Ah, international data roaming. Remember the days when these 3 words, uttered in any sentence, would immediately send you into a panic attack? Goosebumps and shivers spreading up and down your body, you’d cringe at the thought of even turning your phone on while abroad.
We’ve come a long way since those days, when international data roaming would cost you an arm and a leg – but we still have a long way to go.
How unlimited international data isn’t really unlimited
You’d think that in 2020, international data roaming fees would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that’s wrong. In most cases, even with an “unlimited plan” domestically, you’ll be slowed down or charged exorbitant fees as soon as you exit the country.
Whether you’re looking to stay connected on your next trip, want to keep in touch with the people you love, or have a business to keep up, you need options. I’ve been there – as an airline pilot and travel addict, I typically spend over half the year traveling abroad. In 2019 alone, I traveled to over 30 countries. I am guilty of using international data in each of them.
Picking the best carrier for international usage: what you need to know
Below, you’ll find the good, the bad, and the ugly of nearly every option available for international data roaming. I’ll be comparing and ranking the international data roaming plans offered by US cellular carriers Google, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon with international prepaid data roaming services and local prepaid sim card vendors.
Note: I do NOT receive any commission, discount, or benefit on any service. This article is 100% genuine and unbiased.
In this article (click to scroll):
|Local Prepaid Sim Card Vendors|
|SmartTalk, Visible, Metro, Mint, Xfinity, Consumer Wireless, Cricket Wireless, Boost|
|International Prepaid Sim Card Vendors:|
|GigSky, KeepGo, KnowRoaming, Surfroam, WorldSim, TravelSIM, GoSim, OneSIM|
You should read: 5 Suitcases Airline Pilots Use: Why You Need One
What Kind of Sim Card Should I Get?
It really depends on what kind of traveler you are. If you frequently change countries and don’t want to deal with changing SIM cards, you should stick to US cell phone carriers or international prepaid data roaming services.
If you’re planning to stick to one country or one region for awhile (>2 weeks), local sim cards become increasingly attractive. This, of course, assumes you have the flexibility to pause or end any plan you currently have – and your phone is unlocked.
Check out this convenient table at the bottom of the article.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Staying Fit and Healthy While Traveling (by a Pilot)
US Carriers: Ranking Based on International Data Roaming
1) Google Fi
If you’re in need of high-speed internet around the globe, Google Fi is the clear winner. Here’s why.
Included with the fidelity (Fi) offered by Google is greater flexibility than with any other carrier. You can choose an unlimited plan for $65 per month, which includes high-speed data up to 50GB. If you’re economical with data, you can start out with a basic $20 per month plan and pay an additional $10 per gigabyte used.
The best part of Google Fi is that there is no differentiation between data used internationally or domestically; it’s all included in the plan. It doesn’t matter if you use your data in Maryland or in Hong Kong.
- Full-speed data and full-speed hotspot tethering internationally
- A la carte; pay more for unlimited or less if you’re not a data hog
- Texts are free and calls are (on average) $.20/min internationally, which is cheaper other options
- No contracts, cancel anytime
- Video streaming speeds of 480p, only DVD-quality, after 22GB of high-speed data is used on the unlimited plan
- Not as much coverage internationally as T-Mobile (but only a minor difference)
- Optimized for Google Pixel, so other phones may not receive the same enhanced data speeds
- Call rates can cost over $1 per minute depending on the country. Luckily, you can check them out before you purchase any package.
- Excessive international use is prohibited in the Terms and Conditions, so if you use Google Fi extensively abroad (typically >6 mothers per year), they can cut you off
I really think Google Fi is a winner for international business or leisure travelers that are constantly on the move and don’t want to deal with getting a local sim card. Though this plan is great, one feature that is absent is unlimited Wi-Fi onboard aircraft.
You also won’t find the same deals you’d get with contract carriers, such as BOGO phones or heavy discounts. These (quite successfully) encourage people to stick with other plans, even if they’re not quite as good.
2) T-Mobile/Sprint: One/One Plus, now called Magenta/Magenta Plus
T-Mobile has some very popular plans and for good reason. For one, there’s the appeal of unlimited international data, free texting, and cheap international call rates. Plus, their plans tend to be cheaper overall than the competition. And, they have a fast growing 5G network.
