Sarah Schlichter is IndependentTraveler’s Senior Editor. She hails from Maryland and now resides in Pennsylvania, where she sings in a local community choir and enjoys experimenting with different international recipes (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires — no humans or animals were harmed). The smell of Sarah’s delicious Moroccan couscous ignites a wave of envy in the office when she brings in leftovers for lunch. Sarah, IndependentTraveler’s resident travel expert, has visited more than 25 U.S. states plus dozens of countries including Belize, Guatemala, Morocco, Canada, Dominica, the U.K., Norway, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand … just to name a few.
Verizon’s 5 GB pricing barely beats that of T-Mobile and Sprint’s unlimited plans, but those two carriers’ options (and even Verizon’s own $75 Go Unlimited plan) limit what you can do with that data in ways that Verizon’s plan does not—most notably, by limiting streaming video to DVD resolution and limiting either the speed or the volume of hotspot use. This 5 GB plan includes full-speed mobile hotspot use and allows HD streaming video, albeit capped at 720p resolution on phones and 1080p on tablets. (That streaming video limit remains undocumented as of August 2018 outside of a brief mention in the second-to-last paragraph of a press release.) So as long as you—like a large chunk of the wireless population—don’t use more than 5 GB in a month, Verizon’s continued network advantage still makes this plan a good deal.

I’ve covered the wireless industry since the late 1990s. (My first guide to cell phone service, written in 1998, devoted much ink to comparing analog and digital cellular.) I’ve tested smartphones and cell phone plans from all four major carriers for Boing Boing, CNN Money, Discovery News, PCMag, VentureBeat, The Washington Post, and others, and I now cover telecom-policy issues for Yahoo Finance (a subsidiary of Verizon’s media division Oath) and answer telecom questions in a USA Today Q&A column.

If you’re interested in faster data speeds, Sprint lets you buy a High-Speed Data Roaming Pass, either for 24 hours or a full week. Rates vary based on where you travel. In Canada and Mexico, you can buy a day pass for $2 and a weekly pass for $10. In China, day passes cost $10, and it's $50 for a week of high-speed data roaming. Most other destinations charge $5 a day and $25 a week.


Sprint Unlimited Premium Plan: Includes unlimited domestic calling, texting, 50GB LTE MHS, VPN & P2P & data. MHS reduced to 3G speeds after 50GB/mo. Third-party content/downloads are add’l charge. Plan not avail. for tablets or MBB devices. Select Int’l svcs are included for phone lines. See sprint.com/globalroaming. Subsidized devices incur an add’l. $25/mo. charge. Must remain on Premium plan for a minimum of 30 days.
International cell phone options are as varied as travel styles. The always-on-the-go globetrotter who spends her morning in Europe and goes to sleep in North Africa probably carries her own high-tech international calling device. The college student studying in Italy may have a local cell phone that only works in his overseas home. The leisure traveler who wants a cell phone in case of emergency on her yearly vacation may rent a phone and drop it in the mail when she returns home.
TracFone, Net10, and Straight Talk, all properties of the Mexican carrier América Móvil, consistently rank among the most widely used prepaid services. They offer the advantage of reselling service from all four carriers, at the cost of having to trust the company’s judgment about which network works bests for you, as Prepaid Phone News editor Dennis Bournique explains in a helpful post.
Unlimited Tablet Plan: Incl. unlimited texting on capable tablets & data with mobile optimized video streams at up to 480+ resolution, music at up to 500kbps, streaming gaming at up to 2 Mbps. Add Unlimited premium resolution streaming for add'l. $20/mo./line & get video streams at up to 1080+, music at up to 1.5 Mbps, gaming at up to 8 Mbps. Data deprioritization applies during times of congestion. After the 10GB, MHS, VPN & P2P usage will be limited to 2G speeds. Third-party content/downloads are add'l. charge. Int'l. svc. are not incl.
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Moto E4: For one of the cheapest brand-name Android phones you can buy, check out the 4th-generation Moto E. You can score the E4 for $80 from Best Buy if you activate it today. If you don’t want to activate right away, then Walmart has this smartphone in stock for a still-affordable $100. This phone is fully unlocked and ready to use with any GSM carrier and select CDMA carriers.

