Americans can normally use their cell phones with ease in Mexico and Canada, but as for anywhere else on the globe, data roaming charges pile up. Now with options like carrier deals and SIM cards, travelers are able to keep their charges in check.

Wi-Fi Versus Carrier Plans

Your phone could be good to go if your destination has Wi-Fi. By connecting to the nearest signal, you can use programs such as iMessage, WhatsApp, or FaceTime to keep in touch with family back home. Skype, most known for video chat, offers an affordable per-limit and unlimited calling plan. You can even pay individually for texts and international phone calls. You should always check for Wi-Fi first to save data no matter which plan you have.

Locating Wi-Fi might not be as much of a challenge as you’d think. You could find it in your hotel or a café, though some establishments charge a fee or make you buy something. In some regions you can sign up for a subscription with Boingo to access paid Wi-Fi hotspots.

If you don’t want to try your luck by hoping for Wi-Fi, call up your phone carrier. Different plans have passes for certain lengths of time, from one day to a month. For trips longer than two months, you should put your U.S. plan on hold and join a carrier in the country you’re visiting. If you opt for a plan rather than a pass for months at a time, you could find your plan cancelled or limited when you get back.

The type of plan or pass you get depends on your carrier. If you’re a T-Mobile customer you can select deals for texting and unlimited data in certain countries, but it becomes expensive outside their range. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint all have their own deals on plans and passes. Those with an Android phone can look into Google’s Project Fi for inexpensive plans as well.

Another word of advice – if you’re going to Europe, don’t rent a cell phone with a local number. Hidden fees will surprise you when you get the bill.


Your Phone, Your SIM card and You

You also have the option of buying and installing a new SIM card. What in the world is a SIM card? The acronym stands for “Subscriber Identity Module,” and essentially it’s a chip that connects your phone to a particular carrier. For many smartphone users they’re located in that inconspicuous slot on the side, which you can access by pressing the eject button with an unbent paper clip.

By installing a SIM card bought in another country you’ll be able to use your phone like you would at home. Unfortunately there could be a catch. Some carriers lock the phone, meaning you can’t use another carrier’s SIM card. To find out if yours is locked or unlocked, call up your carrier. Then you can ask about unlocking your phone – though they might give you a hard time about it.

So where do you get a new SIM card? Experts suggest buying one at your destination, as many places sell SIM cards in airports or nearby stores. It could also be worth the effort to do some online shopping and have an international SIM card sent to you before your trip.