However, T-Mobile’s plans aren’t perfect. I was on their T-Mobile One Plus (now Magenta Plus) for almost 10 years, so I’m very familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Luckily, the good heavily outweighs the bad, and T-Mobile is head and shoulders above the competition.
Did you know that T-Mobile was actually created in Germany? The T stands for Telekom. Hey, one new word of German you can add to your list.
Yet, even as a T-Mobile customer, you’ll be subject to the same slowdowns in Germany as you would anywhere else in the world. Just a heads up.
Update (7/2022): according to T-Mobile, “Our travel benefits just got an upgrade. Get 5GB of high-speed data in select countries and full-flight Wi-Fi and streaming options with Magenta plans….”
This is a HUGE upgrade and indeed, I’ve been noticing the change in almost every country I’ve visited this summer.
The Good (internationally in 210+ countries and destinations):
- Free unlimited texting abroad
- Calls at $.25/min. abroad
- 2G to 2G+ data speed (approx. 128 to 256 kbps depending on the plan)
- No international data roaming fees
- 1 hour/unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi on Gogo-enabled flights (Magenta/Magenta Plus)
- This one is a lot more important to me than I’d like to admit, especially for flying on Delta.
- There’s no feeling like being able to stay connected on a 13-hour flight back from Asia.
- In Canada and Mexico, your plan gives you full-speed data at no additional cost.
- After the first free 5GB of high speed data is used, international data is slow! The One/Magenta Plus plan is “rated” at 256kbps internationally.
- 256kbps is sufficient for basic research, such as basic web browsing or reading the news. It’s useless for video downloads or streaming music at high quality.
- If you use Instagram, you will be able to upload your stories in about 1-5 minutes each. Often times, they’ll end up compressed.
- For navigational purposes, data works fine but sometimes take a while to load (1-3 minutes). I personally have used it for years of navigating 50+ countries without any major issues.
- The data is especially slow in crowded places, in buildings, and in airplanes.
- You can purchase upgraded international data speed passes:
- 512MB of data and free calling for 24 hours for $5
- 5GB of data (total) and free calling for 10 Days for $15
- 15GB of data (total) and free Calling for 30 Days for $50
- This is in the fine print: It’s not for extended international use; you must reside in the U.S. and primary usage must occur on our U.S. network. Service may be terminated or restricted for excessive roaming.
- I had this happen while traveling abroad for 2 months. They basically threatened to shut down my service because I was using over 50% of my data abroad.
- This basically means you should switch to Wi-Fi as often as possible during your travels and limit your Wi-Fi use at home.
- If you’re a heavy data user: On all T-Mobile plans, during congestion the customers using >50GB/mo. may notice reduced speeds until next bill cycle due to data prioritization.
It Works Until it Doesn’t
Last winter, I was island hopping (for fun, totally spontaneously) around the Pacific. I happened to be in Guam when I decided to hop on a last-minute flight to Palau, Micronesia.
After rushing to pack, I hurried to the airport, handed in my rental car, ran to the gate, and ended up not having enough time to book my hotel. I had clearly not done my research; T-Mobile does not cover Palau.
Imagine my shock when, upon landing late at night in Palau and turning on my phone, I couldn’t connect to the internet! I had to scramble to find a hotel the old-fashioned way.
This was the first time I EVER encountered this. Which is to say, I’ve never had to look up T-Mobile’s international coverage because it’s so vast.
This is when I first thought about using local sim cards. In Palau, you really don’t have a choice. I quickly learned to appreciate them as an excellent alternative.
There are usually a couple local sim card stands in the arrivals section of most international airports, all competing for your money.
This means that you can often find great deals for unlimited data and anything else you need. You can just as well find scams; buyer beware.
3) Local Pre-Paid Sim Cards
During my travels, I’ve noticed that most influencers, wandering nomads, and travel addicts opt for local sim cards. I always wondered why, until I tried it myself. Then I realized what the secret sauce was.
Like most of us these days, travel addicts tend to be data hogs. They can’t bear any slowdowns in their networking, posting, and super-connected lives. I can relate.
When I started using a local sim card, it felt like being back home. I had the same speed and reliability I was used to. The only issue was having a different phone number. Luckily, that can easily be resolved using free apps, such as Whatsapp.