Sarah Schlichter is IndependentTraveler’s Senior Editor. She hails from Maryland and now resides in Pennsylvania, where she sings in a local community choir and enjoys experimenting with different international recipes (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires — no humans or animals were harmed). The smell of Sarah’s delicious Moroccan couscous ignites a wave of envy in the office when she brings in leftovers for lunch. Sarah, IndependentTraveler’s resident travel expert, has visited more than 25 U.S. states plus dozens of countries including Belize, Guatemala, Morocco, Canada, Dominica, the U.K., Norway, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand … just to name a few.
Look for more tie-in deals from the carriers that throw in one video service or another, along the lines of T-Mobile’s free Netflix subscription with two-line plans, Sprint’s Hulu deal, AT&T’s WatchTV bundle, and Verizon’s $20 discount on a bundle of unlimited wireless and a triple-play of Fios Internet, phone, and TV service. (These media tie-ins are essentially another way carriers try to keep you around without the handcuffs of two-year contracts. Watch for new-lease or early-upgrade deals, but treat them with a fair amount of skepticism; buying your phone independent of service gives you far more leverage.)
If you've been researching the best deals on cell phones, you've likely discovered there are many online and in-store options. We know when it comes to shopping phones on sale, it’s not just about finding the cheapest cell phone you can get, but finding one that meets your needs for both service and function. You'll want to evaluate which phone features are important to you whether it's screen size, screen resolution, camera, software features, and battery life, to name a few. Whether you are looking for iPhone deals or prefer an Android phone option, there is an ever-changing selection of smartphone deals available at Best Buy.
For longer trips, AT&T has retooled its AT&T Passport, which provides 30 days of service when you travel. Users thought the previous iteration of AT&T Passport offered too little data (since data was limited to 200MB, you can see their point), so AT&T increased the amount of data in its travel plan. The $60 Passport gives you 1GB of data and unlimited texting; you'll be charged 35 cents per minute for calls to any country. A $120 AT&T Passport boosts your data to 3GB. Don't go over that allotment, as AT&T charges $50 for each GB you go over.
Verizon is the nation’s largest carrier for good reason: It offers the best coverage in the most places in the US according to third-party tests and surveys (including those of PCMag and RootMetrics), so you’re more likely to have a signal no matter where you are, and its pricing is competitive with that of AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile for the amount of data that most people actually use. It isn’t the best choice for people who frequently travel outside of the US or who want unlimited data, but it is the first carrier everyone else should look at.
Your phone company may also offer international phone plans that offer discounts on calls, international roaming fees, and data charges. For example, AT&T Passport can be purchased for 30 days for $30 and provides coverage in more than 190 countries. You get unlimited texting, calls for $1 per minute, and 120MB of cellular data for email, web browsing, and social media posts.
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For each service, we computed the cost of a few typical bundles of smartphone service, setting minimal use at 1 gigabyte (GB) of data, moderate use at 3 GB, and heavy use at 5 GB. (Research firms’ estimates have shown steady increases in average use since the first version of this guide, but usage estimates per carrier have also diverged as some carriers have switched to selling only unlimited-data subscriptions: In the second quarter of 2018, Strategy Analytics found that Android users who had opted into its survey used on average 5.9 GB on T-Mobile, 5 GB on Sprint, 4.5 GB on Verizon, and 3.9 GB on AT&T. However, usage outside of the big four can be lower, to judge from the much lower monthly average reported by the wireless trade group CTIA for 2017: only 1.3 GB.

