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The Ultimate Guide To Using Your Phone While Traveling

Everything you need to know about using phones while abroad including the best phones you can buy right now
The Ultimate Guide to Using Your Phone While Traveling by Travel Done Simple
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Whether it’s just to upload instagram photos or to navigate yourself using Google Maps, a smartphone with internet access while abroad is almost as much of a necessity as your passport.  

However, if you’re not prepared, you may end up in your destination with a phone that doesn’t work because it’s not compatible with the local network!  It’s important to know if your phone is travel-ready and if it isn’t, what you can do to make it travel-ready or which phones you can buy that are perfect for traveling.

The best phones you can have while traveling are network unlocked dual-sim GSM phones.  

Ensuring it’s unlocked will let you insert any SIM card from any other network provider and connect to the internet without issue.  In addition, having that second SIM card slot would mean you don’t have to take out your main SIM card, leaving you free to take any important calls from home should you need to.  

On this page, I will tell you everything you need to know about checking to see if you can use your current phone to travel already and if not, how you can go about preparing it for your trip abroad as well as which phones you should consider getting if your current one isn’t good enough.

Table of Contents

1. Check if your current phone is GSM-compatible

You have probably heard about 2G, 3G, 4G, & even 5G networks, but you may not be aware of the technologies that power these networks and how they may affect your ability to use them.  As of right now, 5G is only available in some places, but 4G is already very common throughout the world and is powered by LTE technology which is a universal standard.  

If your phone is 4G LTE enabled, you will be able to connect to any 4G LTE network in any country around the world (as long as it supports the same bands, see #2).

That being said, not every country has caught up to 4G LTE technology or has only partially enabled it and if you’re traveling to such a country, you will need to know if your phone is able to connect to their 2G & 3G networks as well.  

The problem is that 2G & 3G networks are slightly more complicated than 4G ones because of the fact that they are powered by two separate technologies that are also incompatible with each other.

GSM vs. CDMA

The two technologies that power 2G & 3G networks are called GSM & CDMA and if your phone is only compatible with one of those two technologies, then you will not be able to connect it to networks that are powered by the other one.  

The good news is that most of the world uses GSM technology for their networks and as a result, most phones sold around the world are GSM-compatible, but that’s not always the case, especially for phones sold in the US.  

There are 2 network providers in the US that are CDMA-based (Verizon and Sprint) and if you bought your phone from one of them, it might not be GSM-compatible.  

This is because even though some of those network providers have started to sell phones that can support GSM-based 2G & 3G networks (in addition to CDMA-based ones), not all of the phones they sell have that feature, so you still need to double check if yours does.

Therefore, the easiest way you can check if your phone is GSM-compatible is by going to the About page in your phone’s settings and looking for an IMEI number.  If your phone has one, you’re good to go! 

If it doesn’t, you might need to consider getting a new one if you plan to travel to a country that doesn’t have good 4G LTE coverage.

2. Ensure your phone supports multiple frequencies and bands

Even if your phone supports 4G LTE and so does the network in the country you’re going to, it still needs to support the same frequencies and frequency bands that the network uses for it to work.  

Without getting too technical, frequencies and frequency bands are the channels that networks use to communicate with your phone and the more your phone is able to support, the better the connection you’ll have.  This also applies to 2G & 3G GSM networks. 

The good news is that 99% of phones sold today will be able to connect to all the major frequencies and frequency bands that most countries around the world use for their 2G, 3G, & 4G networks so you don’t have to worry about this unless you’re going to a smaller, developing nation.  

However, if you want to know what frequencies and bands any specific country uses, the information can be found in its Destination Guide.  

And if you want to know which frequencies and bands your phone supports, an easy way to do it is by looking it up on GSM Arena.  Simply use the search bar to find your phone and look at the Network section. 

Make sure you are looking at the information for the same model of the phone yours is (you can find your phone’s model number by going to the About page in your phone’s settings) and keep in mind that 3G frequencies might be labeled differently (typically as HSDPA or UMTS).

3. Check if your phone is network unlocked

Even if your phone is technically able to connect to every network and frequency in the world, you won’t be able to use local prepaid SIM cards to save money on roaming fees if it is network locked.  

