The Best Travel Phone Plans For Digital Nomads in 2021

This is chapter 7 of an 18-part series about digital nomading and location independence. To see all of the other chapters, click here!

There are three phone plan options when you’re traveling: use a home country plan abroad, get a new SIM card in every country, or sign up for an eSim provider so you can buy local data without getting a SIM.

In the following sections, you’ll see recommendations depending on your phone type and call needs.

If you have an iPhone and don’t need to make frequent calls with your U.S. phone number

I recommend ditching your home country plan and getting an eSim from Airalo so that you can buy cheap local data in every country without the hassle of getting a physical SIM card. This is a cheaper and easier option than either getting local SIM cards or using a U.S. plan abroad.

Once you install Airalo, you simply choose what country you need to buy data in and buy the data on your phone. You don’t need to go to a store or deal with any hassles.

And as you’ll see from Airalo’s website, buying international data is incredibly cheap through their app.

P.S. To keep your U.S. phone number, port it to Google Voice for $20 (so you can make calls/texts with your existing number using data).

If you have an Android phone and don’t need to make frequent calls with your U.S. phone number

ESims (explained above) are available for most new international Android phones and a very limited number of U.S. Android phones (full compatibility list here). If your phone is compatible, I recommend an eSim, and if not you can either get local SIM cards (cheapest option) or sign up for Google Fi (more expensive but more convenient). For the full details on getting local SIM cards, see the section below!

I have an Android phone and used to get local SIM cards but have since switched over to Google Fi because it’s convenient having data instantly when you show up in a new country instead of having to find a SIM card provider.

If you use Google Fi or T-Mobile, expect to pay 2-5x more than what it would cost you to buy data locally.

P.S. As mentioned in the previous section, to keep your U.S. phone number, port it to Google Voice for $20 (so you can make calls/texts with your existing number using data).

If you have iPhone or Android and NEED to make frequent calls with your U.S. phone number

I recommend using Google Fi or T-Mobile which both offer free international options. This will be more expensive than the two suggestions above but not having to worry about dropping calls or not being available will be worth paying the extra $$.

How To Switch To Google Voice & Use Local SIM Cards:

  1. Make sure you have an unlocked phone
    1. Without an unlocked phone, you won’t be able to use SIM cards from international carriers.
  2. Buy a SIM card when you arrive in each country
    1. I always Google which provider to use and how to buy a SIM card before arriving in a country. You can usually buy a SIM card at the airport – but not always.
  3. Maintain access to your U.S. number for $20 with Google Voice
    1. You can port your existing phone number to Google Voice for a one-time fee of $20. This enables you to text over Wifi or data for free using your current number.
    2. Full details on how to execute this.
  4. Use Gmail or Skype to make calls back to your home country
    1. With Google Voice, you can call American numbers for free via Gmail. And with Skype, you can call any number at a low rate.

Thoughts On American vs. Local SIM Cards

Using a home plan abroad will be significantly more expensive (and provide slower data) than buying local SIM cards. But if you want to keep a domestic plan, Google Fi and T-Mobile (Americans Only) are the most popular options.

From my experience, data in most developing countries is 5-10x cheaper than in the United States. Plus, if you’re using T-Mobile, you will frequently experience 2G or 3G speeds.

Also, if you’re in Europe you can find EU-wide coverage so that you won’t have to constantly switch SIM cards.

Note: Click here if you want to read our travel cell phone guide for Canadians.

Keep Reading: Click here to read Chapter 7: Credit Card and Banking Recommendations For Digital Nomads

Cam Woodsum
I've been building digital businesses, wandering the world, and writing about optimizing life for freedom since early 2017. My mission is to lower the barrier for people who want to live with more freedom: whether that be as an entrepreneur, a digital nomad, an early retiree, or just as someone who wants to live a happiness-driven life.