Assuming you make fewer calls than average, and you don’t need Verizon’s better network, Ting offers flexible billing and a choice of Sprint and T-Mobile coverage. Ting consistently ranks high in Consumer Reports reader surveys and placed well in past PCMag surveys (although it faded in that site’s latest round of reader assessments). And with Ting’s recent addition of third-party device financing, you can even have some of the same low up-front phone costs as with the big four.
I didn't like the deals Verizon offered for service while visiting Europe, so I put this Mobal sim in a cheap unlocked phone and got exactly what I needed - something to use to call ahead to hotels, send quick texts home, simple stuff. Most calls are a dollar a minute, which might be a problem for a heavy user, but for a tourist like me it doesn't add up to much. And it's so easy. They just bill your credit card for a call. Good sound quality, too. All for the price of a movie ticket. I recommend highly.
RootMetrics gives out regional awards to carriers that are top performers in categories like network speed and reliability, call quality, and data performance. Verizon swept the table in 2018, earning 112 of 125 possible awards. Sprint, by comparison, earned three awards. What does this mean? Verizon has the best track record for offering its customers a reliable network and satisfying performance.
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Sarah Schlichter is IndependentTraveler’s Senior Editor. She hails from Maryland and now resides in Pennsylvania, where she sings in a local community choir and enjoys experimenting with different international recipes (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires — no humans or animals were harmed). The smell of Sarah’s delicious Moroccan couscous ignites a wave of envy in the office when she brings in leftovers for lunch. Sarah, IndependentTraveler’s resident travel expert, has visited more than 25 U.S. states plus dozens of countries including Belize, Guatemala, Morocco, Canada, Dominica, the U.K., Norway, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand … just to name a few.
Excluding plans that don’t let you bring your own device, Metro by T-Mobile, formerly MetroPCS, has the best rates for two-line scenarios—$70 for 5 GB each on two phones. That pricing easily beats T-Mobile’s own prepaid plans, and Metro by T-Mobile’s data caps exempt streaming video (at the cost of limiting its resolution to DVD-quality 480p resolution, although you can opt out of this Data Maximizer feature if you want).

As for talk and text amounts, all of the postpaid plans from the major carriers provide unlimited calling and messaging, so in theory you don’t even have to compute those numbers. But many prepaid and resold services allow you to save money if you’re willing to stay within certain limits. The best way to figure out how many texts or calls you send or make is to consult your billing statement.
But speeds in other countries may range from 2G all the way to 4G—that could be the difference between downloading a web page in a few seconds (4G) to downloading a web page in three minutes (2G). depending on how much data you use or how much congestion there is. You can find out what data speeds to expect in AT&T’s comprehensive international coverage chart.

With every carrier, unlimited data isn’t truly unlimited — but AT&T sets the limit unusually low, with every unlimited plan throttling speed after 22 GB of data usage. That’s half of T-Mobile’s data limit. If you spend a lot of time streaming or browsing social media in places without Wi-Fi, there’s a chance you could go over your limit. And if you want “unlimited” data but no DIRECTV Live, no dice: The pair are inseparable. There are some standard phone plans that have smaller data limits for a lower price, but the comparable value is poor. While you can set your cap at 1 GB for just $25, the 10 GB cap is $75 — more expensive than the standard $70 unlimited plan.
Anyone who travels wants to be able to take decent photos on the move and the 16MP rear camera on the OnePlus 3T is a solid performer. It’s not the best out there, but if you’re taking photos mainly in daylight, you’ll have no complaints. The colors are accurate, details sharp and because of the 6GB of RAM, it’s easy to take multiple shots with no delays after the button press.

Fall is the season for new flagship phones, and we’ve already seen Samsung and Apple roll out their latest. Now it’s Google’s turn, and the new Pixel 3 is a more affordable — yet no less impressive — alternative to competing flagships that ring in at $1,000 or more. Retail pricing for the Google Pixel 3 starts at $799, which is already considerably cheaper than the $1,000-1,100 starting price of the Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone XS, but Verizon customers (or those looking to switch to Verizon) can maximize their savings by taking advantage of one of these pre-order offers:
Sprint Unlimited Plus Plan: $70/mo. for line 1, $50/mo. for line 2 & $30/mo. for lines 3-5 with autopay. Non-Financed Promo: Up to 5 new lines on Unlimited Plus. Pay additional $10/mo/line after Financed device upgrade. Credits applied within 2 bills. Includes unlimited domestic calling, texting, 15GB LTE MHS, VPN & P2P & data. MHS reduced to 3G speeds after 15GB/mo. Third-party content/downloads are add’l charge. Plan not avail. for tablets or MBB devices. Select Int’l svcs are included for phone lines. See sprint.com/globalroaming. Subsidized devices incur an add'l. $25/mo. charge.
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