06/12/2014 10:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

6 Tips for Using Your Cell Phone Abroad


Traveling internationally without a data plan can be intimidating -- especially in a world where we're constantly using our phones to Yelp restaurants or make our way via Google maps. But while it seems easy enough to just pick up the phone and dial (or, if we're being honest, upload those photos to Facebook or Instagram), international roaming fees and data charges can add up quickly.

So to keep your friends and family updated while you're on the road (or just to make sure everyone's reading your tweets), here are our tips for avoiding international fees while staying connected:

Consider purchasing an international phone plan

If you try to use your U.S.-based phone internationally, you're likely to be charged high roaming fees for accessing data and making calls. Check with your provider to see if your current plan allows for international calling. If it doesn't, activate international calling, rent an international phone or purchase an unlocked phone (with an international SIM card) for use on your trip. Keep in mind that an international phone plan is most useful when you plan to travel for an extended period of time.

Check voltage and converter requirements

The last thing you want to do is blow a fuse and ruin your smartphone when you're trying to charge it, so make sure to read up on your destination's voltage requirements and outlets before purchasing an adapter. If you plan to visit multiple countries, Amazon is a great place to find inexpensive universal adapters and converters.

Turn off data usage

Reduce data roaming charges by updating your settings to check for email and wireless connections manually, rather than automatically. That way, you can check and send emails when it's convenient (e.g., when you're using free Wi-Fi at the hotel). Alternatively, you can keep your phone in "airplane mode" when you don't need Wi-Fi to help prevent your phone's battery from draining too quickly.

Take advantage of free messaging platforms

The increase of international travel means that companies are finding new ways to keep us connected through a simple Wi-Fi connection. If you plan on using a laptop, Skype is great for messaging and voice calls. Want to text your friends from abroad? Free apps like WeChat and WhatsApp allow you to send messages (and photos and stickers!) over Wi-Fi.

Look out for free Wi-Fi

Most hotels offer free Wi-Fi for at least 24 hours -- check with the front desk to see if they have a username and password that can use to access it. Increasingly, cafes and restaurants also offer free Wi-Fi and will happily give out the password if you ask.

Use a prepaid phone card

If you definitely plan on making phone calls to loved ones back at home, one of the easiest things to do is purchase a prepaid phone card. You can find them at gas stations and local tobacconist shops, and it'll allow you to make calls from a local landline or pay phone in the country you're visiting.

What are your tips for staying connected while traveling? Share your own ideas in the comments!