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The good news is your GPS receiver can work anywhere in the world.

The bad news is that without mapping data, the GPS unit is not much help.  And not all GPS manufacturers offer international maps.

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Using your GPS Receiver Internationally

GPS works everywhere, but map data can be hard to obtain

When you're in a foreign country, and possibly driving on the other side of the road, the last thing you want to be doing is juggling a map and trying to navigate too.

A GPS can be even more helpful when traveling internationally than it is while traveling in the US.

Part of our series on GPS receivers - see links on right for extra articles in the series.



Useful at home, a GPS receiver becomes invaluable when traveling in an unfamiliar foreign country, often with hard to understand road signs, confusing directions, an unfamiliar car and traffic laws, and possibly while you're driving on the other side of the road.

In theory, GPS receivers can work everywhere in the world, but in practice they are only useful in countries for which they have map data available, so as to provide you with 'you are here' information on a map display rather than meaningless raw latitude and longitude data.

If you travel and rent cars internationally, you should consider using a GPS to help you navigate.

No More Getting Lost, Internationally as well as Domestically

One of the most popular modern aids when traveling by car is a GPS receiver.  Its moving map display shows you exactly where your vehicle is, and its routing ability allows you to key in an address and have the unit give turn by turn directions to get you there.

A GPS is a wonderful tool when traveling locally in the US, and when you are traveling internationally, it can be even more helpful.

Chances are you too have tried to navigate your way around the confusing winding roads in foreign towns and cities, and chances are you’ve been lost for at least part of the journey.  A GPS will always show you exactly where you are on the map, and calmly tells you where to turn so as to get you to your destination.  Better still, if you’re in the wrong lane and miss a turn, it quickly provides a new route to your destination without criticizing your driving!

The satellite network used by GPS receivers covers the entire world, so – in theory – you could take a portable GPS unit with you wherever you travel and have it be as helpful as when driving locally in the US.  But there’s one important catch.  A GPS receiver needs to have local map data loaded into it before it can translate abstract latitude and longitude data into a ‘you are here’ display on a map.  Most GPS units you buy in the US come preloaded with US (and often Canadian) map information, but if you travel outside of North America, they can’t provide map coverage.

Use when Driving - and Walking Too

Originally intended primarily as in-car units, today's latest portable units can be carried with you as a hand-held unit while walking around a town.

In the larger cities the units sometimes have problems if there are tall buildings on both sides of the road creating a virtual cavern that blocks many of the satellites, but because you're walking rather than driving, you can readily work out which street you truly are on and so ignore the GPS's occasional ambivalencies.

Clearly, when choosing a hand held unit, smaller is better than bigger, and you want something light-weight and easy to hold and read while walking.

You also want as much battery life as possible built in to the unit.  And, to maximize your battery life, keep in mind that the dimmer you have your display setting, the longer the batteries will last.

Marking favorite places

There's another benefit of using a unit while walking around.  If you find a lovely restaurant or bar, or store, or anything else that you want to remember and come back to, you can simply store its location into the GPS memory.  No more subsequently wandering around saying 'I think it was just down here; no, down there; ummmm, I really don't remember!'.

One consideration - if you're saving the location of a favorite place, be sure to check the GPS is showing the correct location first.  You might need to over-ride its location and specify exactly where you want to mark the spot, and be sure to edit the location saved with the name of the place so, in the future, you remember why you saved the place.

Another GPS alternative for walking

Increasingly, some cell phones include GPS receivers.  Although they are generally too small to be easily viewed and truly useful while driving, they can be very convenient when walking around.

If your current cell phone contract has been completed and you're considering buying a new phone, perhaps consider getting a quad band GSM phone (ie with AT&T/Cingular or T-mobile) that also features a GPS receiver built in to it.

GPS Alternatives When Traveling

You have two choices when seeking the help of a GPS internationally.  One approach is to simply rent a car that comes with a GPS in it, the other is to buy a unit.

Rental cars with GPS units

Auto Europe offer GPS units in their vehicles for an extra $84/week, plus potentially extra costs depending on how many countries in Europe you want map data for.  The best rates for Auto Europe car rentals are usually available through

Hertz offer units in their vehicles in much of the world, also for an extra charge (about $80/week in Europe, more in Great Britain), and usually only in their midsize and larger vehicles.  In Europe, the Hertz units are increasingly being upgraded to portable units so they can do double duty as hand held units for while you're walking around a town as well.

Other rental car companies are adding GPS units to their fleets as well.

Buying a unit

If you decide to buy a unit yourself – either one to use locally as well as one for your travels, or even just one to take when traveling (at the better part of $100 a week to rent one, it doesn't take long to pay for the cost of your own unit) keep in mind a couple of factors.  The first is unit size and portability; the second is the availability of mapping data for the countries you are visiting.

Size considerations

Normally, the bigger the screen on a GPS, the better.  But you’re sacrificing portability if you choose a big heavy unit, so we’d recommend a unit with no larger than a 4.3" screen, and perhaps a 3.5" screen.  Anything smaller than 3.5" is probably too small to be conveniently seen in the car; anything larger is too big (and too heavy) to conveniently travel with.

A possible exception to this is if you're getting a unit primarily as a hand held unit for use while walking around.  In such cases, you might want to consider a 3.5" screen as the maximum size, and also look at the smaller 3" screen units.

Map data availability

If your GPS doesn't have a digital map loaded into it for the region you are in, the unit becomes useless.  It will just show you a blank display - no roads, no towns, no other information at all.  Although the GPS still knows where you are in terms of latitude and longitude, it has no map data (ie picture) to show on the screen with its marker to designate the 'you are here' point.

And, if the GPS doesn't have map data, it also can't create a route from where you are to where you want to go and give you the turn by turn guidance that is so helpful.

So the availability of international maps is a vital consideration when thinking about using GPS units internationally.  A GPS is close to useless without map data for the countries you'll be visiting.

Not all brands offer international mapping for their GPS units, and even though nearly all units use standard map data (either from Navteq or Tele Atlas) you can't usually buy generic map data from somewhere and load it into any GPS.

European maps are more commonly available than maps for the rest of the world, and western Europe is more readily available than eastern Europe.

Other countries that are sometimes available include Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, Brazil, some parts of the Middle East, South Africa, and Malaysia/Singapore.

Brand leader Garmin offers perhaps the widest range of international maps, especially for their Nuvi units, including an entire world map, but this map only shows major highways - it can be helpful, but it is useless when going through towns and cities and wanting to turn off the major highways.  Garmin also supports some third party map products giving you access to maps for more countries.

If you are considering a Garmin unit, be careful to make sure that the unit you have in mind supports the maps you need.  Not all Garmin units support all of their maps.

Other GPS manufacturers with international mapping include companies such as Tom-Tom (which has a more limited range of maps), and low cost GlobalSat (which offers European maps only).


A GPS navigation receiver can be even more helpful, either for driving a rental car or for walking around towns and cities, when traveling internationally.

Slightly different buying issues apply when choosing a GPS for international use - it is more important to be portable, and of course, it is essential the unit has mapping data for the places you intend to visit.

Some rental car companies rent GPS receivers as optional extras in their cars; otherwise (or anyway) your best choice is to simply buy the unit that best suits your needs, the places you visit, and your budget.

Low priced units are available for as little as $200 or less (for example, see our GlobalSat GV-370 review for a very low priced good value unit).

Read more in the GPS articles series

See the links at the top right of the page to visit other articles in our GPS series.

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Originally published 21 Sep 2007, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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