International Travel

International Travel

From time to time, we see questions regarding using one’s phone when traveling outside the U.S.

Some but not all service providers offer international cellular coverage (international roaming). As with international calling, international roaming may be restricted to certain countries and/or plans. International roaming, when offered, is often very expensive, so it might make sense to look at alternatives.

Take Advantage of WiFi Calling

If the combination of your phone and service provider’s plan supports WiFi calling, calls to those numbers included in the price of your plan, generally, are treated the same when made on WiFi outside the U.S. as they are when made over cellular in the U.S. For example, if your plan provides calling to U.S. numbers when home, you would be able to call those same numbers over WiFi when outside the U.S. at no additional cost. One should, of course, verify this with one’s service provider.

Testing whether the combination of one’s phone and plan supports WiFi calling before relying on that for international travel is simple. Just place the phone in Airplane mode (Airplane mode disables a phone’s cellular and WiFi radios) then manually reenable WiFi. If, with the phone in this state, you are able to make and receive calls, WiFI calling is supported.

If the above test fails, either WiFi calling is not supported on the phone or WiFi calling hasn’t been enabled on the phone. The method of enabling WiFi calling varies depending upon a phone’s manufacturer but the following usually gets one to the right spot:

  • Open Settings
  • In the search field, type WiFi calling
    • For Android, tap WiFi calling
    • For iPhone, tap Phone

If you don’t see an option for WiFi calling, it’s likely the combination of your phone and plan does not support it. If you’ll share the brand, model and (if applicable) generation of your phone, we’ll do our best to confirm.

There are some countries that block WiFi calling. Those known to do so include; China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.

Internet access when connected to WiFi typically works the same as when one is connected to WiFi at home. For navigation when away from WiFi, mapping apps may be used in offline mode. For Google Maps, please see here. HERE We Go with apps for both Android and iPhone is another popular option.

If you need to make calls to local (in country) numbers where you are traveling when connected to WiFi, you’ll want to be careful. Though your provider’s plan may allow for calling numbers outside the U.S., they may charge high fees for doing so even when calling numbers in the same country one is traveling in over WiFi. If that’s the case or your provider’s plan doesn’t allow for calling international numbers, many make use of third party services such as Google Voice, Skype, Viber, Rebtel or Localphone. Some additional detail on international calling is linked here.

Alternatively, you can use an international calling card with a U.S. access number. International calling cards are commonly sold at convenience stores.

Using Local Cellular Service

If cellular service outside the U.S. is desired and your domestic provider’s plans don’t provide that or are prohibitively expensive, there is the option of using a local (in country) SIM to provide cellular coverage where you are traveling.

A great online resource for locating a service provider where one will be traveling is here. Don’t let the reference to Data SIMs concern you. The Wiki covers SIMs that provide talk and text as well as cell data.

You’ll want to be certain your phone is unlocked for international travel. That’s a question best directed to your service provider. If, like many of us, you purchased your phone at RW’s online store, it may or may not be unlocked.

If you bought your phone from RW on or after December 14, 2021 it was sold to you locked If you haven’t already done so, you will want to request it be unlocked by calling into support. Phones purchased at RW’s store prior to December 14, 2021 are already unlocked.

A Word about Dual SIM Phones and eSIM

Dual SIM phones with two physical SIM slots were never popular in the U.S. More recently, however, there are a growing number of dual SIM via eSIM phones. Dual SIM via eSIM phones include Apple iPhone 2018 (iPhone XR and iPhone XS) or later models, Google Pixel 2019 (Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL) or later models and various Samsung models.

If you have a dual SIM via eSIM phone, you have the potential luxury of using both your domestic provider’s service over WiFi and local (in country) cellular service simultaneously. An increasing number of domestic U.S. and overseas providers are offering eSIM.

If your current phone does not sport dual SIM via eSIM, you may still alternate between your domestic U.S. service over WiFi and local (in country) cellular service by swapping SIMs as needed. When swapping SIMs, it’s a good idea to have a safe place to store the SIM not currently in use such as something like this.

Finally, there is always the option of traveling with two phones. If you don’t have a spare second phone available to you, renting is an option.

Upon your return home, please consider sharing your experience by leaving a comment. Have a safe and enjoyable trip!

I switch out my SIM for a GiffGaff SIM when traveling to the UK. It’s easy and affordable to go online and buy the credit or unlimited data I want. As I travel to the same country regularly, I like to keep one number - I just need to make sure I don’t let it go inactive for more than 180 days. GiffGaff is great at emailing me when my number’s about to expire so I don’t even have to remember that myself. Then I just switch SIMs real quick to send a text message.

WhatsApp works as normal. (I’ve had people ask me if my regular WhatsApp still works when I’ve got a different SIM in, so maybe someone here has that question too).

I used to do the same with a Three SIM when traveling to the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe. Did you originally buy the GiffGaff SIM when in the U.K.?

Detail to consider: In North America, many, if not most, phones are only usable on the US/Canada/Mexico commonly used frequencies. Your carrier may have roaming agreements with other countries, but if your phone does not support local frequencies, that won’t help. There are sites on the net that can list frequencies by country. There are phones that can work anywhere. These are most commonly sold outside the US, the term “World Phone” is a good term to watch for.

The same major model of phone can exist in North America and world versions, the difference being in specific model number.

Also, at least on my most recent two phones, carrier WiFi calling works over VPN. If you are in a country that blocks WiFi calling but does not block your VPN, you may still be able to use WiFi calling.

Overdue to share my experience in Brussels, Belgium and Paris, France during October 2022. Thanks to advice from @rolandh we were ready with our phones set up for voice and SMS/MMS via WiFi which worked just right when we could connect that way. Many public places (cafes, restaurants, museums, even parks) in Brussels and Paris provide WiFi to support this mode. And of course hotels, AirBNB places, private homes supported WiFi. (Although using the Brussels city public WiFi for this was stymied by their requirement to authenticate via SMS before connecting - couldn’t figure how to get around that.)

When away from WiFi we used regional Eurolink eSIMs purchased through Aralo. These were data only, didn’t find any comparable offers including “phone” services like a European phone number to make local voice calls and text messaging. But the cost of US$13 for 3GB, valid for 30 days seemed very reasonable. So we had to find WiFi for those modes, using our normal USA phone numbers. WiFi calls and texts worked just like we were home! Had set up WhatsApp which got around that limitation with other WhatsApp users, and used Facebook Messenger for some contacts. A little surprise was that when away from WiFi we DID receive and send SMS and MMS to other users of the “Chat” (RCS) feature of Google Messages. This feature was discovered by accident when a text message from a friend back in the USA showed up when out in the city away from WiFi. RCS/Chat worked on our Pixel 6’s on the RW by DISH SIM through the Eurolink eSIM for data. Cannot promise that all other combinations of SIMs and handsets will behave the same.