Many network providers (mainly in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) participate in the shady practice of network locking phones that you buy from them so that you are only able to use SIM cards from their specific networks.

Using local prepaid SIM cards while traveling is the cheapest way to stay connected while abroad so knowing if your phone is network unlocked is extremely useful.  Unfortunately, most phones that you get for free or at a lower price from a network provider as a result of signing a service contract will come network locked, but sometimes the network providers will even network lock phones that they sell to you at full price so you have to be careful.  

The easiest way to check if your current phone is network unlocked is by asking a friend who uses a different network provider if you can borrow their SIM card and replace yours with theirs.  If your phone is able to connect to their network and still make calls, send texts, and use the internet, then you’re good to go!  

However, if it’s not, then you will have to unlock your phone.

4. How to network unlock your phone

Getting your phone network unlocked is pretty easy to do so don’t fret.  The only way you’ll be able to do it for free is by asking your network provider to unlock it for you.  

However, network providers in different countries have different policies regarding this so your results may vary.  But it’s still worth a shot!

If asking your network provider doesn’t work, then you will have to pay to get it network unlocked.  The cheapest way you can do this is by checking eBay for network unlocking services.  

Search for the name of your network provider, the model of your phone, and the words factory unlock code, and you will see many different options for network unlocking services available for a few dollars.  Make sure to pick one that specifies that they will factory unlock it as any other types of unlocking might only be temporary.  Try to pick one with good reviews or that has sold well.

If using an unlocking service on eBay doesn’t work, then your last option is to go to an independent phone store or repair shop.  Their services will vary in price, between $10-$50 so this should only be a last resort if the other two solutions didn’t work for you.  

Again, make sure the store does a factory unlock so that you are assured that your phone is unlocked permanently.

If after trying all that, your phone is still network locked, then you are left with two options: use your locked phone while traveling or buy a new factory unlocked phone that you can use while abroad.  

If you choose to use your locked phone, you will be limited to wifi connections and expensive roaming charges (unless you get a mobile hotspot).  But if you want to be connected 24/7 and save money on roaming fees, then you’ll have to look into getting a new phone.

5. Know what to look for in a travel-ready phone

If you don’t want to use your current phone or you just want to get a new one that is perfect for traveling, you’ll need to know what to look for since finding the best phones for traveling can be difficult.  

In addition to making sure the phone is GSM-compatible and unlocked, you also have to take into account many different specifications such as the display quality, storage space, camera quality, battery size, and other features.  Generally, the more expensive a phone is, the better performance you will get out of it, but there can be exceptions.

Display

When it comes to the display, the size of the screen is up to your preference, but the larger the screen, the easier it is to watch movies on it.  However, what’s more important is the number of pixels in the display as that correlates with the image quality you get on the phone.  You want to try to get at least 1080 pixels so your image is in HD.

Camera

The quality of a phone’s camera is a direct correlation with the amount of megapixels it has.  Usually, the more megapixels a lens has, the better the quality of photos it can take. This also means that the photos will be bigger in size so you need to make sure you have the storage space to handle photos that big.  That being said, you usually don’t want a main camera that is less than 12 MP in size.

Having different types of lenses also lets you take different types of photos too.  A wide-angle lens is considered to be a standard phone lens, an ultrawide lens lets you fit even more into the shot, a telephoto lens lets you take portrait photos or really zoomed-in shots, and depth & macro lenses add even more potential options at your disposal.  A good-quality selfie camera is also important if you take lots of selfies.

Storage Space

The amount of storage space you get is something to consider, especially if you take lots of photos and videos with your phone.  At the minimum, your phone should have at least 64 GB of storage, but you should aim for 128 GB or more if you can. 

Some phones will also let you expand your total storage space by supporting microSD cards (although many of them use the 2nd SIM card slot for this meaning you have to decide between extra storage or a 2nd SIM card).

Battery

A powerful battery is also key as you want a phone that can survive a long flight or a full day’s use on the go.  Generally, the more mAh (Milliamp Hours) a phone’s battery has, the longer it will last.  Try not to get a phone with a battery that has less than 3500 mAh.  

In addition, try to get a phone that supports fast charging (the more watts (W) the better) as you will spend less time charging it.  You should be aiming for at least 15W fast charging. And some phones even offer wireless charging which is something to consider as well.

