June 18, 2024

How to Set Up Text Messaging for International Travel

Text messaging is essential when traveling abroad. Check out these options for setting up free text messaging for international travel.

1. Send Free Texts Overseas with Wi-Fi Calling

You can use your phone’s Wi-Fi calling feature to send free international text messages to your home country, as well as other countries that permit this method. This is possible with secure Wi-Fi access. A growing number of airlines – including Delta, United Airlines, and British Airways – offer free onboard Wi-Fi on their international routes. Use them to send or receive important messages for free.

How to Activate

On both iPhones and Android phones, search for the Wi-Fi Calling option in settings. Be sure to turn on Airplane or Flight mode before setting it up. Your texts won’t switch to your regular cellular plan, which can be costly when you’re roaming internationally.

Wi-Fi Calling and Airplane (Flight) mode activated together on Android.

Pros

  • Absolutely free to use
  • Does not depend on cellular coverage; perfect for airline passengers
  • Texts look like they came from your phone number

Cons

  • Unsafe to send SMS over Wi-Fi in public networks
  • Battery drain
  • Many countries do not permit Wi-Fi calling

FYI: check out the best travel websites to book cheap flights online.

2. Use a Ship’s Onboard Cellular Network (Cruise only)

Going on a cruise? You can still text anywhere! Many international cruise lines are connected to an onboard cellular network called “Cellular at Sea.” This lets you send and receive texts even in the middle of the ocean, as long as you’re at least 12 nautical miles away from shore. However, the cellular network won’t work when you’re approaching or leaving a port due to international regulations.

How to Activate

Download your cruise liner’s app on Android/iOS. Finish the registration and log in to the app. Keep airplane mode off, and wait for your home SIM for free text messaging.

As soon as you’re 12 nautical miles away from port, the app will automatically connect you to an onboard mobile phone network such as cellularatsea, 901, 901-18, or wmsatsea. Use it to send unlimited texts and access a limited number of talk time minutes. You can purchase extra onboard data as needed.

Norwegian Cruise Line Android app helps you connect in open wide sea and send unlimited text.

To use cellular at sea, you can either pay your cruise company or purchase a special cruise Internet plan in your home country, which is cheaper. In the U.S., for instance, AT&T customers can use the AT&T Cruise Package, which costs $60 for 30 days with 100 minutes of talk time and unlimited text messaging during your cruise travel.

Pros

  • Send text messages even when you’re on international waters
  • Use the mobile app as well to text others you are traveling with

Cons

  • Expensive one-time purchase
  • Slow network speed, as the signal is beamed from satellites 22,000 miles above the earth

3. Purchase an International Roaming Plan

To avoid the extra fees for text messaging while you’re traveling abroad, consider purchasing a separate international roaming plan. This needs to be done before you board the airplane or cruise.

Your carrier uses a local phone operator’s network coverage, with whom it has an international roaming agreement. As soon as you arrive at your destination, your home network is available for you. All incoming and outgoing text messages are free.

How to Activate

An international roaming plan is activated as soon as you buy it online from your phone carrier website. In the U.S., like elsewhere, major telecom carriers have their own international roaming plans.

  • AT&T offers an International Day Pass plan that starts at $12/day, supporting unlimited talk, text, and data. It is valid in 210 countries.
  • Verizon offers a similar unlimited Day Pass plan that’s valid in 210 countries at $10/day plus taxes.
  • T-Mobile offers unlimited text and limited data benefits in 215 countries under its Go5G Next, Plus, or Max plans, which starts at $90/line.

You’ll also need to activate your phone’s mobile data roaming. Locate your device’s SIM info & settings to use the free SMS feature.

Mobile data roaming enabled on Android.

Pros

  • No setup skills required
  • Cheaper for short international travel
  • Ideal for airline and cruise passengers hopping through multiple countries

Cons

  • Very expensive for long-term international travel
  • Poor cellular coverage wherever the roaming partner has insufficient reach

FYI: learn to streamline travel in Linux using one of these tools.

4. Buy a Local SIM at Your Destination

If you plan to stay abroad for a long time, it’s much cheaper to get a local SIM card, especially from a well-known mobile provider in the country you’re visiting. This is also a great choice for people who want to use government websites, ride-sharing apps, and online shopping platforms in that country.

How to Activate

In many regions, including the European Union, and West and Southeast Asia, you can purchase a local SIM from authorized agents after you clear immigration. They only need your passport. The SIM has to be recharged either online or offline at a convenience store. Make sure you have a handset that is dual-SIM capable to use your home country’s SMS in an emergency.

I have personally used local SIMs for everything from setting up a new WhatsApp phone number to registering my fingerprints with local government authorities. Your mileage will vary depending on a particular country’s bureaucratic hassles.

TrueMoveH, a local SIM card of Thailand.

Pros

  • Pay the same amount as the locals
  • Access an operator’s direct network
  • Handy for registering local apps at your destination

Cons

  • Setup can be a nightmare
  • KYC can be a big hassle if you’re planning a longer stay

Privacy Tip: learn to hide your SMS and calls for specific contacts.

5. Buy a Travel SIM in Advance

If you’re traveling abroad and want to send international text messaging without paying high roaming fees, consider a travel SIM. This is a good choice for European Union (EU) countries. With just one plan, you’ll have reliable mobile coverage across all EU member states, Switzerland, and a few more countries.

How to Activate

Do a Google search for legitimate travel SIM websites based in the country you’re visiting. After purchasing online, they will send you an email confirmation. The SIM arrives at your home address through Blue Dart, DHL, or a national postal service, which you can track easily.

A travel SIM is preactivated with a sufficient balance, but it won’t work in your home country. However, as soon as you arrive at your destination, it gets activated, and you can use it for high-speed data and unlimited texting. You can recharge online with top-up plans. Text messaging is free as long as you have a sufficient balance.

Online delivery confirmation of Tellink, a Europe-wide valid travel SIM card.

You can also buy a travel SIM in your home country, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as it usually turns out very expensive.

Pros

  • Avoid expensive roaming
  • Avoid documentation and bureaucratic hassles
  • Recharge for longer stays

Cons

  • Many countries heavily restrict the import of foreign SIM cards
  • Banking and financial websites often reject travel SIMs for user registration purposes

Good to know: these SMS apps offer great privacy compared to WhatsApp.

So far, we have seen how free international text messaging works on your phone’s default SMS app when you travel. But increasingly, many travelers are using a popular messaging app, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Signal, Telegram, and Line for security purposes.

How to Activate

Connect to Wi-Fi or a local mobile data network, a travel SIM network, or your home country’s roaming network. Receiving text from abroad, as well as sending it internationally, will be absolutely free.

Pros

Cons

  • Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and many banking apps prefer your phone’s default texting app for free international text messaging when you travel.

Did you know that you can also send text messages for free from your computer? You can also forward your text messages to the cloud on Android.

Image credit: Unsplash. All screenshots by Sayak Boral.

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Sayak Boral

Sayak Boral is a technology writer with over eleven years of experience working in different industries including semiconductors, IoT, enterprise IT, telecommunications OSS/BSS, and network security. He has been writing for MakeTechEasier on a wide range of technical topics including Windows, Android, Internet, Hardware Guides, Browsers, Software Tools, and Product Reviews.

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