I fly a lot.
Last year, I logged 152,033 miles in the air, and I’m already well on my way to surpassing those statistics this year.
My travels bring me all across the globe. When I’m on the road, staying connected is a must, especially when it’s during the work week. Whether it’s keeping up with Slack or post on InstagramI am always using my devices.
Relying on Wi-Fi access abroad isn’t the most convenient or reliable. So, to stay connected, I make sure that my iPhone connects to a local cellular network and use that internet access whenever I’m away from home.
Other than Wi-Fi, there are three ways to connect your smartphone when traveling abroad. You can roam with your primary home carrier, purchase a local SIM card or subscribe to a package from a worldwide service provider.
In recent years, the major US wireless carriers have made it easier than ever to roam with your domestic plan. Both AT&T and Verizon offer a $10-a-day pass that allows you to use international networks without charging exorbitant pay-per-use fees. (It’s worth noting that international access is included in some T-Mobile plans at no additional charge.)
These passes are definitely a great option if you’re an occasional traveler and looking for the most convenient and seamless option. But, $10 a day is still quite steep, especially if you’re spending lots of time outside of the US
In my recent iPhone 14 Pro review, I mentioned that “when I’m on the road, I usually buy a local SIM card or connect to Google Fi for cheaper international data. At the same time, I can also stay connected to my primary US carrier, Verizon, without incurring the daily $10 TravelPass charge.”
I’ve since received a bunch of reader questions about this, so I’ll now explain how that’s done.
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Dual SIM is a must
In order to stay connected to your primary US carrier and take advantage of cheaper international data, you’ll need to make sure that your phone supports dual SIM functionality.
SIM cards, which stand for subscriber identity modules, are small chips that associate your phone number with your cellular provider’s network. With dual SIM functionality, you’ll be able to use two phone numbers at the same time.
Dual SIM first came to Apple’s flagship smartphones with the iPhone XS and XR family, and the models since then support this feature. Many Android phones also offer this functionality — be sure to check the technical specifications for your specific device.
The first step is to make sure that your primary domestic network is activated on your phone. For most people, that’ll occur during or shortly after purchasing your phone.
Personally, I’ve been using Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone, the 14 Pro Max, since it launched in mid-September. While the iPhone 14 lineup ditches the physical SIM card slot, it supports easy activation with a new-ish standard, called eSIM, or embedded SIM. (The iPhone 14 supports dual SIM with two active eSIMs at one time.)
All the major US carriers, along with over 400 global wireless providers, support eSIM — you can find the full list on Apple’s dedicated website.
Once your primary domestic network is activated on your phone, your first SIM card will be provisioned on your device. This will allow you to make and receive calls, send texts and use data with your primary US number.
At this stage, if you were to roam with your device, you’d be charged the $10-a-day fee with AT&T or Verizon (assuming that you’ve signed up for the respective packages with your carrier).
While that may be the most convenient option, you can save some more money by installing a local SIM card or subscribing to a package from a worldwide service provider.
Finding cheaper international data
To avoid the daily $10 charge from AT&T or Verizon, the next step is to find a cheaper SIM card option that works in your destination.
For me, that has historically been Google Fi, which is an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) that operates in the US using T-Mobile’s network. Google Fi offers a variety of plans, some of which include international access. (Otherwise, data access abroad costs $10 per gigabyte and calling costs 20 cents per minute.)
The nice thing about Google Fi is that it works in over 200 countries and requires very little work after the initial setup. You can even pause and resume your plan as needed depending on your travel schedule, though some travelers have reportedly been cut off from Google Fi for roaming too much.
Google Fi supports iPhone activations using both a physical SIM and eSIM, which is a great option for those with the latest iPhone models.
Another alternative is to take a look at worldwide service providers that offer data-only SIMs for international travel. Many of these providers offer mobile apps on the Apple App and Google Play stores, and the activation process is usually as simple as tapping through a few screens and installing an eSIM on your device.
Apple compile a list of these providers that support the eSIM standard, and I’ve personally had success with Airalo, Truphone and GigSky. A quick internet search for your destination and SIM card should list the rates and packages available with these worldwide service providers.
Just to give you a sense of the savings, I paid $12.99 for 3 gigabytes of high-speed data in Israel this week through GigSky. With Verizon, that would’ve cost $60 and with Google Fi, that would’ve been $30.
Finally, your last option is to find a local cellular provider in your destination that offers prepaid SIM cards during your travels. This can be a bit more complicated depending on where you’re going and if there’s a language barrier, but it’s often the cheapest option.
Once you pick an international data provider that’s cheaper than your primary network, it’s time to enable dual SIM and start saving.
The secret lies in the settings
Once you’re abroad, the first step is to make sure both of your SIM cards are activated and connected. On iPhones, you’ll see two rows of network status bars in the top right-hand corner of the display, which indicates that you are connected to two networks.
Going into settings and clicking through to the cellular tab will give you the details of your individual SIM cards. You’ll want to make sure your primary AT&T or Verizon number and your international provider are listed as “on.”
From there, you’ll want to change the primary cellular data line to your international provider and turn off cellular data switching.
By doing this, you’re telling your iPhone to exclusively use data with your international provider, which will avoid any charges for internet access with your primary US carrier.
(If you want to be extra sure you’re not charged for data from your US provider, you can also turn off data roaming on your primary line by tapping on your phone number on the previous screen.)
You can then change your default voice line to your international network, too.
Now, you’ll still be connected to both your international and your domestic phone numbers — but your outbound calls, texts and data will be routed through your international provider.
However, the beauty of dual SIM is that you’ll still be connected to your domestic phone number in the background. You’ll still receive phone calls and texts, but you won’t be charged for a $10-a-day pass unless you answer them.
Receiving calls and texts is free with AT&T and Verizon regardless of where you are, as confirmed to TPG by spokespersons for both carriers. Answering calls or texts will trigger a $10 pass, but if you leave them unanswered, you won’t be charged any fees with your US carrier.
Now, sometimes you really need to answer an urgent call or text. To ensure you don’t initiate a $10 international package, be sure to ignore the call and then return it using data, perhaps via FaceTime Audio or Whatsapp, which will use the internet access provided by your (cheaper) international provider.
If you can’t place the call using one of the internet calling options, then you can connect to Wi-Fi and use Wi-Fi calling to make your phone call. Look for the “AT&T Wi-Fi” or “VZW Wi-Fi” status in the network bar to confirm that you’re connected to Wi-Fi before placing your call.
(Wi-Fi calling to US numbers is usually included with most domestic unlimited plans. Be sure to check the specifics of your package though.)
The same story is true with Android phones and other smartphones that support dual SIM. I don’t have as much experience roaming with these devices, but the general steps outlined above should suffice.
If you’re looking to save on international roaming charges — and stay connected to your domestic provider — you’ll definitely want to purchase a dual SIM-capable smartphone.
This way, you’ll be able to access two phone numbers at the same time. The first should be your primary US provider and the second should be one that offers cheaper service than the $10-a-day pass with AT&T or Verizon.
Once you’ve activated both lines on your phone, be sure to set the international number as your primary one for data and calls. You’ll still receive incoming calls and texts on your domestic line, but as long as you don’t answer them, you won’t be charged the $10-a-day fee.
When you are ready to return your calls and texts, do it over the internet — either via Wi-Fi calling or through FaceTime Audio or WhatsApp — and the savings will start racking up quickly.