Cell phones are so much a part of our daily lives—whether for keeping in touch, finding our way, or snapping a few quick pictures— that it’s hard to part with them when hopping on a plane to another country.
But tales of international data usage left unchecked are enough to make most travelers too scared to turn on their phones when far from home.
How to ensure that opening your first post-trip phone bill isn’t more adventurous than your vacation, itself? Read on to learn everything you need to know about using your phone while traveling internationally.
What’s an unlocked phone and why should I care?
When it comes to travel, you’ll hear a lot of talk about unlocked phones, which isn’t much use if you don’t know what they are and whether you have one.
If you got a free or discounted smartphone by signing up for a service contract, there’s a chance it’s network locked. This means your phone company prevents your phone from being used on anything other than its own network.
With a locked phone, you’re stuck with paying your cell company’s roaming rates from the minute you land in your destination until you arrive back home.
Locked phones are common if you’re from the US, Australia, and New Zealand, less so in Europe and Asia where paying the full price for unlocked devices is typical. If you’re not sure if your phone is unlocked, ask your cell company.
If you want to use your own phone (and it’s locked).
First, you have to make sure it will work everywhere you want to go. If you have a contract, chances are it’s with one of the US’s four major wireless operators: T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon Wireless. All four can provide service in some parts of the world.
However, each of the four wireless operators uses one of two main cellular technologies, GSM or CDMA.
The most common cellular technology is GSM, and it’s widely used throughout much of the world. In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile operate GSM networks and, as a result, have the most extensive networks abroad.
CDMA is less common, but it is used by Verizon and Sprint in the US, and a few carriers elsewhere. If your phone only supports CDMA, it’s highly unlikely to work internationally.
Beware, not every GSM phone will work.
While the devices used on AT&T's and T-Mobile's networks are more likely to work in more countries around the world, not every GSM phone works in every country.
The reason is that different regions of the world use different frequency bands to transmit GSM signals. In the US, GSM operators only use the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz frequency bands. In Europe, they use the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz frequency bands.
Bottom line? Make sure your phone will go the distance.
To make sure you're covered in most regions, you should either get a triband (GSM 900/1800/1900) or quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) phone.
If you’re traveling to Japan or South Korea, it’s likely that you’ll need a new phone.
This is because wireless operators in Japan and South Korea do not use GSM. Instead, they operate on UMTS at the 2100 MHz frequency band. You can rent a phone for this network either from your service provider or at multiple locations upon arrival.
Don’t forget to call your carrier before leaving.
Most wireless providers require a call to activate your international plan before heading out the door, to avoid any inconvenient service interruptions.
Additionally, you’ll want to check with your provider for the exact rates in the countries where you'll be traveling. This is important because, for most of us with US-based cell phone service, voice, text, or data plans do not apply when traveling to another country.
Be careful! Travelers need to be especially careful of data charges.
The rates for data are far more expensive than for roaming voice calls and text messages.
Additional note for iPhone users.
The iPhone was made for data, and as a result it can cause some problems for international travelers because data rates are typically much higher than voice rates. For example, the iPhone's visual voicemail works over the data network. So when iPhone subscribers receive a voice mail while traveling and their phone is on, that voice mail message will be charged a data rate, regardless of whether that iPhone subscriber checked their voice mail.
What can you do to make sure this isn’t a problem for you?
- Turn data roaming off: Be sure to download and install the latest version of iPhone software from iTunes. By default, this setting for international data roaming will be in the "OFF" position. To turn data roaming "ON/OFF" tap on Settings → General → Network → Data Roaming.
- Utilize Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is available in many international airports, hotels, and restaurants to browse the Web or check e-mail. You can even use voice over IP services, such as Skype to make phone calls. When using third-party Wi-Fi though, there are some important safety considerations to keep in mind.
- Turn fetch new data off: Check email and sync contacts and calendars manually instead of having the data pushed to your iPhone automatically. This way, you can control the flow of data coming to your iPhone. To turn off the Auto-Check functionality tap on Settings → Fetch New Data, change Push to "OFF" and select to fetch manually.
- Reset the usage tracker to zero: When you arrive overseas, access the usage tracker in the general settings menu and select reset statistics. This will enable you to track your estimated data usage. To reset Usage Tracker to Zero tap on Settings → General → Usage → Reset.
Your phone is unlocked. What next?
Once you have an unlocked phone, you simply buy a local SIM card in your destination. These can be picked up at nearly every convenience store, phone shop, even airport kiosks. And thankfully, “SIM card” is the same in every language.
The price and approach to local SIM cards varies a lot, but you’ll typically end up paying between $10-50 a month for a useful amount of calls, texts and data.
On the upside, this is an inexpensive way to stay connected with phone and data service while you travel! The downside is that you’ll have to change SIM cards every time you change countries, so you end up carrying a stack of SIM cards around the world with you.
What are the drawbacks to using a local SIM card?
Finding a store that sells local SIM cards has never been difficult, nor is “topping up” to keep flush with minutes.
One drawback is that you will be assigned a new local phone number, which means that family and friends calling you from the US will have to make an international call to reach you. It also means that international calling rates will apply, should you attempt to call the US from the country that you’re visiting.
Also, some features may not be available on your phone, such as voicemail, call waiting, email and internet surfing. And you won’t be able to receive calls, voicemails, text messages, or emails sent to your U.S. phone number while using another carrier's SIM card.
That said, using a local SIM can save you money, especially if you are using it to make local calls. Texting is usually the cheapest method of communication. And SIM cards can be saved and used again if you travel to the same country again.
What if your phone won’t work?
Option 1: Get a pay-as-you-go hotspot.
If your own phone just won’t cut it, you can save yourself some grief by simply picking up a pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi hotspot from a carrier abroad.
Your smartphone will still connect over WiFi just fine, so replace calling with Skype or Google Voice, SMS with WhatsApp, and download a bunch of offline travel apps to use when you’re away from a signal. You’ll be surprised how well that approach can work, and not getting notifications all the time is quite refreshing.
The downside to this option, of course, is that your connectivity relies on the hotspot. For data usage, this won't feel much differently. Calls, on the other hand, will drop more easily when you're moving about because VOIP doesn't recover from dropouts like traditional cellular calls can.
Additionally, you'll have two devices to charge: the hotspot and your smartphone. Often the hotspot won't last quite as long as your smartphone, and you'll need to spend a bit of time thinking about power management throughout the day.
Option 2: Rent a phone.
You can rent phones at airports and from various companies before you leave home, but I’d only consider it for a short trip to a specific country where my usual phone didn’t work. For anything other than that, it’s cheaper just to buy a new one.
Option 3: Buy a disposable phone.
If you’re in a country for a while and all you need are calls, texts and maybe some light web browsing, just buy the cheapest prepaid phone you can find at the local mobile store. Sure, it’s probably not going to be the coolest model, but you can often pick these phones up with a bit of credit for next to nothing and they’ll do the job for a while.
Final tips before traveling with your phone.
Whichever method you choose, making sure you have phone access while overseas isn’t a completely straightforward task. So that your time and effort aren’t in vain, mind these last few tips for using your phone on an international trip:
- Know that calls to voicemail and the operator will incur all applicable fees, but calls to your carrier's customer service are typically free.
- The method for making local calls in each country will vary, so make sure you know how to do so.
- When in a foreign country, you will have to use the appropriate country and area codes for calls back to the States or a third country. To call the US dial 001.
- Remember that emergency-dial numbers will be different from 911.
- Finally, don't forget a plug adapter for your charger.