data passes, but they’re not the best deal.
They have plans with faster data abroad and unlimited Gogo in-flight wifi, too. Since we have regular access to wifi when we’re abroad, it isn’t worth it to us.
Theoretically they have wifi calling, but it’s not always free and it often doesn’t work (and you might not realize until you get your bill). Make your voice calls through Google Voice, WhatsApp, Facebook Messanger, or whatever other app your contacts are using. In-flight texting and an hour of Gogo in-flight wifi is a theoretical benefit that’s never actually worked for me.
Make sure you sign up before you leave the US or you’ll have to get creative to get a plan, since they aren’t in Canada.
Use Google Voice & Hangouts
I make all of my calls over Google Hangouts. You can text via Gchat, make video calls, and make voice calls. Even with 2G I can make clear phone calls and it’s free for quite a few countries. When it’s not free, rates are low.
Signing up for Google Voice will allow you to give out a regular phone number. You have to be in the US to set it up and they only give out US numbers. That’s a big drawback and confuses quite a few people, since I live in Canada. Most of my clients are in the US, so they think nothing of it and it makes my work life so much easier.
With Google Voice, you can swap out SIM cards as you travel and simply update the number calls are being forwarded to. This way, you don’t have to give everyone a new number every time you cross a border. Wikia has a great rundown of the best local SIM card providers.
You can also make calls over Skype, WhatsApp, and plenty of other apps. I like Google Hangouts because Google already controls my life and people trying to get in touch with me don’t need to download an app — they can just call my Google Voice number or text me like normal.
Perhaps you’ve heard how lots of people think Facebook is the internet. This is because Facebook has agreements with data providers to cover the data charges, meaning accessing the site is free for you. Check with your mobile carrier to see if it’s free for you.
You can make free voice calls, video calls, and send messages over Facebook Messenger.
This is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family.
Using a different SIM card — and having a different phone number — in every country is not feasible if you’re working on the road. Thankfully, there are global SIM cards. The drawback is they’re not as cheap as you want them to be.
With KnowRoaming you can have multiple numbers, allowing friends (and coworkers) around the world to reach you with a local call. You automatically get a US and UK number, but texting only works with your UK number. You can set it up as pay-as-you-go or unlimited. Data in 90 countries is included and it works in 200 countries. WhatsApp doesn’t count towards your data in any of them.
If you have a distributed team, KnowRoaming has business solutions.
One Sim Card gives you two phone numbers: an Estonian number and either a US, Canadian, Australian, or UK number. You can also get extra numbers for different countries. Text messages need to go to your Estonian number and there’s a $0.20 per minute charge for using your non-Estonian number, which seems like it’d add up pretty quickly. Calls and texts are charged at different rates depending on where you are and where you’re contacting, data is billed separately. Depending on your current phone plan, this might not be a better deal.
Obviously, you’ll need an unlocked phone to use this option.
Get a MiFi
Every few months I find myself debating getting a MiFi, but so far I haven’t taken the plunge. While they’re great for business travelers dealing with abysmal airport and hotel wifi, I rarely find myself trapped in Boingo hell. If you have work that requires a laptop, this is totally worth it.
Sure, you can tether your devices to your phone, but it kills your battery. It’s a great option to use occasionally, but if you’re doing it all the time it’s not worth the hassle.
If I were to get a MiFi, I’d get one that’s unlocked. If you get one through a local carrier, you’ll be subject to international roaming rates.
Make sure to get one that will work in the countries you’re traveling in, especially since different countries use different LTE frequencies.