How to have the best cell phone data when travelling the globe

How to have the best cell phone data when travelling the globe
Using the best international data options when traveling is easy if you know how.

I travel nearly 50% of the year to places all over the globe meeting customers, developers, and startups. My experience over the year has led me to get a little... particular about my travel kit and ensuring that I have a similar travel experience regardless of where in the world I go. Some of these learnings are hard won.

For example, I quickly ditched the Universal Power Adapter because I've had half a dozen times when plugs, particularly in the UK, were oriented in a way that never allowed the universal adapter to work. Instead, I found this simple but efficient Ceptics Travel Adapter Set. When traveling the globe, simple is better.

But more on my travel power kit later. If you've got power, you can focus on the important bits: cell phone data.

Why using Verizon and AT&T doesn't cut it

The first option is to stick with Verizon's Travel Pass or AT&T's International Day Pass. The idea is straightforward: sign up your lines, pay a daily fee, and get access to a certain amount of data each day. This is a great option if you're not expecting to need much data and is definitely something to ensure you setup before you leave. (More data access options are always better.)

But the problem is, in practice, these options frequently run much slower than local offerings and once your data runs out... you need data to ask for more. I've been caught going between meetings without data and it was incredibly annoying.

So, definitely turn on your international day pass... but there has to be something better?

Google FI comes close, but has on-going costs

Next, I tried Google FI, which allow you to use your eSIM or SIM around the world at no additional cost (aside from your existing bill). Again though, you're at the mercy of the carrier agreements that Google has negotiated. You won't run out of data, but depending on how much you use, you may get much slower speeds and tethering to your laptop is frequently blocked outside the United States.

I still use Google FI (remember, more options are better) but normally in the United States. As a Verizon Customer, being able to swap over to Google FI lets me have access in places Verizon doesn't work well but T-Mobile (the underlying network for Google FI in the United States) does have service.

eSIMs for nearly every country and region with Airalo

On my last trip to the UK, I finally found Airalo. Airalo allows you to buy eSIMs for local cell networks giving you far better service with various options for the number of GB you need. That's right, a TON of data and no immediate slowdowns as you go.

You can buy the eSIMs before you leave and activate them once you're on the ground. Then, you just use your phone like you normally would. On recent iPhones and many Androids, you can have two eSIMs and swap between them. I'd keep my Verizon in my first slot (with data turned off), and turn on Airalo in the local country when I landed. (More on why this is important next.)

Airalo is a bit more expensive than buying physical SIMs when you're in country, but I think the convenience is worth it. Swapping between countries or providers by simply clicking an eSIM is so much better than doing it all manually. Now, if you'd like to really play the game and find the cheapest option in each country, check out eSIMDB which searches all eSIMs globally.

Tips for preparing to use your phone to make calls

If your provider offers you Wi-Fi calling, turn that on before you leave home. Then, you can use your secondary eSIM's data to make calls on your primary line. That's right: you can use the second eSIM via Airalo to accept calls as you normally would using data. There are some nuanced downsides to this (pending the quality of your data connection at any given time) but in general I've not experienced the need to have many phone calls where I also didn't have good data.

Noted above, it's also important to ensure your primary line (that could have the International Day Pass) has it's Cellular Data turned off in the settings. This ensures that you don't trigger a day charge while you're traveling.

Now, go and travel with more data than you could use in more places!