Main Content

Cell Phone Options Abroad

A young man and a young woman check their phones while waiting on a subway platform in China

Photo via lwzee/Unsplash

Learn how to stay connected and manage your talk, text, and data while traveling abroad.

How to Stay Connected Overseas

Researching and planning how to stay connected is consistently one of the top pieces of advice that Harvard's international travelers say they would give to other students, faculty, and staff preparing to travel abroad. Cellular phone networks and reliability vary from country to country, roaming charges are expensive, and access to free, public Wi-Fi is by no means a guarantee (nor is it a secure option). If you're traveling to a remote, high-risk location that lacks reliable phone service, contact our International Safety & Security team before you depart.

Wi-Fi can be spotty depending on the location, so make sure you have everything you need to get to your first location before leaving the country.

— Harvard student traveler, summer 2015

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

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. With this option, you can 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.

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 with your HarvardKey,click on "All Anyday" and then "TravelCell" 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 and plan. Costs range anywhere from $10 per day to $40 per month 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, T-Mobile, and Verizon 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."

Protect Your Privacy 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, using a laptop, tablet, or expensive mobile phone might make you the target of petty crime. Be mindful of your surroundings. You should store important phone numbers in your phone and written down elsewhere in case your phone is stolen.

Make sure your phone is actually usable abroad. And, in case your phone breaks, runs out of battery, or is stolen, write down important numbers.

— Harvard student traveler, summer 2015

Important Phone Numbers

  • International SOS: +1-617-998-0000 (Remember to download the Assistance App, too.)
  • Local 911 or equivalent
  • Home-country embassy in destination country
  • Hotel/lodging in destination country
  • Family, friends, and Harvard contacts