Mobile Phone Options Abroad

Mobile Phone Options Abroad
March 22, 2016

How to Stay Connected Overseas

Beyond Instagramming amazing meals in Paris or Snapchatting the elephants on safari in South Africa, it's crucial that you have a reliable way to contact friends, family, local emergency services, and the University while abroad. In a recent survey of Harvard’s international travelers, when asked what advice they would give to others, many students, faculty, and staff strongly recommended that you research and plan in advance how to stay connected.

Mobile phone networks vary from country to country, roaming charges are expensive, and access to free, public Wi-Fi is by no means a guarantee. If you're traveling to a remote, high-risk location that lacks reliable phone service, contact our International Safety & Security team before you depart.

Review the phone options below, and research the specifics of your destination to determine which method will work best for you.

Unlocked iPhone with SIM card. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Option 1: Preloaded SIM Card

If you have an unlocked smartphone or mobile phone, consider purchasing a preloaded international SIM card, and swap out your phone’s current SIM card for the new one. You can buy a regional card (e.g. Europe), or one that works across continents and carriers. Alternatively, you can purchase a local, carrier-specific pre-loaded SIM card in your destination country.

  • Best use: Recommended for long-term or frequent travel. The regional and international cards may be a good option if you plan to travel to multiple countries. Roaming charges can be expensive, and this option will allow you to maximize your communication opportunities across countries and continents.

  • Cost: Typically $15-30, which includes a preloaded value that you can add to, as needed. Some cards have the option of talk, text, and data, or only talk and text. Before you buy, research the availability and reliability of your destination country’s networks to determine your specific costs and needs.

Tip: Buy the SIM card online and install it in your phone before you leave so that you have instant service upon arrival.

Mobile phone with SIM card. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Option 2: Local Phone and SIM card

Another option for long-term or frequent travel is to purchase or rent an inexpensive mobile phone and SIM card combination from a local carrier store in your destination country or from an online retailer before you leave the U.S.

  • Best use: Recommended if you only need a phone to make calls and send text messages. It's a good option for countries that have reliable cell service but little-to-no data network.

  • Cost: Typically $25-150. Harvard has negotiated a reduced rate with TravelCell for students, faculty, and staff. Log in to Outings & Innings for details.

Option 3: Home Phone with International Plan

Purchase an international plan from your current carrier so you can bring and use your existing phone. Many U.S. carriers have working relationships with international carriers that allow their subscribers to utilize the international network, for a fee.

  • Best use: Recommended for short international trips.

  • Cost: This is typically the most expensive option, and costs depend on your service provider. Costs range anywhere from $20 for a few gigabytes of international data to $100 or more, depending on your talk, text, and data needs. Check with your carrier to determine which plan will work best in your destination country. See AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile for details.

Tip: To avoid costly data roaming charges, put your phone in airplane mode when not in use; turn off data roaming; keep your social media posts and video streaming to a minimum; and change the email settings on your phone from "push" to "manual fetch."

When it comes to protecting your data abroad, a few small precautions can make a big difference.  Photo credit: William Iven/

Protect Your Data and Yourself

IT security laws and practices vary widely by country, so before you go, review our guidance for keeping your data safe abroad. As tempting as free, public Wi-Fi is, you may want to rethink when and how you access it.

And while maintaining communication is important, be mindful that using a laptop, tablet, or expensive mobile phone might make you the target of petty crime. Discreet use is recommended, as is being aware of your surroundings. Make sure you have important phone numbers stored on your phone and written down somewhere safe in case your phone is stolen.

Important Phone Numbers

  • Harvard Travel Assist: +1-617-998-0000
  • Local 911 or equivalent
  • Home-country embassy in destination country
  • Hotel/lodging in destination country
  • Family, friends, and Harvard contacts

Additional Resources