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How can I top-up airtime in another country?

Restocking your mobile minutes to a prepaid phone when you’re abroad can be easy — and cheap.


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Communication is important, especially when you’re away from home. While most of us in the US subscribe to monthly cell phone plans that lock us into minutes and rates, others around the world enjoy pay-as-you-go plans with major, second-tier and third-party providers that can save money and time when crossing borders.

A prepaid phone could be to your advantage while traveling — but how do you go about refilling one on the go?

What’s airtime top-up?

Airtime top-up, also known as mobile top-up or mobile recharge, is the process of paying a Telco network provider to add credit to your prepaid phone. This paid for credit gives the recipient access to additional minutes and data to use the phone.

Airtime top-up can be sent the world over by an international money transfer service, mobile phone, ATM or point of sale.

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How can I “recharge” or top-up a prepaid phone?

When you first activate your prepaid phone, you’ll received a PIN and phone number associated with your account. Using your phone allows you to pay through a variety of methods that include:

  • Automatic credit or debit card payments
  • Instant top-up cards purchased at retail shops
  • Electronic reloading
  • Money transfer top-ups

Some US carriers, like T-Mobile and Verizon, offer international prepaid tourist plans that allow you to stay connected while on your adventures abroad. But these plans may be more expensive than purchasing and refilling an unlocked phone at your destination.

How long does it take to receive an airtime top-up?

Most top-up transactions are processed instantly, especially when you use a money transfer service. To confirm that the airtime top-up has processed, you’ll typically receive an email confirmation, text alert, or you can log on to your account and check your balance.

However, even though delays are uncommon, it happens. If you experience a delay, it’s likely on the Telco network’s end. You should reach out immediately to customer service to get the situation sorted out.

What happens if I send a top-up to the wrong number?

If you top-up an incorrect account, there’s usually no way to credit the right account since the transaction has already been processed. To avoid this mistake, most top-up services will require you to enter the recipient’s phone number twice to ensure the top-up is received by the correct phone.

What if I top-up a phone number that is not in use?

Since the top-up is unable to process to an invalid phone number, it will not go through and you won’t be charged.

Reloading your phone with an online money transfer

While the idea of adding minutes to a prepaid phone can sound foreign to North Americans, people all over the world send and receive prepaid minutes to and from friends and family.

Many companies that we use for money transfers in the States offer “reload” services for prepaid credit cards and mobile plans that make it easy to convert cash into communication — often within minutes.

A few to consider:

WorldRemitWorldRemit offers a fully online process to easily and cheaply add instant airtime to a mobile number of your choice, receiving confirmation by email or SMS.
XoomFor about $1 a reload, you can pay for or gift minutes online with Xoom to phones in some 30 countries worldwide.
RiaWith Ria, it’s easy to buy minutes for prepaid phones — both online and at authorized agent locations around the world.
Western Union Reload+With Reload+, you can visit any participating agent location worldwide, pay a small fee and receive your minutes instantly. And depending on the country, you may be able to do it all online.
MoneyGram Mobile RechargeFor a small fee, you can visit an agent location or go online to top-up services with more than 350 mobile carriers in over 100 countries.

International prepay checklist

Before boarding that flight or selecting your unlocked phone, ask these important questions to avoid any pitfalls that come with prepaid:

  • How much will I pay for an initial deposit or SIM card?
  • What are the per-minute rates for calls outside the US?
  • Do I have to wait before I can start making calls or is the phone ready immediately use?
  • Will I have access to voice and text, or are there limitations?
  • If data is included, what speed will I get as part of my plan?
  • What are the ways that I can check my balance — online, phone, text?
  • Will I be notified as I get close to running out of minutes?

There’s no need to worry about how you’ll communicate and take important calls while enjoying your adventures. With a prepaid phone, you’ll be all set to load and refill your minutes to keep the conversation going while abroad.

How do prepaid phones work?

Unlike your typical cell phone “locked” to a specific carrier to which you pay a monthly fee on a contract, a prepaid phone can be used with any compatible carrier worldwide. Because it is “unlocked” to a carrier, you can switch to a different carrier simply by swapping out the current SIM card for another that’s compatible with your carrier of choice.

Once you’ve activated your cell phone and paid for your minutes, it’s ready for use.

What is a SIM card?

A SIM (short for Subscriber Identity Module) card is a “smart” card inside every mobile phone that includes a unique ID and stores your data. In the US, many phones are “locked” to a carrier — meaning you’re discouraged from tampering or replacing the SIM card under threat of voiding your contract or warranty.

Mobile top-up FAQ

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