Can I make calls from my cell phone on a cruise?

vacation call

Technically, you can, but it's not as simple as you might think. For things like taking photos and setting a morning alarm, your phone will still work. But making phone calls and surfing the Internet can be hit and miss. Depending on where your ship is at any given moment, you may or may not have a phone signal. When you do have one, it's coming through an at-sea provider (CellAtSea for Norwegian Cruise Line and Cellular At Sea for Royal Caribbean, as examples) and is considered a roaming charge by your cell carrier. Rates are typically very high. As of March 2015, Verizon, for example, charges $2.49/minute for voice calls, while Sprint charges $2.99/minute and T-Mobile charges a whopping $5.99/minute. AT&T charges $2.50/minute, or you can purchase one of three cruise ship calling packages if you're sailing on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara or select Silversea ships.

When you're in port, your cell signal will typically switch to a carrier from the country or island you're visiting. Roaming charges in these areas vary; you'll want to check with your carrier for the pricing for each country you're visiting. If you've got T-Mobile, check to see if the destination visited is included in the Simple Choice plan. If it is, making phone calls will only be $0.20/minute.

Can I send or receive text messages? Is texting less expensive than making a phone call?

As long as you have a signal, you will be able to send and receive text messages from a cruise ship. Even better, texting costs a lot less than a voice call. Most major carriers charge $0.50 to send a message; AT&T also charges $1.30 for an outgoing picture or video message. Verizon charges $0.05 for receiving a message, and Sprint charges $0.15, while T-Mobile and AT&T deduct incoming messages from your monthly allotment. Most carriers also offer discounted international packages, where you can prepay a flat fee for a set amount of text messages and/or data to use overseas; check with your specific provider for details.

How much does using the Internet on my phone cost if I'm roaming?

Data also is ridiculously expensive. Verizon charges $20.48/MB; T-Mobile charges $15/MB; AT&T charges $19.97/MB; and Sprint's charges vary by ship from $12 to $20/MB. However, if you turn off data roaming and connect to the ship's Wi-Fi (or local Wi-Fi if you're near land), you can use the Internet without incurring data charges. (Note that most ships charge for Wi-Fi usage, though. You'll need to compare data roaming prices against the ship's Internet charges to see which is a better deal.)

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How can I make sure I am not charged by my phone company for unintentional phone use?

To ensure you are not charged by your phone company, you have two choices: Turn off your phone as soon as your cruise ship leaves port, or, if you want to use offline applications, put your phone into airplane mode.

What about the apps on my cell? Can I use them without paying extra?

You won't pay extra for using any app that does not require data or is not connected to the Internet. Apps such as games, food diaries and music players that have music already downloaded onto the phone can be used while your phone is in airplane mode without racking up any charges. You also can use your phone as an alarm clock, but you'll have to manually set the time if the time onboard changes. Any apps that must be connected to the Internet to work -- such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify and Pandora -- will quickly rack up data charges you don't want to pay.

Are there any apps provided by my cruise line that I can use on the ship?

Royal IQ

Most cruise lines provide at least one app for their passengers or interested cruisers; not all are for use while on your cruise ship. Some are targeted at people still researching and planning their cruise vacations. For those apps designed to be used onboard, you do not need to pay to use them for functions like looking at deck plans, making restaurant reservations, looking at shore excursion choices, checking your onboard spending and other similar activities. Some apps provide communication features like texting or calling other people on the same ship who also have the app. This feature can cost money, depending on your cruise line. Check with your cruise line to find out which app(s) it offers, which ships support app functionality and if there are any costs associated with using them.

Can I use the Wi-Fi on my cell phone?

Yes, you can use the Wi-Fi feature on your cell phone to connect to your cruise ship's Wi-Fi, but you will have to purchase an Internet package. Many ports offer free Wi-Fi to cruisers, but be aware these are open networks with limited to no security in place.

Can I video chat or use VoIP (like Skype or FaceTime)?

Unless you want to spend a fortune in roaming charges, you most likely will not be able to Skype or FaceTime while on your cruise. Additionally, most ships block these applications because they are bandwidth hogs. A few very select ships (Carnival Breeze, Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Freedom, Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas and all Disney ships) have been outfitted with high-bandwidth, high-speed Internet and sell Internet packages that do allow for this type of use.

If I don't want to spend the money to use my cell phone, can I use the ship's phone to call home?

phone call on a ship deck

Yes, you can use the ship's phone to call home. Prices are high but can be a little less than what your cell phone company will charge you. For instance, Royal Caribbean charges a hefty $7.95/minute, but Carnival only charges $1.99/minute. If you really need to make a phone call during your cruise, your best bet, budget-wise, is to wait until you're in port and use Wi-Fi calling or buy a phone card. You can also check with your phone carrier to see if there is an international calling plan you can purchase for the duration of your trip. Often an international calling plan will significantly lower the per-minute cost of any phone calls you make while traveling.

How can I learn more about using my cell phone on a cruise ship?

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The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.