Prepaid local sim cards make sense if you’re going to be in one country (or region that shares a carrier) for awhile. If you’re a business traveler and only in the country a couple of days, they may not make as much sense. For travelers who love hopping from country-to-country, local sim cards don’t make much sense either (unless the deals are amazing).
If you do decide it’s for you, it’s a pretty easy process overall – assuming the sim card vendors speak the same language as you. Sometimes, that’s not the case. That can make it quite a headache figuring out what plan to get, how to activate your service, and how to re-fill your sim card.
- It’s prepaid. You won’t find yourself billed for some fishy international roaming charges.
- You can very often find great deals, better than in your home country.
- Prices do vary enormously. For example, you may find a 1000GB sim card in Montenegro for 5 Euro, or you may be stuck paying 200 Euro for one in Austria or Switzerland.
- Calling within the country is usually free, and you can call home using data-calling (voice over internet protocol) on apps like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger.
- You’ll usually have the same high-speed data you would enjoy at home, for the same price you would pay for one day of high-speed usage with T-Mobile.
- Service varies totally; you don’t know what to expect. You need to do your research ahead of time for that particular country and the sim cards available there.
- Your new, temporary phone number will start with an international area code. If your friends a family want to call or message you, it may cost extra (unless they use wi-fi calling or data calling).
- Language barriers when purchasing or topping off your sim card, though I find this extremely uncommon.
- Might only work in one country, and only for one provider. This might mean that you won’t have coverage where you need it.
- Some carriers might require activation, and it is a (very minor) hassle switching out sim cards.
- Scams – like anything else, these are present in the prepaid sim card world.
- Most commonly, the same package you are buying might be available online for a third of the price. The local sim card vendors at the airport sometimes bloat up the price and give themselves a health commission.
- Alternately, you may pay for unlimited data, only to hit an unusably slow brick wall after only a couple gigabytes. Still technically “unlimited”.
When purchasing a prepaid sim card, always ask:
- What is unlimited? Is the 4G/4G LTE unlimited, or does it slow down after a certain usage?
- Is there an activation fee?
- What is the coverage area?
- How do I re-fill my sim card?
A great example of a local sim card for Japan is the Sakura card. Prices compare to what you would pay in the US for generally better service than you would get in the US.
Pro tip: The best place to store your old sim card so you don’t lose it is simply taped to the inside of your phone case. The sim card vendors should have spare tape. You’re welcome.
Good ol’ AT&T. Did you know that they’ve been around since the 1800s? I’m very familiar with them as well, having been a customer for a decade (before T-Mobile).
They have several options: normal AT&T Plans with international day passes, or AT&T Passport. The AT&T day pass costs $10 per day, and AT&T passport costs $70 per month.
Neither of them are great plans. AT&T really tries to take advantage of your international data roaming by charging you extra as soon as you hit a limit, or start a new 24-hour period. The passport plan is super expensive for what you get, but so are the day passes.
- Day Pass ($10/24hr): Data is at the same speed and allowance as your domestic plan
- AT&T Passport: Either 2GB or 6GB ($70 or $140) of international high-speed data per month
- Calls are free (or charged as per your plan) except if you’re calling home. Then you’ll be charged international long distance.
- Automatically charged a $10 daily fee for a 24-hour period as soon as you use data, make OR receive a call, or send a text message.
- $10 adds up quick, but additional lines on the same plan are only $5 per day. Great to know if you’re traveling as a family.
- AT&T passport: the overage charge is $30 per GB, and it’s automatically billed as soon as you reach the 2 or 6GB limit. Watch out!
- Beware of overage charges if you go above your domestic plan limits.
- If you don’t pay for a day pass or AT&T Passport, you’ll automatically be charged exorbitant fees ($2.05/MB!!, $3.00/minute talk, $1.30/text message). This is personally why I left AT&T.
Comparing this to T-Mobile, AT&T would only end up being cheaper if you plan to consistently use more than 5 gigabytes of high-speed data internationally on a daily basis using the day pass.
Otherwise, T-Mobile’s plans make much more sense. Google makes even more sense. Plus, the headache of constantly watching for overage fees gets old quick.
Verizon offers the worst monthly international passes, with abhorrently small limits on everything for very high cost. They do have a below-par, but not terrible, day pass.
- Day pass is only $10 per day.
- The least coverage out of any mentioned above, 185 countries.
