Managing a cell phone abroad

Depending on how much you are paying a month, it might make sense to ditch your cell phone plan back in the US and use pre-paid SIM cards while aborad.  Still want to hang on to your old phone number? It’s easier and quicker than you think and can save you some cash on a long trip.

Option 1: Keeping your existing US based cell phone plan

1. Upgrade to an international plan – Most of the carriers will offer an international phone plan that will allow you to receive calls, text messages and surf the web with your current cell phone setup. The drawback, however, is it can be fairly expensive – something like $10 a day – while traveling. This is most suited for shorter trips abroad.

2. Put your account on hold – If you are leaving the country for an extended period of time, many of the cell phone carriers will allow you to put your account for a small fee. For example, AT&T charges $10/month for this service. You will still be paying some a little money monthly, but this will save you from paying the entire bill while you are away. (For me this would approximately $55 a month that I would have to pay for services I don’t use). And once you are abroad, you can use local SIM cards for calling and data services, so long as your cell phone is GSM and unlocked. This option is best suited for people that would be abroad for just a month or two who wish to keep their current cell phone plan.

Option 2: Ditch your phone plan, while keep your existing phone number (optional)
If you are planning to travel for an extended period of time, you can still keep your existing phone number by moving it to Google Voice. (This is available only to mobile phone numbers in the United States). Google Voice allows  you  to make and receive calls via your old number via the Google Voice application on your phone or via a web browser. You will still receive SMS and voicemails through Google Voice as well, and can even have your voicemails automatically transcribed to e-mails. Once you are back to the US, you can have Google Voice forward phone calls to your new US based phone number and users will not know the difference.

For myself personally, I moved my number to Google Voice and plan to have been using local SIM cards as I am traveling. Here are the steps I took to accomplish this:

1. Get your phone unlocked – Check that your cell phone is unlocked, you can try it yourself by inserting a SIM card from another cell phone provider. If in doubt, give you carrier a call and check their policy for unlocking your cell phone. As for AT&T there is a simple unlock website to submit your request. AT&T Unlock

2. Move your number to Google Voice (US numbers only)- If you do not have an account already, sign up for Google Voice. Once that is setup, follow the directions on below for porting your phone number. The entire process was painless and took about 2 days to complete.  Afterward your account will automatically be closed with the carrier, I was instantly locked out of my AT&T online account the next day. Howtogeek – Port your number to Google Voice.

3. Finding the best deals on local SIM cards – There are many websites dedicated to pre paid SIM cards while abroad, but I have found this one to be particularly helpful. Prepaid SIM card Wiki

Some notes from my experience:

  • What’s App – If you already have this phone number via What’s App, there will be no changes to how you use What’s App.
  • iMessage (Apple) – iMessage will cease to work via your existing phone number. However, you can still use iMessage with all of your friends, just ensure that you have an e-mail address associated with iMessage and have your friends add that to their contact list.

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