The best international roaming cell phone plans

International roaming rates are nothing to mess around with, so it’s important to know what you’re on the hook for before you travel abroad. We’ve surveyed the mobile landscape and picked out the carriers and plans that are most friendly to frequent out-of-country travelers.

Heng Sinith/AP/File
A ceremonial float carries the golden urn believed to hold the relics of Buddha makes its way during a march to Oudong, in Kandal province, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia (May 20, 2016). While traveling abroad can be fun, make sure you know what you're getting into with roaming charges.

You come home from vacation. You’re relaxed. You’re refreshed. Then you check your cell phone bill to find $800 due, and you wonder whether your cab is still outside. You know, so it can run you over.

International roaming rates are nothing to mess around with, so it’s important to know what you’re on the hook for before you travel abroad. We’ve surveyed the mobile landscape and picked out the carriers and plans that are most friendly to frequent out-of-country travelers.

While there are some good options from U.S.-based carriers right now (much better than in the past), it’s always worth your time to research carriers in your destination country, especially if you want high-speed data access.

Buying a cheap prepaid phone when you get off the plane can often be much more cost-effective than using your usual plan abroad. Or, you can call your carrier and ask whether your phone is compatible with international SIM cards. If so, you can buy a prepaid SIM in your destination country and simply pop it into your phone for access to the local network.

Best postpaid international roaming plans

For most countries, T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan is where it’s at. Included with every Simple Choice plan is unlimited texting and 2G data in more than 140 countries. Talk is only 20 cents a minute, a relative bargain compared with other international voice rates. If you can’t go without high-speed data for the trip, T-Mobile offers three tiers of high-speed data packs:

  • Single-day pass: $15 for 100MB
  • One-week pass: $25 for 200MB
  • Two-week pass: $50 for 500MB

In Mexico and Canada, you get access to your monthly 4G LTE data allotment, plus unlimited talk and text, all included with your plan. No other carrier comes close to beating that.

If you plan on traveling to South America often, Sprint’s Open World international add-on — which you can sign up for at no charge — is worth a look. Except for Cuba, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, Sprint allows unlimited talk and text in North and South America, plus gives you 1GB of 3G data — all for free. After you use that data, Sprint charges $30 per GB, a relatively good price for data abroad, especially since you’re only charged for the data you actually use.

Sprint offers competitive rates in many other countries, too: 20 cents per minute to talk, unlimited texting and a $30-per-GB data rate.

  • T-Mobile Simple Choice International Roaming
  • Price: Included with any Simple Choice plan (starts at $50/month)
  • At a glance: Unlimited text and 2G data in over 140 countries, calls are 20 cents/min
  • Why we like it: You’ll hardly ever have to worry about international roaming rates
  • Sprint Open World
  • Price: Available for free to anyone on Sprint (plans start at $40/month)
  • At a glance: Unlimited talk and text in most of North and South America, with 1GB of high-speed data; competitive rates elsewhere
  • Why we like it: Offers free high-speed data in most of North and South America
Things to Know
  • T-Mobile: You have the potential to get 4G LTE in Mexico and Canada, but it’s not guaranteed everywhere. Wi-Fi calls back to the U.S., Canada and Mexico are free from included countries. Wi-Fi calls between included countries are charged at the same rate as mobile talk, 20 cents per minute.
  • Sprint: The actual speed of the promised 1GB “high-speed data” depends on the country and location. Sprint only promises up to 3G speeds, not 4G LTE.
How They Compare
    • Verizon: $10 for every day you use your phone outside of the country. (In Mexico and Canada, it’s just $2 a day per line.) You keep your Verizon talk, text and data allowances with you. This means possible 4G LTE data speeds (depending on the country), but you could be paying $140 if you use your phone every day during a two-week trip. If you don’t plan on using your phone daily, Verizon could be worthwhile. Available in over 100 countries. (Verizon also offers monthly and pay-as-you-go international roaming prices.)
    • AT&T: The basic international plan costs an extra $30 per month for unlimited texting, $1-per-minute talk rates, and 120MB of 2G data (25 cents per MB afterward). Available in roughly 190 countries.

Best prepaid international roaming plans

Only two prepaid carriers allow international roaming beyond North America: Google’s Project Fi and Metro PCS.

Until recently, Project Fi was invite-only but is now open to anyone. If you can live with some of its restrictions (like offering only three kinds of phones), Google’s unconventional mobile service can actually get you great international roaming rates in over 120 countries, especially on data. While abroad with Project Fi, you get up to 3G data speeds (depending on the country) at a rate of $10 per GB, plus unlimited texts. You’ll be charged only for the data you use, with no overage fees. Voice rates in most frequently visited countries are 20 cents per minute and can be even cheaper over Wi-Fi.

Metro PCS’ World Calling add-on has a good bit of South America covered, plus Mexico, Canada, Spain, Switzerland, Japan and Thailand. World Calling costs $10 extra per month and gets you 200 minutes of talk, 200 text messages to send (unlimited received) and 200MB of data while you’re in those countries.

  • Project Fi International Roaming
  • Price: Included with $20/month base plan
  • At a glance: Unlimited texting and relatively cheap voice calls in 120+ countries, 3G data at $10/GB
  • Why we like it: No one else offers such a great price on 3G data speeds abroad
  • Metro PCS World Calling
  • Price: $10/month on top of a required $50 or $60/month base plan
  • At a glance: 200 minutes of talk, 200 texts and 200MB of data in select countries
  • Why we like it: The only traditional prepaid carrier to offer international roaming outside of North America
Things to Know
  • Project Fi: You’ll have only three phone options: the Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X and Nexus 6. Stateside, Project Fi uses a combination of Sprint’s network and T-Mobile’s, plus public Wi-Fi when available.
  • Metro PCS: It also offers Canada Unlimited service and Mexico Unlimited service, each at $5 per month. You get unlimited texts and calls within either Mexico or Canada, plus access to as much data as your Metro PCS plan allows, although you’re not guaranteed 4G LTE speeds while outside of the U.S.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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