- Your data slows down after only 0.5GB! After that, you can pay $10 extra for each 0.5GB of high-speed data.
- The monthly pass is $70 or $130 and only includes 0.5GB or 2GB, with small limits on talk and text, unlike the competition.
- If you don’t pay for a pass, you’ll be automatically charged $2.05/MB of data, $.50 per text, and $1.79-$2.99 per minute per call.
Verizon clearly has the worst international plan out of all of them. But that’s still better than no international dating roaming plan!
6) No, Limited, or Extremely Expensive International Data Roaming Plans:
These are the carriers you should avoid if planning any international trips: SmartTalk (coverage is very limited), Visible, Metro, Mint, Xfinity, Consumer Wireless, Cricket Wireless, Boost.
If you’re a customer of the aforementioned carriers, you should look at getting a local sim card (or switching carriers).
If you are planning to travel between countries often, you should consider an international roaming prepaid sim card. These typically work for 200+ countries and destinations on one sim card.
International Prepaid Data Roaming Services
Worth mentioning are the vast number of purely international roaming prepaid sim cards on the market. These typically work with an initial cost that includes a sim card.
You prepay or purchase a bundle, and are charged varying rates for data, messaging, and calling depending on the country you’re in. Some of these deals are much better than others; it’s worth reading the fine print.
These are pretty good options for those who travel a lot between countries or for short periods of time, and aren’t interested in any US-based carriers. Most of these allow you to use any remaining data at any time, even years later.
Because of reduced travel and therefore reduced demand for sim cards, almost all these providers are running deals, all the way to 50% off. It’s a good time to invest, considering your data never lapses.
Related: Here’s how you can visit the USA, even as a European, Chinese, or Brazilian visitor.
1) Airalo: the international data plan that covers it all
Airalo is a fantastic service because, unlike others, they offer local AND global sim packages. So those hopping around from country to country are just as happy as those sticking to one for awhile. They offer packages of all sizes and prices, all at decently reasonable rates.
- I love that you have the choice of local eSim or global eSim cards for maximum flexibility
- Prices are quite reasonable whether you go with the local or global option
- Top reviews on the App Store and great customer feedback
GigSky is unique because it doesn’t require a sim card. It’s actually relevant, instead using an app for your data usage. Pricing for data varies per country, and texting/calling will only function over data. This means GigSky is only a great deal depending on what countries you plan on visiting.
- Works differently than the others: you simply use an app instead of switching sim cards
- You’ll find pricing for data (only) per country, with plans ranging from $10/GB to $10/40MB
- No calling or texts, you’ll have to use an app with VOIP
KeepGo has the highest initial sim card cost, but much of that is offset by the credit you receive as part of the payment. My favorite thing about KeepGo is the cheap(ish) data rate; it’s consistent for every country under KeepGo’s plan. This means you won’t find yourself suddenly paying $10 for 40MB of data.
The downfall is that it’s only available in 100 countries, fewer than other international roaming data providers. Additionally, texting and calling isn’t included, which means you’ll have to use apps. As you’ll see below, I think that’s a smarter proposition anyways.
- Initial sim card cost of $49
- 4G in over 100 countries and LTE where available
- $26 per gigabyte, better deal than the other international data plans
- To make phone calls and texts, you must download the “TextNow” app, a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocal) app that uses your data to make texts and calls.
KnowRoaming features a low initial cost, full-speed roaming, and packages that somewhat resemble what Google Fi provides.
The main reason it’s only ranked at spot 3 is because of the fine print; if you purchase an unlimited daily plan, your speed will be throttled back (to 128kbps) after 250MB. I don’t find this to be very honest.
This doesn’t apply if you pay for each gigabyte individually, which actually is actually a decent deal at $26/GB.
- Initial sim card cost of $15
- Roaming data in over 200 destinations
- Speeds of up to 4G LTE
- Low rates of $4 per day of unlimited data or about $25 for on gigabyte available for 15 days
- Fine print: *speed can be adjusted* as soon as 250MB on the unlimited plans
- For the limited data plans, full speed for entire package
Surfroam has a plan that includes an initial cost, with variable rates all over the world for data, texting, and calling. This leaves you needing to research these rates ahead of trip, and perhaps constantly watching your usage.
