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The Ultimate Guide to Using eSIM Abroad

By
Kyle Reyes
June 28, 2023

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Traveling, whether it is for business or for pleasure, is an exciting time! The world is a big place, and traveling abroad brings you to many fun locales. One obstacle in any trip is, of course, your cell phone service. To evade international charges completely, you can keep your phone on airplane mode, only using it on WiFi.  That’s the cheapest option but not always the best one. While we love using cell phones for leisure, internet connectivity is key when you are in an unfamiliar area and need to look up a route home, be it through Uber, the bus system, or a walking path. Your cell phone can guide you through a lot of situations when out and about. 

This article will cover how to use eSIM abroad, discuss your options to ensure coverage, the various price points of those options, and what to do if your phone is locked to your current carrier. 

How to Use eSIM Abroad

There are a few options for mobile connectivity when abroad. You will need an international plan from your current carrier or a local plan from your destination, and eSIM cell phones are an excellent way to make that happen. Using eSIM abroad lets you switch between carriers or add a new carrier whenever there is one that gives you the best options in your destination. 

The caveat to all of this is that your phone needs to be unlocked to take advantage of eSIM abroad. If your phone is locked and you want to get another cell phone plan, you can purchase a phone for the trip, but we will get to that later. 

If your phone is unlocked, you can use eSIM abroad with any new carrier that catches your attention. Your phone’s eSIM card supports multiple accounts, so you can choose between your current carrier’s international plans and new plans from the country to which you travel. This section will discuss how to use eSIM abroad, the US options for international roaming, and using your phone to make a dual-SIM device. 

Physical SIM and eSIM Abroad

The first step in this process is to check if your cell phone is eSIM compatible. If it is not and you want to take advantage of cell phone plans abroad, you can pick up a new device specifically for traveling. More on that later. When traveling, using eSIM abroad gives you a lot more flexibility than using a physical SIM, but you can use one of each. The majority of phones out there have both eSIM and physical SIM compatibility. 

If your domestic plan is an eSIM plan, you can browse physical, and eSIM plans when abroad. Airports are a hub for affordable cell phone plans perfect for travelers. Many airport stands have physical SIM cards for sale, letting you pick one up, place it in your phone, and activate the new plan. This is great, but it makes you find a suitable cell phone plan the moment you disembark from the plane or soon after you arrive.

Using eSIM abroad lets you plan out much more in advance. Since it is all done online, you can scope out the plan you want, buy it in advance, and download the eSIM on your phone before you go. 

US Options for International Roaming

Your current carrier likely has some international package. Checking that out is a good place to start prior to looking internationally. US options grow in value when you travel to multiple countries, as you need to purchase a local plan in every travel destination. The downside to many US options when using eSIM abroad is that they are very expensive. There are three main international plans, which are: 

  • Pay-as-you-go add-ons charge you a flat fee for every text, call, and megabyte you use.
  • There are international day passes that, for a daily fee, give you access to a set number of texts, minutes, and data on your time abroad. 
  • There are monthly international plans that, for a monthly fee, add a lot of data, talk, and text to your international plan

Utilizing one of these options will keep you covered on your trip and are generally easy to add to your current plan. Your cell phone usage abroad plays a major factor in which of these options is best for you. If you want to use your phone only for emergencies, the pay-as-you-go rates are a good option. The problem is that normal phone usage causes your bill to skyrocket. 

International day passes are great for short trips, and monthly international plans are best for people who travel a lot. These are nice options to weigh against your local options abroad, but your personal phone usage is the main factor in which option is the best for you. To save big during your trip it is crucial to limit your cell phone usage to WiFi zones. 

Adding dual SIM With an Unlocked Device

You can add an international plan to your eSIM as long as your device is unlocked. This lets you create a dual SIM device. Dual SIM devices have two active SIM cards, meaning there are two numbers in your phone. With modern dual SIM devices, you can switch between the active number at will, receive notifications from both simultaneously, and keep one SIM card active in your user interface. 

This creates many opportunities for excellent eSIM use abroad. A common usage of dual SIM is to keep your domestic number on airplane mode for the duration of the trip. Your international number stays active, letting you browse the internet and send texts while off WiFi. Your domestic number stays dormant until you hit a WiFi zone, ensuring you don’t incur any roaming costs during your travels. 

Where’s your next destination? Using eSIM abroad is an excellent way to find the best international cell phone plans. 

Phone Locked? Don’t Worry!

All of this awesome eSIM usage abroad requires an unlocked phone. When your phone is locked, you cannot activate any lines from other companies. The procedure to unlock your phone follows these major steps:

  • You’ve owned the phone for a set number of days (varies by carrier)
  • Your phone is completely paid off
  • Your phone is not reported as lost or stolen
  • Your account is in good standing

Note: Some carriers require you to submit a phone unlock request. As the unlocking process is not instantaneous, we recommend trying to unlock your phone as soon as possible. 

Your phone may be unlocked right now, or you may be able to submit an unlock request and unlock it prior to your trip. If you cannot, however, we’ve cultivated a list of affordable smartphones that are perfect for travel. We’ve found a number of certified-pre owned devices that grant you eSIM usage abroad without breaking the bank. 

Our Two Favorite Travel-Friendly Smartphones

When purchasing a cell phone for travel, the number one thing we look for is affordable devices. None of the phones on this list will be the newest models, but they are all excellent choices for a few vacations throughout the years. 

