A phone plan isn’t the only way to stay in touch while abroad
Google Fi broke up with me while I was out of the country. Shortly after I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, I found a terse email in my inbox, warning that “Your international data roaming will be suspended soon.” That sent me on an adventure to discover new ways to stay connected while I travel – and I’m glad I did.
The result has made me question the conventional wisdom that a traditional cellular plan is the best way for travelers to stay in touch. It turns out there are cheaper and more reliable methods of making calls, sending text messages, and accessing the internet while you’re abroad.
Google Fi may not support digital nomads abroad
So why did Google Fi, a phone plan service I’ve recommended to travelers for years, kick me off its network? Its terms and conditions, which no one ever reads, require you to use Google Fi “primarily” in the United States. I had been abroad for a few months, using my service in Portugal, Germany, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa.
“We’ll need to suspend your international roaming data capabilities unless you start using Fi in the United States again,” the message said.
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I had no intention of returning to the States just so I could keep my phone service.
“Google Fi is not intended for extended international use,” Google spokeswoman Liz Bagot told me. There are exceptions for military and State Department employees, but all others should switch to a local carrier, she advised.
There are better ways to connect when you’re abroad
She’s right. Google Fi is the wrong carrier if you’re heading abroad for more than a week or two. On the unlimited data plan I share with my two sons, we consumed about 15GB of data in our last month on Google Fi. The carrier also hit us with per-minute charges for our international calls for a total of $192. Then there were $33 in taxes and regulatory fees, which seemed excessive.
My latest phone bill came to an eye-popping $376.
It turns out there are far cheaper ways of connecting and communicating while you’re traveling. They include inexpensive data-only connections delivered through SIM cards you can slip into your phone or install electronically. There are messaging apps that render a phone number all but obsolete. The hardest part is learning to think beyond the traditional cell phone contract, and then letting go.
Buy a SIM card when you arrive
For travelers like Kathryn Boudreau, the solution is simple.
“The cheapest and best way to stay connected while you’re abroad is to buy a SIM card with a prepaid plan in the country that you’re going to be traveling in once you arrive,” she says.
Boudreau, a remote operations manager for CallerSmart, a phone app in Bogotá, says she can buy a prepaid Colombian SIM card for a little over $3. It comes with 9 GB of data and is valid for 20 days, but can be topped up with more data for more days for a few additional dollars.
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You can either buy a SIM when you get to your destination or get one in advance. Many newer phones have an eSIM option, which allows you to buy a data connection without a physical card. Make sure your phone is unlocked.
After Lidia Scarlat got “burned” by a $1,700 bill for five minutes of data roaming in Egypt, she decided to use an eSIM. Scarlat, a multimedia producer based in Chisinau, Moldova, turned to a service called Avo Simfree, which offered 5GB per month in Europe for about $20.
“I have just landed in London, and I had instant internet without waiting for passport control and without sharing my private data with airport Wi-Fi providers,” she says.
Communication has changed during the pandemic
There’s more going on behind the scenes. Frequent travelers, who have long been the targets of exorbitant roaming fees and pricey data connections, are not only changing the way they communicate but how everyone else does. Scarlat points out that almost no one calls her by phone anymore. During the pandemic, things shifted to messaging and then setting a time to talk either by phone, or more frequently, on Zoom or Skype. And that changed everything for her.
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Why does switching to a data-only SIM card make sense? Travelers say they’ve migrated their calls to Voice over Internet Protocol applications like Google Voice or Skype, which allow them to make phone calls and receive text messages from a data connection. Another change has been the way people communicate, particularly abroad. By downloading just three communication apps – WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram – you can ensure that you’ll be able to stay in contact while you’re traveling internationally.
That’s what Kathy Kieffer does when she’s on the road. She prefers Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp for communicating with friends. She also uses iMessage to stay in touch with her family.
“It shows up on the recipients’ phone as an international number texting them,” she says. “So once I identify myself, we then can text just like at home.”
Michael O’Rourke, CEO of global security consultancy Advanced Operational Concepts, spends months at a time abroad with his teams, and they buy local SIM cards for their phones to stay in contact. He recommends a virtual private network, or VPN, and Signal, a privacy-focused messaging app.
“It adds a layer of security,” he says.
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How I survived my Google Fi breakup
I use ExpressVPN, which works on both my computer and phone, and one of the first things I did was to install Signal before I switched to a data-only connection. The cost to connect? A 4 GB connection for South Africa was just $16 per month.
I’ve ended my cellular service and ported my phone number to Google Voice. I now rely on several messaging apps to communicate while I’m on the road. Now that I’ve taken the leap, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a cellular plan.
Arun Santhanam, vice president of Capgemini Americas’ telecom division, says that while ending a cellular plan may not be for everyone, messaging apps are becoming a valuable tool for travelers.
“Since the pandemic, many people have begun working remotely and have their teleconferencing platform linked to their phone,” he told me. “Making calls through these platforms has also become a reliable solution when traveling, and it’s also more secure due to your company’s infrastructure investments.”
In other words, these solutions for staying connected while abroad will work at home as well. And you don’t even have to travel to use them.