A smartphone is fast becoming the most versatile machine a traveler can own. It is our telephone, stereo, messenger, high resolution camera, and POS system. And in a turn that makes the smartphone even more valuable to our everyday functioning, even mythically-so, there’s this: it’s not constrained by nationality.

From buying a local SIM card, to signing up for an international mobile plan, to wifi hopping, there are all sorts of ways to use your smartphone to stay connected when traveling around the world.

Local SIM Cards

A SIM card, short for subscriber identity module card, is that square plastic wafer nestled inside your smartphone. Its job is to store information and connect the device to the carrier network.

The thing that makes a SIM card so great for travel is that it’s entirely interchangeable. If you’re taking a vacation to Italy and want your phone to put on a fancy Italian jacket and speak to all the right Italian cell towers, you can simply buy a local SIM card and for all intents and purpose it will be an Italian phone. Yes, you’ll even get a new, local phone number.

Mobile technology being the competitive beast that it is, of course there are some caveats. Not all cell phone carriers are created equal. And not all cell phones are equipped to handle a SIM card switch. The reasons have to do with the two competing mobile technologies, GSM and CDMA. Of the four major US carriers, T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM, and Sprint and Verizon use CDMA. Long story short, GSM is used all around the world and is SIM-swap-friendly, and CDMA is not. Verizon and Sprint pulled the short straw on that one. The good news for customers of the latter carriers is that the newest technology, 4G LTE, is quickly bridging the gap in performance speed and accessibility.

Since we’re still presently living in a world of GSM and CDMA, SIM card compatibility is a real concern for travelers. To swap out a SIM card, you’ll need a SIM card local to the country you’re visiting and an unlocked GSM phone, which can be a breeze or a behemoth depending on your carrier.

International Travel Plans

Rather than hassling with multiple SIM cards for every different country you plan to visit, the simplest plan of attack for frequent travelers is to choose a carrier with a good international plan. A bit of research before jumping into a contract can help you arm yourself with a mobile plan suited to your lifestyle. I.e. one that’s not going to bury you with roaming fees if you want to go online or need to make a phone call home.
At the present moment, T-Mobile is by far the best US mobile provider when it comes to international travel. They lucked out when their GSM network became the gold standard, and then they made the smart move of offering travelers plans with unlimited data and texting in over 140 countries. As the world shrinks, it’s important that we’re able to communicate regardless of our nationality or network. That being said, although T-Mobile is currently the best carrier for frequent travelers, other carriers are sure to up the ante soon enough. No matter which carrier you choose, look for a plan that offers international texting and data, inflight texting, and wifi calling rates that meet or exceed that of the present pack-leader.

Wifi Hopping

Mobile wifi is quite possibly the cheapest way to stay connected during travel. Hooking up to free/cheap wifi is a youngblood’s way of staying in touch without worrying about any of the logistics that come with cell phone overages. A competitive wifi calling plan includes an international element that is no different from your regular rates. For example, calls made over wifi should either be free or count against your regular plan minutes. Roaming rates are the enemy here. Especially surprise roaming rates. Be sure to turn off your mobile data so you’re not accidentally racking up a huge bill.

Wifi Finder apps for both Android and iOS can be run without eating up your precious data, and they will direct you to the nearest wifi connection.

Hotels and cafe owners are getting savvy to the money-making opportunity though, and it’s more and more common to see business owners charging for wifi access. It’s wise to have a backup plan. As wifi becomes more and more common, you’ll see more rental car agencies offering it as an add-on to your car rental. This is one add-on to actually consider. Depending on how far you’re traveling and how many countries you’re visiting, having access to the web right from your car could be a convenient alternative to bouncing from cafe to cafe.

Staying in touch shouldn’t be something to worry about. The slightest bit of planning and research ahead of time can save all sorts of travel strife. Here’s to sharing your adventures from the road!

About the Author:

Katie Kapro is a writer and lifelong adventurer. She holds an MFA in nonfiction and grew up writing stories about her childhood in Costa Rica. She presently lives in the US intermountain west. Though one region is a jungle and one a desert, both places are teeming with wild horses, toothy reptiles, and frolicking goats. When she’s not writing, she’s excitedly planning an upcoming trip to the fjords and troll valleys of Norway. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.