Renewed or Certified Pre-Owned Devices

This list is populated with a variety of used cell phones. This category of used phone, often available on websites like Backmarket and Amazon, allows you to get phones for significant discounts. Getting a certified pre-owned cell phone for your primary phone has its pros and cons, as you get a discounted device, but there’s a greater chance of malfunctioning. When you get a secondary travel phone, you can purchase a new device if it fits within your budget, but if you want to save big on phones, then certified pre-owned is the way to go. Let’s jump into some of our favorite eSIM cell phones for travel abroad. 

iPhone XR

Price: $230 on Amazon

The iPhone XR is an excellent choice for an affordable iPhone device. Released in 2018, it has a nice suite of features like Apple Pay and Face ID, but it lacks the battery life and serious camera you find in the newer models. While it is a much older model, the iPhone XR still performs very well, and it is eSIM compatible! You can use eSIM abroad with this device and use it as a dual-SIM if you want. 

This device’s dual-SIM capabilities mean you can temporarily transfer your current number onto this one and leave your primary phone at home for the trip. That means there’s no chance of anything happening to your primary device while you are gone.

Google Pixel 3a

Price (Refurbished): $100

The price on this one changes greatly depending on the sale you get and where you look to purchase it. Right now on Amazon, the Google Pixel 3a is around $100 and a very affordable way to get an eSIM-compatible phone. Refurbished phones are an excellent secondary market for people who would rather save big on their phones than get one of the new devices. 

Alongside these two excellent devices, there are a lot of affordable smartphones on the market, though they do not all have eSIM compatibility. If you purchase a travel phone that is physical SIM only, remember to do some research to figure out how to pick up a good SIM card after you arrive.  

Understanding how to use eSIM abroad lets you take full advantage of the local plans available from your travel destinations.  

Domestic Cell Phone Plans for Trips Abroad

Even though we picked out some nice, affordable devices, purchasing another device just for travel is a big expense. In this section, we will cover the three main options available for international roaming with US accounts and what carriers have to offer. We will reference cell phone usage a lot in this section, as our focus is on helping you find a way to travel, have a great time, and not spend too much on roaming fees while using your eSIM abroad. 

  • Pay-as-you-go
  • International Day Pass
  • Monthly International Plan

Pay-As-You-Go

A lot of cell phone providers have pay-as-you-go plans as their default way that plans roam in other countries. Using one of these plans, you pay a flat fee for every text, every minute on the phone, and every MB that you use while out of the country. The biggest downside to these plans is that they are expensive. Take Verizon’s rates, for instance. 

  • Talk: $1 - $3 per minute
  • Text: $.50 a text
  • Data: $2 per MB

The charge for minutes varies depending on what country you are in, but regardless this is a significant charge for using your phone. These plans are best for people who are willing to keep their phone in airplane mode for the majority of the trip. Airplane mode disables cellular on your device, so you won’t incur any roaming charges. In that mode, your phone can still connect to WiFi, so you can send texts, do WiFi calling, and use as much WiFi data as you want. 

The option to use your phone is great when you are in a pinch. If you ever need to use your phone for something and can’t make it into WiFi, you can, and as long as you save that for true emergencies, you should not have too much of an extra bill at the conclusion of your trip. Before going on to the other two ways to use eSIM abroad, we will highlight some of our favorite ways to limit data usage when out of the country. 

Limit Your Data Usage While Traveling Abroad

There are a variety of ways to limit overall data usage abroad. The three pillars of a phone plan: data, talk, and text, can all be done using Wi-Fi. That, coupled with a variety of apps that don’t operate on data, can cut your daily data usage significantly, which lets you keep on the cheapest option for an international phone plan. Some of these apps are:

  • Skype, Zoom, and Facetime. Video call software is perfect for talking to friends and family in different countries. As long as you have a strong Wi-Fi connection, these apps allow users to connect worldwide. To take extra caution, you can keep your phone on airplane mode during these calls.
  • GroupMe is a messaging app that relies on Wi-Fi to send texts, audio, and video. This free app works on just about any phone and is another excellent way to reduce your reliance on data. 
  • Wi-Fi calls and texts are available on various phones and are another excellent way to escape extra fees from your carrier. Find out how your phone can connect to WiFi to use those tasks. Some phones may need third-party apps, whereas others have services like iMessage to communicate over WiFi. 

There are moments when you cannot rely on Wi-Fi to operate your phone, and that’s where the pay-as-you-go rates come in. 

International Day Passes

Usually priced between five and ten dollars, international day passes provide amazing value for people interested in serious phone usage for a few days. The exact amounts vary by provider, and the three main purveyors of the international day pass are the three major wireless providers in the United States. 

Across the board, T-Mobile is the winner when it comes to its international offerings, but it is not so superior that we recommend switching to T-Mobile just for its international plans. 

Monthly International Plan

These plans are the most expensive of the bunch, coming in between $50 and $100 a month. That price point is what makes local options using eSIM abroad so compelling. Monthly international plans often provide unlimited talk and text and a fair chunk of high-speed data. We recommend this plan for travelers who jump between many countries throughout the course of the month and want to use their phones a lot each day. 

There are lots of amazing destinations out there. Where to next? 

Key Takeaways

Knowing how to use eSIM abroad is a great way to pick up plans on the move. Other countries have lots of affordable low-data plans that are excellent for vacations and other short excursions. Alongside that, there are a few options for international plans from US carriers, which are more expensive but still good options. Unfortunately, to take advantage of eSIM abroad with new plans, you have to unlock your cell phone. Well, unlock your phone or purchase another device just for traveling. There are a lot of affordable used phones on the market. 

Airplane mode is your friend while on vacation. You can save a lot of money if you aren’t worried about securing a large amount of high-speed data on your trip. Instead, you can pick up one of many small local data plans, or use the international rates at your current carrier. As long as you don’t use too much, the rates should not be a huge bill at the end of the month.

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