The Best Cell Phone Plans for Studying Abroad

According to the iie.org 2016 Open Doors report, 1 in 10 US undergrads study abroad at some point before graduating. The opportunity to study abroad is exciting for students as they get an opportunity to travel and experience new cultures, but it can also be nerve wracking for parents as their “kids” journey to faraway lands for extended periods of time.

One thing that both students and parents can agree on is that having a reliable way to get online as soon as their plane lands is pretty high on the list of priorities. Students want to be able to Snapchat and Instagram their awesome adventures from start to end, and parents want regular text (and yes, even voice) updates to know that everything is ok.

Our last blog post focused on ways to get by without data, such as downloading important items ahead of time or taking advantage of wifi hotspots. Those techniques are still important, but college students today demand more. This post will highlight the domestic cell phone plans that actually allow you to travel abroad and have access to the cell phone network from day one, without breaking your budget.

Project Fi (by Google)

You have probably never heard of Project Fi before, but the Google owned wireless service is hands down the best US cell phone plan for persons who travel frequently. Unfortunately it comes with one really big catch, the service can only be used with an officially supported phone and at present (December 2016) that list only includes 5 phones. Spoiler alert, the iPhone is not on the list :(

If you already have one of the phones on the list or you were considering buying one, then you should just stop reading now and go sign up.

Here is what Project Fi offers to travellers visiting any of the over 135+ supported countries

  • Data: Project Fi offers high speed data for the same $10/GB that you pay in the U.S.
  • Texts: Unlimited international texts are free whether you are home or abroad.
  • Calls (WiFi): If you are connected to a Wi-Fi network
    1. All incoming calls are free
    2. Calls to US and Canadian numbers are free
    3. Per-minute costs for calls to other countries vary.
  • Calls (Cell network): If you're using cell coverage, all calls cost 20¢ per minute.

T-Mobile International Roaming

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a Project Fi compatible phone, then T-Mobile is probably your next best bet. Their offering won’t win any awards for speed, but it has you covered in terms making sure you get online from the moment you land. If you are not already a T-Mobile customer you can always consider unlocking your phone and switching.

T-Mobile’s International Roaming plan provides Unlimited 2G (aka slow) data and texting in 140+ countries and destinations—all at no extra cost beyond your existing plan. What’s the catch? It only applies if you are on T-Mobile ONE or one of their Simple Choice plans. This doesn’t mean you have to have a long term contract (T-Mobile doesn’t do those anymore), but it won’t work on their Prepaid plans or “No credit check” plans.

While 2G speeds are certainly not what you are used to, it should be good enough for everyday things like email, Whatsapp, Twitter and Google Maps. Instagram and Snapchat will work, but with a noticeable delay, and YouTube is pretty much out of the question.

Here is the breakdown of exactly what you get:

  • Data: Unlimited 2G data.
  • Texts: Unlimited international texts are free whether you are home or abroad.
  • Calls (Cell network): All calls cost 20¢ per minute.

For those who demand faster downloads, high-speed packages can be purchased, starting at $15 for 100MB of data to use for one day.

Sprint Global Roaming

Sprint’s roaming plan is pretty much identical to T-Mobile’s in terms of the cost, features, and the list of countries that are covered. Sprint’s biggest issue is device compatibility, existing Sprint customers should contact customer service to make sure that they have a LTE/GSM capable device. Non-Sprint customers may also find it more difficult to Switch to Sprint that to T-Mobile, because the list of phones that are compatible with Sprint is much smaller.

Dishonorable Mention

For the ultra-frugal undergrads, there are two additional options that we feel compelled to mention, but they must first be prefaced with a serious disclaimer.

WARNING: These services present themselves as free or cheap, but they contain lots of fine print and expensive upsells to try to make money. If you are meticulous and deliberate about how you use the services, you can get reasonable functionality for little to no money, but be sure to read the fine print and the online reviews first. Caveat Emptor!

FreedomPop Global SIM

FreedomPop basic plan offers 200 VoIP minutes, 500 texts and 200MB of data a month for “free” in the US and about 25 European countries. Their SIM card can be purchased on Amazon for $5-10, but you will end up paying $15-20 in one time activation fees before you can actually use it. They also offer an “unlimited Whatsapp” plan through their website that comes with 100 VoIP minutes, 100 texts, 200MB and unlimited Whatsapp messaging. It is not clearly stated if the unlimited portion includes sending images/videos and making Whatsapp calls, but our guess would be that it does not.

Pay attention to any “limited time promotional offers” that they try to get you to sign up for when activating, and read every page carefully to make sure you are not opting in to any recurring charges. Just to be safe, you may want to use a pre-paid debit card with the service to limit your total possible expenditure.

Judging from the reviews on Amazon their customer service is pretty terrible. While some people seem to think the service is great, at least 25% of the reviewers have given it a 1 or 2 star rating.

Chatsim

Chatsim starts from the premise of a “chat only” service and then upsells from there. They claim to have coverage in over 150 countries and their SIM card can be purchased from their website or from Amazon for $30 ($15 activation + $15 annual fee).

Chatsim allows you to send unlimited text and emoji messages using Whatsapp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger and a number of other supported applications. By default images, videos, and voice calls will be blocked, and you are responsible for making sure that no other applications are using data in the background.

If you want to send and receive images or make phone calls, Chatsim offers multimedia recharges ranging in price from $15 - $75 that allow you to send a certain number of pictures or videos or make a certain number of phone calls depending on which country you are in.

As with FreedomPop, Chatsims reviews on Amazon indicate poor customer service and frequent technical difficulties getting set up. While Chatsim’s service seems simpler on the surface, and less fraught with hidden/recurring fees, about 45% of the reviewers have given it a 1 or 2 star rating.