Others

Many phones these days are opting not to include a headphone jack which means you won’t be able to plug in any headphones you want.  Instead, you’d have to rely on bluetooth headphones which can be pricier.  However, that also enables some phones to be water-resistant up to a certain point which is a nice feature to have if you’re accident-prone.  

In addition, some phones are 5G enabled meaning you can get even faster speeds in some countries and if you’re in the USA and you want to use Verizon or Sprint’s 2G & 3G networks, look for phones that are CDMA-compatible too.

6. The best travel-ready phones you can buy right now

All the features I just mentioned may seem like a lot if you’re not an expert in smartphones, but luckily for you, you don’t have to go out and research which phone to get because I have put together a list of the best travel smartphones you can get right now for every budget!

The phones you see on this list all have an HD display, dual-SIM capability, GSM-compatibility, and a fingerprint sensor.  The stats I give for each phone below mostly come from GSM Arena which is a great source for information about the specifications for any phone.

High-End Phones - Over $1000

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G

The absolute best phone you can get right now is the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, but it’s also the most expensive.  

If it’s within your budget, you will benefit from a beautiful 6.9” 1440p display and a wide array of amazing cameras featuring a 108 MP wide-angle lens, 48 MP telephoto lens, and a 40 MP selfie camera.

With such high-quality lenses, you know that every photo you take with this phone, no matter how you take it, will turn out spectacular.  And even though it only comes with 128 GB of internal storage, you are able to add to it with a microSD card up to 1 TB in size meaning that you will never run out of space for all your amazing photos.  

The battery is top-notch so it will last all day and then some.  It is also water-resistant and even supports 5G & CDMA networks (meaning you can use it on Verizon & Sprint’s 2G & 3G networks).  And it even comes with an eSIM which means you can take advantage of some awesome international phone plans (see the Guide to Prepaid SIM Cards for more information).

Screen Size & Display: 6.9” & 1440×3200 pixels
Cameras: 108 MP wide-angle + 48 MP telephoto + 12 MP ultrawide + 0.3 MP depth + 40 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB + support for a microSD card up to 1 TB in the 2nd SIM card slot
Battery: 5000 mAh with 45W fast charging & wireless charging capabilities
Other: eSIM, 5G, & CDMA support, water resistant up to 1.5m for 30 mins, no headphone jack

Upper Mid-Range Phones - Between $700-$999

Huawei Mate 30 Pro

The most expensive phone in this tier, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro is a great all-around phone with several top-notch features such as a 1176p display, water resistance up to 2m for 30 mins, and support for wireless charging.  

Its cameras and battery are quite powerful and it comes with 256 GB of internal storage with the ability to add a further 256 GB using Huawei’s nano-memory card in the 2nd SIM card slot.

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.53” & 1176×2400 pixels
Cameras: 40 MP wide-angle + 40 MP ultrawide + 8 MP telephoto + 32 MP selfie camera
Storage: 256 GB + support for a nano-memory card up to 256 GB in the 2nd SIM card slot
Battery: 4500 mAh with 40W fast charging and wireless charging capabilities
Other: Water resistant up to 2m for 30 mins & no headphone jack

Samsung Galaxy S20 5G

If you like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, but it’s a bit too out of your budget, you might be interested in its little brother, the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G.  Apart from its 1440p display, what makes this phone unique is its high-quality 64 MP telephoto lens. 

This means that any portrait or zoomed-in shots you take will be second to none.  It also has a variety of other great lenses so you can rest assured that any photo you take will look good.

The battery has a good amount of power and even comes with wireless charging capabilities.  The phone is water-resistant and comes with 128 GB of storage as well as support for a microSD card up to 1 TB in size in the 2nd SIM card slot so you’ll never run out of space either.  

Screen Size & Display: 6.2” & 1440×3200 pixels
Cameras: 64 MP telephoto + 12 MP wide-angle + 12 MP ultrawide + 10 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB + support for a microSD card up to 1 TB in the 2nd SIM card slot
Battery: 4000 mAh with 25W fast charging and wireless charging capabilities
Other: eSIM, 5G, & CDMA support, water resistant up to 1.5m for 30 mins, no headphone jack

Oppo Reno 3 Pro 5G

The Oppo Reno 3 Pro 5G is a great option for those that want an upper mid-range phone that’s capable of 5G, but don’t want to get a Samsung.  

