For years, cell phone carriers in the United States relied on technologies that were incompatible with those used in Europe, Asia and much of the rest of the world. Recently, two major U.S. cellular carriers -- AT&T and T-Mobile -- built nationwide networks based on Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) technology, the international standard for cell phone networks.
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.
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.
Why we love it: If you rely frequently on your phone to provide a WiFi signal to your other devices, Boost Mobile's Unlimited HD plan is worth a close look. In addition to allowing you to skip a credit check and worries about extra taxes and fees (they're baked into Boost's prices), the plan gives you a whopping 20GB of full-strength hotspot data a month. This is a dream if you do frequent tethering.
Sprint Unlimited 55+ Plan: Reqs. new account activation. Acct holder must be 55 or older. 2 line max. Includes unlimited domestic calling, texting & data with 3G Mobile Hotspot VPN & P2P data. Discounted phones subject to add'l $25/mo./line. Third-party content/downloads are add’l charge. Plan not avail. for tablets/MBB devices. Select Int’l svcs are included see sprint.com/globalroaming.
You can call over 200 countries and text to over 100 countries. View country list and codes or visit your local U.S. Cellular retail store or call 1-888-944-9400 (611 from your wireless phone). Country availability is subject to change. Messaging is available to certain wireless carriers' customers within a country. Please verify both country and carrier for messaging.
2GB Plan: No discounts apply (except AutoPay discounts). Includes unlimited domestic Long Distance calling and texting. Third-party content/downloads are add’l charge. Includes selected allotment of on-network data usage for phone and mobile hotspot use and 100MB off-network data usage. Add’l on-network high-speed data allowance may be purchased at $15/GB. Mobile Hotspot Usage pulls from your data and off-network allowances. High-speed data is access to 3G/4G. Add’l $25 line/mo. applies with subsidized phone until the customer enters into a new device transaction that does not have an annual term service agreement.
Another option besides making a traditional cell phone call is using a Voice Over IP (VoIP) service such as Skype, which connects calls via an Internet connection. Skype can be used on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Skype users can talk to each other for free, and can make calls to landlines and cell phones at affordable rates. However, remember that even if you’re not making international calls over your phone’s cellular network, you’ll still need to have an international plan in place to avoid exorbitant data charges (or find a free Wi-Fi connection so you don’t have to use your data).
Verizon’s network is still better than T-Mobile’s, but that advantage is less pronounced for data. Automated drive testing by the research firm RootMetrics that rate T-Mobile poorly include lagging grades for voice and text use, while they show T-Mobile as a respectable third place for speed and data. PCMag currently ranks T-Mobile as a very close second to Verizon, while OpenSignal’s test results say that T-Mobile is now actually ahead of Verizon in speed and data. And though T-Mobile’s GSM-based network—which lets you talk and use data simultaneously, unlike Verizon’s—has historically leaned on higher-frequency bands that don’t reach as far inside buildings, that’s getting better. That GSM foundation also means that T-Mobile is compatible with more phones than Verizon is, including virtually every unlocked phone you can buy.
If you have eyes only for your budget, we’d suggest avoiding the Big Four entirely and instead choosing a cheaper MVNO provider like Cricket or Republic Wireless. MVNOs do not operate their own networks and instead offer access to one or several of the major carriers’ networks at a reduced cost. Choosing the right MVNO requires knowing which network it uses and whether that network works well where you live.
If you can't wait until your deal is up with your current carrier, the major carriers are all willing to pick up some of the cost to get you to switch. Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all offer up to $650 for each phone you switch over to pay off your phone purchases and early termination fees; AT&T offers a $100 bill credit for switching over plus $200 for trading in an eligible smartphone. Note that this money will come in the form of prepaid gift cards and that every carrier requires you to trade in your existing phone.
Since any information I accrue during my travels is backed up the second I hook up my phone to my computer using iTunes, saving me both time and effort. Although international plans are now readily available through most carriers, there are SIM cards available abroad that I can pop into my phone for the duration of my trip, and even if those sim cards aren’t available immediately, there’re hotspots around that will allow me to have immediate use of Wi-Fi.
Buy a budget smartphone — While there’s a lot of junk at the bottom of the smartphone range, there are a few decent phones for travelers under $200. My current favorite is the Motorola Moto G — you’ll want to buy a microSD card for some extra storage, but other than that it’s a reasonably speedy smartphone, with a battery that lasts all day and a 5” screen you actually want to use. Tip: grab the “Global” version for maximum compatibility overseas. You’ll still need to buy local SIM cards to put in it.
Luckily, almost all smartphones will work plugged into outlets between 100 volts and 240 volts, so you probably don't need a voltage converter to charge your phone. (If you’re not sure, you can find the voltage printed on the bottom of the phone.) All you need is a simple plug adapter to power up just like you would back home. Just make sure you have enough battery for all those travel foodstagrams.
Verizon has pared back its tiered data plans to just one option for individuals, but it's a really good one. Verizon's 5GB for $55-a-month plan is tough to beat if you don't see yourself needing an unlimited amount of data. (And the truth is, most individual users don't.) Verizon's plan gives you a healthy chunk of data at a reasonable rate, and you can rollover unused data to the next month. Turn on Verizon's Safety Mode, and you'll avoid overage fees if you do go over your allotment.
I love this phone. I was looking at the Galaxy 5 but I will not pay that much for a phone and I really hate contracts. I have kept my T-Mobile to go account and this phone is about as perfect as one can be. It's easy to use, fits easily into my pocket, doesn't drop calls, they keys are a good size, I love the features on it. I have the Android apps on it that I love and am no where's near running out of memory even with all the photos and things I have stored in it. The battery gets me through the day with energy to spare and if I get worried it charges pretty quickly.
The phone is perfect except for two weird things. One is that its country setting is rigged for Canada and there's no way of changing it. The other, more serious, is that putting a finger on the side above SD card somehow affects touchscreen functionality, though the problem will likely go away when I buy a protective case. All in all, a great bargain.
To make the decision easier, we’ve gone through each carriers’ plans to figure out which one is the best for your particular needs. Even after introducing a lower-cost, stripped-down plan, T-Mobile's T-Mobile One unlimited data offering is the best family plan; it offers better value than AT&T and Verizon (though bargain hunters may be tempted by Sprint's discounted family plan and AT&T includes a new streaming TV service with its unlimited plans). T-Mobile's $70 plan is also the best unlimited data plan for individuals, though you can now get a bare-bones unlimited data plan from the carrier for $10 less.
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.
Lease (Sprint Flex): Mo. amount excl. tax. Terms for all other customers will vary including amount due at signing & taxes/fees. Req. qualifying device & svc. plan. No equipment security deposit req. Upon completion of 18-mo. term, customer can continue to pay mo. lease amount, purch. or return device. Customer is responsible for insurance & repairs. Early termination of lease/svc.: Remaining lease pymt. will be due immed. & req. device return or pymt. of purch. option device price in lease.