International cell phones

International Cell Phone Choices

Traveling abroad? Check out the OIT recommendations to plan your cellular service before you leave.

International travelers should plan their international cell phone use before their trip to make sure they will have cellular service coverage at their destination and to avoid accidentally incurring thousands of dollars in unplanned roaming charges. 

You may wish to visit our country-by-country information (link is external for the most popular Duke travel destinations. 

Whether you use your U.S. service or activate service at your destination, OIT recommends that you:

  • Turn off data/roaming whenever you are not actively using your device for email, maps or other applications. Apps can use up expensive data, even when you are not using your phone.
  • Use a trusted WiFi network instead of cellular data whever possible.
  • Consider Skype, WebEx or similar apps to make cheap calls or video conference while traveling.
  • Secure your phone with a strong passcode, encryption and remote-wipe capabilities to protect your data if your device is lost or stolen. And, install VPN on your phone for better security and privacy on public W-Fi networks.

Using Your Existing Cellular Service Internationally

Using your existing service typically means you can send/receive calls, text messages and data from the moment you arrive at your destination, and can easily reach and be reached by colleagues and family at your existing phone number. It will be more inconvenient (and expensive) to call local businesses and colleagues or for them to reach you; and, voice calls, text messages and Internet/data can be expensive, especially if travelers do not activate a global plan for their trip.

Using your existing U.S. cellular phone and service is usually the best option for short-duration trips and for occasional or first-time travelers.

If you have a Duke department-paid AT&T or Verizon cell phone: inform your departmental business manager of your trip and request they activate a global plan before your departure. Be sure to verify your destination is covered in Duke's special negotiated global plan and that your phone will have coverage and service. Find out more about Duke-paid AT&T and Verizon global cell plans.
If you have a personally-paid AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon cell phone: contact your carrier, preferably at least a week before you travel, and verify:

  • Carrier global rates: Some countries may be covered through an optional global plan, providing discounted voice and text message rates, and typically providing an allowance for international data service. In countries outside your carrier's plan -- or if you do not activate a plan -- your phone may still work, but could quickly incur rates of as much as $5.00 or more per minute for voice calls and upwards of $20.00 or more per megabyte downloaded.
  • Coverage maps: Cellular service is widespread but not ubiquitous, especially in developing countries. Verify the cities/towns you will visit have service on your carrier's international coverage map.
  • Phone compatibility: Different carriers worldwide use a range of technologies and frequencies for cellular services. Many recent smartphones from Apple, Samsung and other manufacturers have "worldband" technology that works in many countries, but you need to verify your phone will work. If not, ask your carrier if they offer a rental phone option.
    • AT&T and T-Mobile phones use the popular worldwide GSM standard and often have the broadest global compatibility. Many modern Verizon and Sprint smartphones are "world-phones" with similar capabilities for international roaming; however, both carriers also offer CDMA-only phones that are more restricted internationally.

Temporary Cellular Service While Traveling

Alternatively, some travelers choose to purchase service from a local cellular carrier when they reach their destination. These can have lower rates for in-country calls and more generous data packages than using a U.S. carrier’s service internationally; and, it will be easier to make and receive calls in-country. Activating local service requires significantly more time, effort and research than using your existing carrier, however, and makes sending/receiving calls from the U.S. more difficult.

Generally, this option is appropriate only for Duke travelers who will be abroad for an extended period; for heavy data users; and for more experienced travelers.

In most countries, travelers can purchase prepaid service for a nominal fee; this will include a SIM card along with an allotment of voice messages, text messages and data. The SIM card is inserted into an existing phone (in place of the existing U.S. carrier’s SIM card, if any) to provide access to a local carrier’s network.

  • Which provider? Most countries have multiple cellular networks. (See OIT’s country-by-country reference information for:
    • One or two large, dominant carriers (similar to Verizon and AT&T in the US) that have very good nationwide networks including good coverage in rural areas, but this coverage often comes with a premium price. Some of these carriers restrict services offered to prepaid users.
    • Smaller competitors (think T-Mobile in the US) that focus on serving major cities, sometimes differentiating themselves with faster 3G/LTE speeds and aggressive prices; however, their coverage in rural areas can be poor or non-existent, or could incur roaming charges.
    • In many countries, mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) resell provider service at a discount in a prepaid model. Some of these providers, which often cater to immigrants or expatriate workers, offer better foreign-language service and support than the national providers; in many countries, this can include robust English-language support. MVNOs sometimes are limited to slower 2G/3G speeds, and travelers should check the national network the MVNO uses to compare coverage and reliability.
  • Compatible phone? Verify that your phone is compatible with the LTE/4G, 3G, or 2G/GSM networks used at your destination. “Worldband” phones are usually widely supported, but networks vary by country. Check with your phone manufacturer or existing U.S. carrier for the frequencies/bands supported by your phone; these can vary by carrier even for the same phone.
  • Unlocked phone? If your existing cell phone was purchased in the U.S., it may be “locked” to your current carrier. Your U.S. carrier must agree to “unlock” your phone to allow its use on a different carrier. Typically, this is done in-person at a retail location in the U.S. before your trip.
  • Buy a phone? If your phone is not compatible or unlocked, an inexpensive basic cell phone or smartphone can be purchased before your trip or upon arrival. This can be useful for travelers desiring local phone service in addition to their U.S. coverage and phone number.
  • Coverage? Check these carriers’ coverage maps, consult recent travelers, or check with colleagues at your destination to choose the best carrier for your trip.
  • Where to buy? Cell phone stores/kiosks are often available in international airports, often before clearing customs. Most carriers list retail locations on their web site. You may need to be fluent in the local language or have help translating to navigate the purchase and set-up of your service.
  • Need to add value? If you exhaust your voice, text or data allowance, you can usually add more value at your carrier’s store, or via convenience stores, post offices, tobacconists or other retailers. Find out how to “top up” your service when activating your phone.
  • Restrictions? In many countries, a foreign passport or national identity card is required to buy and register cellular service. In a few countries, non-citizens are prohibited from purchasing cell service or bringing some communications technologies (like satellite phones) into the country. Check the rules applicable to your destination before you travel. Also, some providers block voice over IP applications like Skype; check with your provider if you plan to use these applications.