It has a great camera with a variety of supporting lenses, including a unique black and white lens.  It does not offer microSD card support, but it does have 256 GB of storage space.  There is no water resistance or wireless charging capabilities, but the battery is quite powerful.

Screen Size & Display: 6.5” & 1080×2400 pixels
Cameras: 48 MP wide-angle + 13 MP telephoto + 8 MP ultrawide + 2 MP black & white + 32 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB (no microSD card support, 256 GB version available at a higher price)
Battery: 4025 mAh with 30W fast charging
Other: 5G & CDMA support, no water resistance & no headphone jack

Mid-Range Phones - Between $400-$699

Realme X2 Pro

The Realme X2 Pro has the fastest charging capacity of any phone on this list.  Add in a 64 MP wide-angle camera and you have a great mid-range phone.  

The only downside is its lack of microSD card support which means if you take a lot of photos, you will need to transfer them to your computer sooner than you would with other phones or consider choosing another phone for your needs.  

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.5″ & 1080×2400 pixels
Cameras: 64 MP wide-angle + 13 MP telephoto + 8 MP ultrawide + 2 MP depth + 16 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB (no microSD card support)
Battery: 4000 mAh with 50W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Vivo Z6 5G

The Vivo Z6 5G is similar to the Realme X2 Pro, but comes with a few key differences.  For one, it is both 5G & CDMA compatible meaning you can use it on Verizon and Sprint’s 2G & 3G networks in the USA.  

It also has support for a microSD card in a dedicated microSD card slot meaning you can double your storage space without sacrificing a SIM card slot.  The battery is also one of the strongest you can get meaning your phone will last all day. 

The only downside is that it’s missing a telephoto lens so if you were hoping to take awesome portrait shots or zoomed-in photos, you might be better off with another phone.

Screen Size & Display: 6.57″ & 1080×2400 pixels
Cameras: 48 MP wide-angle + 8 MP ultrawide + 2 MP macro + 2 MP depth + 16 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB + support for a microSD card up to 128 GB in a dedicated microSD card slot
Battery: 5000 mAh with 44W fast charging
Other: 5G & CDMA support, no water resistance, but includes a headphone jack

Xiaomi Mi Note 10

The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 is a monster phone that gives you high-end specs at a mid-range price.  The 5260 mAh battery is remarkable, but what really makes this phone stand out is its 108 MP wide-angle camera.  

It also comes with 4 other lenses and a 32 MP selfie camera meaning you can expect some amazing photos. The only downside is the lack of microSD card support meaning that you’ll have to transfer the photos you take to your computer often, but this is a minor inconvenience when you consider all the other features this phone offers.

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.47″ & 1080×2340 pixels
Cameras: 108 MP wide-angle + 20 MP ultrawide + 12 MP telephoto + 5 MP secondary telephoto + 2 MP macro + 32 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB (no microSD card support)
Battery: 5260 mAh with 30W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Lower Mid-Range Phones - Between $200-$399

Samsung Galaxy A71

Another great overall option is the Samsung Galaxy A71.  

With similar features to the Realme X2 Pro, but at a lower price, this phone can be a good deal if you value storage space over battery size and charge speed since it offers support for a microSD card up to 512 GB in a dedicated microSD card slot.  

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.7″ & 1080×2400 pixels
Cameras: 64 MP wide-angle + 12 MP ultrawide + 5 MP macro + 5 MP depth + 32 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB + support for a microSD card up to 512 GB in a dedicated microSD card slot
Battery: 4500 mAh with 25W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Motorola One Hyper

The Motorola One Hyper is a great option if you value storage space as it can support a microSD card up to 1 TB.

Its battery charge speed is also extremely high for a lower mid-range phone and with only 2 camera lenses and a selfie camera that pops up from inside the phone, it’s the perfect phone for those that want simplicity without sacrificing quality.  

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.5″ & 1080×2340 pixels
Cameras: 64 MP wide-angle + 8 MP ultrawide + 32 MP pop-up selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB + support for a microSD card up to 1 TB in the 2nd SIM card slot
Battery: 4000 mAh with 45W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Xiaomi Mi 9T

If you still want a telephoto lens, the Xiaomi Mi 9T has you covered.  It is the only phone in this tier that offers one, in addition to a selection of other lenses including a 20 MP pop-up selfie camera.  