- Initial sim card cost of $17, which goes towards your data
- 4G speeds in most countries
- Low data rates starting at $.01/MB up to $.15/MB
- Calling and texting must be made using an app and data
WorldSIM has the same model as Surfroam, but the prices are generally higher.
- Must purchase either a sim card (up to $20 depending on credit purchased)
- Can buy bundles of data that vary from 30 Euro for 250MB to 48 Euro for 10GB. Price varies based on the country.
- 4G speeds in countries that offer 4G
- You have to pay for both calling and texting, can be at high cost depending on the country
- Includes 2 numbers: one US, one UK
GoSim shares this same model, with variable pricing that tends to be slighter higher than WorldSIM.
- Initial sim card cost of $20
- Works at over 200 destinations
- Messaging costs of $.25 per text to $1.55
- Calling rates of $.49 per minute to $2
- Data costs from $.25 cent per MB to upwards of $1/MB
TravelSIM also follows the same model as Surfroam, GoSim, and WorldSIM, but is very limited on coverage. Only around 100 countries.
- Initial sim card cost around 10 Euro
- Data in 100+ countries
- Must pay for data, texts and calls
- As high as $1.75 per minute for a call
- As high as $1.70 per text
- From $.20/MB to $.70/MB
OneSIM, though not the most expensive, is definitely the most limited in terms of coverage.
- Initial sim card cost is $30
- 4G in only 50+ countries
- Calls $.25 to $1.55 per minute
- Texts as high as $1.80 each
- Data is $.25 to $1.25 per megabyte
Choosing the best international data plan ultimately depends on you
You have choices. Not all of them are great, but at least you know that there are ways to stay connected while traveling.
International data roaming providers, at their cheapest, offer data for no less than about $5 per GB and only in certain areas. The extra $17 per month and $5/GB you would have to pay for Google Fi could be worth it for the convenience. Plus, Fi includes unlimited text and cheap calling, and the price for data doesn’t vary by area.
If you’re attached to any of the other US cell phone carriers, you can compare day passes and monthly packages with offers by local sim card providers. Alternately, you can sign up for Google Fi or one of the international data roaming providers listed above on a month-to-month basis with no contract.
If you are looking to use 5G with a good provider, only travel internationally occasionally, and don’t need high-speed data while abroad, I think T-Mobile is a great pick. Plus, they run huge discounts on phones, and include free Wi-Fi on GoGo-enabled airplanes.
In any case, local prepaid sim card vendors often have offers that are absolutely head-and-shoulders above any of the aforementioned services. As I previously mentioned, you can sometimes find deals as good as 1000GB of high-speed data for 5 Euro for a month.
Regardless of who your provider is, local sim cards might make more sense, especially if you’re staying in place for awhile.
A general summary of the best international data plans & packages:
|Leisure Travel in One Country for >2 Weeks||1) Local Sim Card|
2) Google Fi -or-
International Sim Card
4) Other Carriers
|Leisure Travel Across Multiple Countries||1) Google Fi|
2) International Sim Card
4) Multiple Local Sim Cards
5) Other Carriers
|Short Business Trips Internationally||1) T-Mobile|
2) Google Fi
3) Other Carriers (Day Passes)
4) International Sim Card
5) Local Sim Cards
|Long Business Trips Internationally||1) Google Fi|
2) International Sim Card
3) Local Sim Cards
5) Other Carriers
Thanks for reading! Check out my other travel hacks here.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but as great as Google Fi is, they can and will kill your international data roaming if you are not primarily in the United States. I had Fi since October 2019 when T-Mobile killed my roaming in Berlin and a sales person in the German version of Best Buy told me about Google Fi.
While their customer service sucks since moving to India, the service worked well until today, when I was notified that they would be turning off my International Data and still charging me $20 a month for a crippled service that can only make expensive phone calls and send texts.
I am now searching for an alternative, and no U.S. carrier qualifies. It looks like an International Prepaid SIM that can be topped up, with no expiration of the value and no slowdowns.
I hope I can port my U.S. number to this SIM, but if not, I can port my U.S. number to iPlum.com. I only need my U.S. number for WhatsApp, since it is ubiquitous around the world and tied to a telephone number.
Ah man. Sorry to hear about that. I’ll update the article. The irony here is that Google Fi is advertised extensively for international roaming, but shuts off after 6 months abroad.