Everything you need to know about taking your phone overseas

A woman uses her smartphone to pull up directions abroad.

Bringing your phone abroad? Cellphones are so integrated into our everyday lives that it can be tough to part with them when we hop on a plane to another country. But before you pack your cellphone, it's a good idea to learn the ins and outs of cellphone service in Europe and other parts of the world to avoid coming home to a shockingly steep phone bill.

Global roaming charges can stack up quickly. So, what's your best bet? International roaming plan, hot spot pass or a SIM card? Or should you just buy a new cheap phone at your destination?

Depends on the phone company
The major domestic phone carriers offer prepaid voice and data packages for foreign travel –  the option with which many consumers feel comfortable. The costs of these plans depend on your phone carrier, the type of phone you have and where you use it.

To figure out the cost of a text message or price per minute of a phone call, you can check your phone company's pricing. This information is fairly straightforward, but the cost of using data – posting on Facebook, tweeting, sending emails or searching the Internet for the best restaurants – can seem daunting. That's because it's not an exact science.

SIM cards
Some travelers find it easier to buy a new SIM card (a microchip that can be inserted into a cellphone) from a new provider once they arrive in the foreign destination. In order to do this, the phone must be unlocked, enabling it to access another network. You can ask your home phone company if they will unlock your phone (no guarantee they will), otherwise foreign phone carriers sometimes provide codes to unlock the phone.

In your destination, visit a newsstand or mobile phone store to purchase the SIM card. It's important to point out that if you use a new SIM card, you won't be using your own phone number; instead you'll have a local number. As a result, if anyone in the U.S. calls you and doesn't have an international calling plan, they may fall victim to a weighty bill.

Takeaway: Getting a new SIM card is the one of the best ways to make cheap local calls. However, if you're an inexperienced traveler or not very tech savvy, fumbling around with SIM cards in a foreign country may prove challenging.

Buying a new phone at your destination
If you're traveling for an extended period of time, such as on a study abroad, purchasing travel protection to protect your travel investment might prove to be worthwhile. It also might be easiest to purchase a cheap new phone. This phone will already come unlocked, equipped with a local SIM card and let you make cheap local calls.

As you might imagine, prices vary drastically. Many travelers who visit Spain, for example, use Orange. Orange's plan allows you to make calls for $0.09, receive calls and texts for free and send text messages for $0.13. Prepaid data is about $0.34 for 10 megabytes a day.

Some important things to keep in mind: When purchasing a new foreign phone, find out if a contract is required, learn the regions where your phone will receive coverage and know how and where to refill prepaid minutes.

Save money by suspending your phone service for the length of your trip. Most providers will charge around $10 to $15 to do this, but it's better than being charged your normal monthly service for the time you're overseas.

If you decide to purchase a burner phone in another country, you can still carry along your home iPhone or Android device without running up a bill. Simply switch the phone to Airplane Mode and don't switch it back. This way, you'll be able to take photos with the camera, use available Wi-Fi and check old messages. However, resist the temptation to turn Airplane Mode off, as this will chomp a large bite out of your travel budget.

Hot Spots
Another option is hot spots. Hot spots are suited for those who use a lot of data and want to avoid overage fees. In this case, you can turn off data roaming and buy an unlimited citywide Wi-Fi pass. Companies like Boingo make it easy to access Wi-Fi on any device at more than 1 million hot spots worldwide, including hotels, airports, cafes, stadiums and more. Boingo offers one-month unlimited mobile Wi-Fi access for two devices for $7.95.

The biggest downside of Wi-Fi is that users may be at risk of "sniffer" attacks, designed to steal information like passwords and IDs.

Quick Tips

  • To use the least amount of bytes, always upload the lowest resolution quality of photos and videos.
  • Don't download files via email without Wi-Fi connection.
  • Avoid downloading songs without Wi-Fi connection.
  • Steer clear of video chatting unless on Wi-Fi.
  • Use the Wi-Fi at your hotel.
  • Download Skype and other important apps before you travel.
  • Check out apps like HeyTell, an instant voice messaging app, and Viber, which lets you send free messages and make free calls to other Viber users on any device and network in any country.