It’s a Frequently Asked Question since it may be hard for many. And not just how to do it, but at a reasonable cost.
Just keeping your number isn’t really the goal, but really to get and make calls with friends and family — and very importantly for us digital nomads, business associates.
First, I’m necessarily writing from an American point of view. If you’re in a different country, things may be very different but perhaps you can get some ideas from this.
Will Your Phone Work Overseas?
We were on Verizon for years, and they have an option for your phone to work overseas: it merely costs $100. Per line. Per month, and if I’m not mistaken that’s on top of your regular plan, since they don’t seem to provide reasonable costs to people who live overseas for long periods of time.
For that $100 charge you get:
- Unlimited data*
- 250 minutes of talk time (Overage: $0.25/min)
- Unlimited texts.
* “After your first 20GB of high speed data enjoy unlimited 3G data.”
But at least you get to keep your phone number, and that’s a reasonably decent amount of data for casual use.
The problem is, it’s only really a mobile phone when you’re on or near shore.
In cruise forums, many suggest Google Fi’s service. They’re an “MVNO” — a mobile virtual network operator, which resells access provided by other carriers, which in Google’s case in the U.S. means T-Mobile/Sprint. All of their plans include data, calls, and texts within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico at no additional cost.
Maybe not. What happens when outside U.S./Canada/Mexico: their “Simply Unlimited” plans have no data access, and no calling available except when you’re connected to solid WiFi, when you can make calls by WiFi, just like most modern phones, but only to U.S. numbers.
“All other calls between two different countries (such as cellular calls placed between the United States and another country and Wi-Fi calls between non-US countries) will be charged on a rate per minute basis. Calls will be rounded up to the nearest minute, unless your Google Fi plan provides otherwise. The applicable rates vary per country.”
As of this writing, that plan is $50/month (plus any taxes and fees); additional lines are cheaper when on the same account.
Their “Unlimited Plus” plan is $65/month (plus, and additional lines are less), and when overseas you get data “in 200+ destinations” and calls from the U.S. “to 50+ destinations” (which begs the question: can you call to the U.S. from those “destinations”? I have to assume so, but you need to research that before depending on it.)
Here’s the big “but” in their terms: “Not intended for international use over 90 consecutive days.”
Worse, “If the majority of your usage occurs outside of the United States over a consecutive 90-day period, we will suspend your international data (your account stays active). You can avoid a suspension by returning to the US for at least a week.”
Google Fi is commonly recommended in the long-term cruising forums as the most generous when it comes to mobile phone service plans for use overseas. But if you’re on a ship that takes 2-3 years to go around the world once, how are you going to be able to be in the U.S. for a week every 90 days? You aren’t.
So that’s absolutely not what we will depend on.
What We Will Depend On
The short answer: WiFi Calling, as hinted above, which is available from most carriers these days.
The longer answer starts with the need for good WiFi, backed by decent bandwidth, low-latency connections to the Internet at large.
Which, thankfully, is getting better and better on cruise ships not only because of Starlink satellites covering the world in greater and greater density as time goes on, but other satellite options such as Viasat 3 and O3b mPOWER — and very often some combination of those three. And every Residential Cruising company we have looked into offers good/high-bandwidth unlimited WiFi included in the regular monthly fees, with “good” defined as enough bandwidth for video calls, or even movie streaming.
We don’t anticipate needing to make phone calls while sightseeing on land, but anytime we’re connected to WiFi — on land or aboard ship — our phones will work even with the mobile network turned off.
We intend to “keep our numbers” active and, more importantly, available for calls and calling, by using a low-cost MVNO (Google Fi is far from the cheapest; many senior already use Consumer Cellular since they have a deal with AARP: two lines of unlimited talk, text, and data for $55/month, plus taxes and government fees; there are many others to choose from, often at even lower cost than that).
January 2024 Update!
I had mentioned in the comments that my mobile provider now is U.S. Mobile, an MVNO (reseller) that can provide service in the U.S. via either Verizon or T-Mobile/Sprint for an unbeatable price. (What’s “unbeatable” for me? We don’t use much mobile data since we work from home, so 2 lines of unlimited talk & text plus 2 GB of shared mobile data on the Verizon network is $23 per month — for both lines and taxes and fees. For the exact same plan, Verizon wants around $100.) Yes, both networks support 5G.
Well, when I wasn’t looking, U.S. Mobile itself has now introduced “Native International Roaming” built in to its unlimited plans when you’re on their GSM (T-Mobile/Sprint) network, which is the kind of network used in most of the rest of the world. What does that include? “10 GB of high-speed internet, 1,000 texts, and 500 mins in 100 countries.” What could be better? No mention of having to be in the U.S. part of every 90-day period. It would cover every country you might go to when Residential Cruising, but it will cover a lot of them.
Yeah, but it’s more expensive than my current plan, right? Right, but not terribly so: it’s $29/line/month, or $23/line/month if you pay for a year in advance, and that still includes taxes and fees. Their Terms do specify they can change anything at any time, and/or add fees, but for now, this is an awfully cheap Google Fi-like option without the 90-day limit. Again, it’s U.S. Mobile (affiliate link*), and it’s simply built in to their regular unlimited plan.
Last Updated January 17, 2024
Originally Published December 7, 2023
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Randy is the co-founder of Residential Cruising, and is best known as the founder of the oldest entertainment feature on the Internet, This is True. He and his wife, Kit, are actively working toward moving to a full-time Residential Cruising ship, where they intend to be “Digital Nomads” — continuing their work while aboard the ship.