Cell phone use while traveling abroad

You’ve had your trip planned for months. Maybe you’ve never traveled internationally before or it has been a while. Suddenly you wonder: how do I stay in touch with friends & family? Does my phone plan include international calls? Will I have an expensive phone bill when I get home? How do I place calls to international numbers? Below you will find information on international calls & texts, and tips to follow when traveling.

An international call/text is either one you make to another country or one you make while you’re in another country. Most phone plans will charge a fee unless you have signed up for an international calling plan. U.S. carriers do not charge for receiving international texts. These differ depending on your cell phone carrier so it’s important to check in advance. Without an international plan, sending an international text can cost ~$0.25-$0.50 per text; calls can be even more expensive. Your phone plan may include free international texts but it’s important to make sure. One way to avoid unexpected charges is to use free messaging/calling apps (see below). Still, we advise you to contact your phone provider and ask what international calling plans they offer and what their policies & charges are without one.

Verizon – International Calling
T-Mobile – Stateside International Calling / International Roaming Service
Sprint – International Connect
AT&T – International Plans

To enter an international number you will first enter +011 (to indicate an international call). Similar to local area codes, every country has a calling code. For the United States it is +1 and for Italy it is +39. After the international calling code + country code you will then enter the 10-digit number as usual. For a call to Italy (phone number 123-456-7890) you would type 011 39 089 456 7890.

Apps such as WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, and Messenger are useful tools for communicating abroad without using cellular data (just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode!). As long as you have WiFi access, you can use these apps to make calls & send texts. This is very convenient on cruises or resorts, where WiFi is readily available. To an extent, which app you prefer will depend on personal preference: all four can be used to make calls & texts, send/receive photos, create group chats, and share your location. However, there are some unique benefits & drawbacks to each. Whichever app you choose, it is recommended to download & familiarize yourself with its function prior to traveling (and make sure your friends & family back home do as well). For guests most concerned with privacy, Signal may be the best option. Others may choose apps they already use such as Messenger or WhatsApp. Below are links to articles that compare these apps in more depth. However, don’t feel overwhelmed–any will do and if you’re already comfortable with one then it’s fine to stick with that.

Privacy & Security – comparing WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram (CNET, 2022)
WhatsApp: WiFi & cellular data; middle-of-the-road in terms of privacy; high security (end-to-end encryption); cannot be used to call emergency services
Messenger: WiFi & cellular data; low privacy & security
Signal: WiFi & cellular data; most private & secure
Telegram: WiFi & cellular data
FireChat: WiFi & cellular data; Bluetooth; “mesh networking” **neat idea but doesn’t always work in reality
Skype: WiFi & cellular data; *charges apply if contacting someone outside of Skype; lower security (not encrypted); cannot be used to call emergency services
WeChat: WiFi & cellular data; *useful if traveling in China
FaceTime: WiFi & cellular data; *limited access for Android users
Viber: WiFi & cellular data; popular in eastern Europe; lower security (not encrypted)

Please note that, when using messenging/calling apps, emergency services will NOT be able to pinpoint your location.


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