Options For Using Your Mobile Abroad

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Let’s be realistic, who doesn’t travel without their cellphone these days? They offer so much convenience that it would be silly not to travel with it. The problem is, when using your mobile abroad, roaming charges can add up to some ridiculous amounts if you’re not paying attention. Fortunately for all of us there’s many ways to reduce costs as long as you make a few preparations before you depart.

First you want to verify that your phone will even work overseas. Cellular phones operate on different bands around the world so a quad-band GSM phone will work pretty much anywhere; while a tri-band phone will still have pretty good coverage. All smartphones these days are multi-band so it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have no problem using it abroad. However, if you’re hanging onto an old flip phone that doesn’t even have a SIM card then it’s time for an upgrade.

Finally, you want to make sure that your phone is unlocked. When you buy a cell phone from your wireless provider, it comes locked; what that means is that you can only use that phone on that carrier. In Canada, phones come automatically unlocked if you purchased it after December 1st, 2017. If you bought it before then, it’s likely locked. If you contact your carrier directly, they’ll be able to unlock your phone for a small fee (about $50), alternatively, many cellular stores offer unlocking services for half the price. With your cell phone unlocked, you now have plenty of more options available to you.

Best Options For Using Your Mobile Abroad

Using your mobile abroad

SIM Sticker – This is a relatively new product and has quickly become my preferred method for using my cell phone when travelling. With the KnowRoaming SIM sticker you can you can use your phone in 200+ countries and save up to 85% off voice and data charges. Through the app you’re able to apply credit to your account and see exactly how much you’ve spent; there are no surprises when your return home. The other major advantage is that the SIM sticker allows you to continue to receive calls from your regular number no matter where you are. No other option allows this convenience.

Exclusive to Money We Have readers: Save 50% off the KnowRoaming SIM Sticker & receive a free $5 credit by using my KnowRoaming referral code BARCHO18 at knowroaming.com

Local SIM – Getting a local SIM is usually the cheapest option. For $20-25 you can get a SIM with a local number that should last you the duration of your stay. Local wireless providers usually have a shop set up in the airport so it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick one up. Don’t forget that every provider has different plans so it’s worth doing a little research in advance.

The downside is, you won’t be reachable at your regular number and there’s no way of knowing if you have any messages unless you access your voicemail; which is a long distance call. Also, if you’re travelling to multiple countries, your newly purchased local SIM might not work once you depart your new “home” city or be cost effective.

Roam mobility – If you’re a Canadian who frequently travels to the U.S. then Roam mobility is for you. Roam Mobility is basically a local SIM card but you can buy it in Canada in advance. The rates for both the U.S. and Mexico are exceptional and the card never expires so you can hang onto it for as long as you want.

Global SIM card – Still popular with business travellers, global SIM cards are available from a few different companies. Each provider offers different features that appeal to different types of travellers. The prices are slightly higher compared to say a SIM sticker, but it’s still way cheaper compared to if you just paid regular roaming charges.

using your mobile abroadPocket WiFi – In Asia, pocket WiFi is very common for both locals and tourists. It’s literally a portable WiFi spot that’s about the size of a small cell phone which you carry around with you to give you instant internet access. You won’t be able to make phone calls, but at $5-7 a day for unlimited internet, that’s a pretty reasonable deal. Since it is a WiFi spot, you can connect multiple devices to it which makes it very cost effective.

Prepaid cell phone – Purchasing a prepaid cell phone on arrival was a popular option for travellers who wanted a local phone while still being able to take calls from their regular phone. However as mentioned above, with the introduction of SIM stickers, there’s no real reason to be travelling with 2 phones when abroad anymore. That being said, if you prefer a prepaid phone, finding a reasonably priced, low end model phone shouldn’t be too difficult.

Roaming plans – Technically speaking you don’t have to unlock your phone to use it abroad, you’ll just end up paying roaming charges which ends up being $2-3 a minute. You don’t even want to know how much roaming data will cost you, trust me. If you’re going to the U.S. you could purchase a roaming plan directly from your cellular provider but it’s still a rip-off compared to other options. That being said, Rogers customers can use the Roam like Home plan in the U.S. and Europe which has slightly better rates.

Final word

If you so desire, using your mobile abroad doesn’t have to cost you anything. Data roaming is turned off by default so if you stick to WiFi, you won’t need to worry about any charges. With so many options available, and different providers offering their services, be sure to do your research before you take off.


About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter:@barrychoi


  1. Thomas on June 16, 2017 at 7:53 PM

    Might need to update that first portion of the article in light of the recent CRTC ruling. http://business.financialpost.com/technology/crtc-bans-smartphone-unlocking-fees-outgoing-chairman-blais-regrets-not-taking-decision-sooner

    • Barry Choi on June 17, 2017 at 9:39 AM

      Oh good point, time to update.

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