Using Cellular Data Internationally: Buying a Local SIM Card

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If you’re planning a trip outside the United States, you’ve probably started looking into your phone plan’s international features. Many phone plans include little to no international data while others offer international add-ons (like Verizon’s TravelPass or AT&T’s Day Pass) for an additional price. However, these additional costs can quickly add up. 

“When you travel outside the United States and you just take your cell phone with you, you can end up with bills that can be in the thousands of dollars for using your phone outside of the United States,” says money expert Clark Howard.

In this article, I’ll explore a much cheaper alternative: buying a local SIM card when you get to your destination.

How To Buy a SIM Card While Traveling Internationally

While it may seem intimidating to purchase your cell service when you arrive, it’s actually very simple (and cheap!).

Depending on the country that you’re visiting, you’ll likely be able to find local SIM cards with a cheap cell phone plan for just a few bucks. Typically, you’ll see a few options in international airports as well as at convenience stores and shops along busy streets. As long as your phone is unlocked, you can easily pick up a SIM card (or activate an eSIM) at one of these locations in most country’s major cities.

Follow these steps to buy a local SIM card and get the best deal on data while traveling outside the United States.

1. Take an Unlocked Phone

If you’re thinking about purchasing a local SIM card on your next international trip, the only thing you’ll need to bring is an unlocked phone. 

As long as your current phone is paid off, it’s likely already unlocked. If it is, you’ll be able to use it with a SIM card that you purchase on your trip. If you’re with one of The Big Three (AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon Wireless), you can call your carrier to verify that your phone is unlocked.

Alternatively, if you’re still paying off your cell phone, it’s locked. In this case, you will not be able to use another carrier’s SIM card. So what do you do then? Here’s what Clark recommends:

“If you have an old phone in your house that still works (an old iPhone or Android, for example) you charge it up, you take it, and when you get to where you’re going, buy a SIM card. And if your phone takes a digital SIM, you can do an eSIM; if it doesn’t, it’s a physical SIM.”

If you can’t find an old smartphone lying around, you can always buy a cheap unlocked phone. You can find refurbished unlocked smartphones for under $100 online, which could still work out to be cheaper than paying for an international add-on from your current cell phone carrier. Plus, leaving your main cell phone behind could help prevent any accidental damage, loss or theft on your trip!

2. Purchase a SIM Card or eSIM When You Arrive

After you’ve verified that your phone is unlocked (or found/purchased an unlocked phone for your trip) the next step is to purchase a SIM at your destination. You’ll likely find local cell phone service for sale in major airports, convenience stores and other locations you’ll likely be visiting on your first day anyway.


“In most any country in big cities, you can buy a SIM at a little shop right on the street and you’ll be paying so little for data it’ll shock you. So you’ll be able to do everything on the data backbone. That means for iPhone customers, you’re doing everything over iMessage or FaceTime, and then it’s pretty seamless for whoever you’re communicating with back in the U.S. or anywhere. Local calling is generally going to be free with that SIM card.”

Of course, you’ll also be able to use the data for maps and routing, translation apps, social media, etc. 

While you’ll find better prices on nearly any local service plan (including unlimited), be mindful of how much data you plan to use. You’ll likely be able to use WiFi at your hotel while traveling, which will help reduce your data usage. Also, consider the length of your stay. Many cell phone plans may only cover a week while others may include up to 30 days of usage.

Waiting until you arrive on your trip to buy cell phone service may seem a little intimidating, but Clark warns that paying for your data in advance will only cost you more money:

“Some people get intimidated by that and they’ll go buy at a travel website in the United States before they go. You’re going to be shocked at how much more you’re paying doing that than just doing it when you get to where you’re going. It’s really easy, especially if your phone takes eSIM.”

Final Thoughts: Buy a Local SIM or Use Your Current Plan?

When it comes to using your cell phone outside of the United States, you have a few different options. 

First, you could check with your current carrier to see what international perks are included with your current phone plan. You can also find out how much it costs to add international data for the duration of your trip. Unfortunately, unless your plan includes free international features, this will likely be the most expensive option. 

“T-Mobile gives you 5GB of [international] data. When that runs out, you can buy more data from them. It’s pretty expensive data, though. With AT&T and Verizon, you can buy an International Plan from them before you go. If you’re going somewhere just for a few days and you don’t want complexity in your life, you can just buy that. You can use WiFi at your hotel or wherever to hold the data down. Just know the data they offer, all of them, very, very expensive now.”

You could switch to a new cell phone plan that includes more international features. For example, we recommend Google Fi Wireless (Review). Of course, this option will require some research on the best international cell phone plans. You’ll also have to let go of your current plan. If you’re locked into a contract with your carrier, this won’t be an option.

If you don’t plan to use a ton of data while traveling, you can always rely on WiFi. Your hotel will likely include WiFi access, or you can purchase a portable pocket WiFi. However, you likely won’t have consistent access to high-speed data this way. 

Instead, I recommend picking up a local SIM card when you arrive at your destination for the cheapest access to the most high-speed data while traveling internationally. Local SIM cards will offer more data for a shockingly low price compared to U.S.-based plans that offer international features. Plus, it’s easy to find local SIM cards for sale at airports and convenience stores in most international cities. In many cases, people working at these locations will even install and activate your service for you free of charge.

“People in other countries, this is what they do! They’ll see a deal with a different company than what they’ve been using where they live and they’ll just buy the other one that month. Whoever’s got the best deal. It’s just we’re so psychologically locked in in the United States to being with these three behemoths. But in the rest of the world, people play hard to get. And when you do travel with an unlocked phone, buying local data is the way to go!” 

Just keep in mind that you’ll need an unlocked phone to activate service in another country.

If your current phone isn’t unlocked, check to see if you have an old phone lying around the house and check to make sure that it still works before you leave. If you don’t already have one, check out one of these best places to buy an unlocked phone. Then, when you arrive, purchase a SIM or eSIM locally for the best deal on data.


How do you access data when you’re traveling internationally? Let us know in our Community!