International roaming charges for wireless data and voice calls are no joke; unwary travelers have been known to come home to four-digit phone bills. All of the major carriers offer roaming plans you can buy for the duration of your trip, but they’re not particularly cheap.
Now Sprint, in hopes of luring new customers, is making an offer to travel-minded consumers: the company says it is dropping charges for international roaming in “Latin America, Europe and Japan.” But if you read the offer with even a little bit of care, you’ll see that it isn’t a very good deal.
Let’s start with the scope. Only eight countries -- Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Russia, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom – are covered by the deal.
And if you are going to those countries, you won’t be downloading data very fast because Sprint says you’ll be roaming “with up to 2G speeds to read emails and surf the Web at no additional charge.” That’s really, really slow. So slow, that you won’t be able to do much besides download mail (slowly) and maybe get to a Web site before it times out – unless you can find a Wi-Fi connection to jump on.
If you’re already a Sprint customer, the deal could be a bit helpful, but it’s certainly no reason to switch to Sprint if you’re not. T-Mobile launched a “free roaming plan” plan back in 2013 and it too was burdened with gotchas.
What are the alternatives? Sprint has a number of paid International roaming plans that offer 3G speeds – not as fast as the 4G LTE most of us are used to, but a lot zippier than pokey old 2G. For $15, you can get a one-day pass good for 100MB of data; $25 buys 200MB over seven days; and $50 buys 500MB for 14 days. The other carriers have their own versions of these paid roaming plans as well.
Frankly there’s a better alternative no matter which carrier you use: buy a local SIM card from a provider in the country you’re traveling to. That gets you on that carrier’s network for a set amount of data, time and money. Generally, that is a much better alternative than any of the other options. I’ve done that and it worked out quite well. Switching a SIM is very easy – just don’t lose your original.
There are, though, a few complications. Because your phone might not be compatible with an overseas network even with a local SIM card, you want to find that out in advance. Generally a few minutes of searching on the Web will give you an answer -- or call your wireless company and ask.
If you’re traveling to a number of countries and won’t be staying in one place very long, it might actually be cheaper to use your carrier’s roaming plan.
No matter what option you choose – be sure you choose one. Otherwise you’ll either be phoneless while you’re traveling or a lot poorer when you come home.