Its battery and charge speed are also pretty standard.  The lack of microSD card support may dissuade people that like having that extra storage space though.  

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.39″ & 1080×2340 pixels
Cameras: 48 MP wide-angle + 13 MP ultrawide + 8 MP telephoto + 20 MP pop-up selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB (no microSD card support)
Battery: 4000 mAh with 18W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Samsung Galaxy A51

The Samsung Galaxy A51 does not have a telephoto lens, but it has several other supporting lenses for its 48 MP main camera and a 32 MP selfie camera which is high-quality for this tier.  

It also comes with microSD card support for up to 512 GB meaning you can have lots of storage space available. The battery is pretty standard, but the lower charge speed is a downside.  

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.5″ & 1080×2400 pixels
Cameras: 48 MP wide-angle + 12 MP ultrawide + 5 MP depth + 5 MP macro + 32 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB + support for a microSD card up to 512 GB in a dedicated microSD card slot
Battery: 4000 mAh with 15W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro

My top choice for this tier, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro has a great battery, nice selection of cameras, and expandable storage space.  

The 64 MP wide-angle lens will take some amazing photos and the other lenses available give you lots of flexibility. This phone provides a lot of bang for your buck.  

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.53″ & 1080×2340 pixels
Cameras: 64 MP wide-angle + 8 MP ultrawide + 2 MP depth + 2 MP macro + 20 MP selfie camera
Storage: 128 GB + support for a microSD card up to 512 GB in the 2nd SIM card slot
Battery: 4500 mAh with 18W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Budget Phones - Under $200

Xiaomi Redmi Note 8

If you want the best phone at the lowest price possible, look no further than the Pro version’s little brother, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 8.  

The cameras will get you some great shots and the microSD card support means that even though the phone only comes with 64 GB of internal storage, you can expand it with a microSD card up to 256 GB for all your photos.  

This is the perfect phone for those that just want an inexpensive phone to travel with.

Note that this phone will not work on CDMA networks like Verizon & Sprint.

Screen Size & Display: 6.3″ & 1080×2340 pixels
Cameras: 48 MP wide-angle + 8 MP ultrawide + 2 MP depth + 2 MP macro + 13 MP selfie camera
Storage: 64 GB + support for a microSD card up to 256 GB in the 2nd SIM card slot
Battery: 4000 mAh with 18W fast charging
Other: Not water-resistant, but includes a headphone jack

Mobile Hotspots - Under $100

Huawei 4G LTE Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot

While not technically a phone, a mobile hotspot lets you use your current phone abroad as long as you get a SIM card to go with it!  

It’s a cheap alternative to buying a new phone and it’s a great way to stay connected if you’re traveling with multiple people and don’t want to have to keep turning your phone’s hotspot on and off when they need the internet.  

What these devices do is use a SIM card with a data plan to create a personal wifi network that you can connect to with up to 10 different phones, tablets, or laptops.  The Huawei 4G LTE Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot is the perfect device for this.  

You can set the wifi password to whatever you want and see how much data you’ve used in real-time.  It supports fast download speeds and is automatically unlocked to use with any GSM network around the world (won’t work with Verizon or Sprint’s CDMA networks in the USA).  

The battery can last up to 6 hours and can be recharged easily using a power bank on the go.  It’s a great solution for those that want to benefit from prepaid SIM cards abroad while also using their current phone!


And that’s all there is to it!

Making sure your phone is ready to travel is super important because you’ll be stuck with one that won’t work abroad if you’re not prepared!  

Let me know if this guide helped you out in the comments below and if you’d like to learn how to avoid roaming fees by using prepaid SIM cards while you travel, check out my Guide to Prepaid SIM Cards.

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Hi there, I’m Sebastian, founder and creator of Travel Done Simple. Since I turned 20, I have lived in 5 different countries and traveled to over 40 others! You can learn more about me on my About page and find me on social media.

Hi there, I’m Sebastian, founder and creator of Travel Done Simple. Since I turned 20, I have lived in 5 different countries and traveled to over 40 others! You can learn more about me on my About page and find me on social media.

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