Tips on Using Smartphones Internationally
This post is a painful one to write, because figuring out the ins and outs of using your smartphone internationally is a pain in the butt. However, my iPhone has been useful in so many ways on my last two international trips that I want to share some of the tricks I learned with you guys in the hopes that they enhance (or add ease to) your next adventure abroad.
Before we begin, you should know that I have an iPhone 5 and my carrier is AT&T — all of my tips come from personal experience. That said, I think (and hope) that anyone thinking about using their smartphone abroad will find some value here.
First, it IS possible to use your smartphone while abroad without fear of being surprised by outrageous charges in your next bill, but you have to be smart about it. If you are going on vacation for a week or more, I’d recommend looking into an international voice and data plan. While I’m often surprised at the number of WiFi hotspots you can access while traveling abroad, it’s nice to have the option of using data in a pinch, and of course it’s helpful to be able to make a phone call or two to confirm reservations, get questions answered, ask for late check-in at a hotel, and even call back to the U.S. Before our recent two week trip to South America, I looked into international calling packages and settled on the cheapest international phone plan at 15 minutes for $30.
It was the data that stumped me because I currently have unlimited data in the U.S., so I have no idea how much data I regularly use — but I know it’s more than I would need abroad, since I would be using data only when necessary. AT&T offers a helpful International Data Calculator to assist in estimating usage. I used the calculator and then also called customer support to confirm with an actual human being that I understood the international data package options. In the end, I went with the cheapest international data plan — $30 for 120 MB. I made it work by avoiding using the data during the first week of our trip, when we were with local friends, and still ended up using almost all the data allotted by the end of the trip by carefully monitoring the usage. If you get close to the limit, you can contact AT&T and upgrade to a higher data plan with no penalties.
I didn’t get a voice or data plan for our trip to Europe in 2011, but my iPhone was still invaluable due to its functionality as a journal, camera, screenshot keeper, and web/app hub (when connected to WiFi).
Some of my favorite apps that work offline are from Lonely Planet and TimeOut — brands that make some really helpful free apps for dozens of major cities around the world (look for them in the app store).
Helpful apps for when you have a WiFi connection (or when using data) include:
- Google Translate for figuring out how to say…
- Skype for free calls back home
- TripAdvisor for reviews of sites, restaurants, and hotels
- The Weather Channel for an hourly weather forecast
- WhatsApp for texting while abroad
- XE Currency for currency conversion rates
- Yelp for local reviews
That said, the Swiss Army Knife of apps, the one I would recommend you download if you could only download one, would be (drumroll)…Google Maps. Here’s why:
- The ability to create custom maps accessible both on a laptop or smartphone — you could set up walking tours for yourself as part of the planning process. To drop a pin, press and hold any location on the map. Tap the resulting info sheet for additional options like saving the location (by tapping the star icon) or accessing street views.
- When connected to WiFi, download a map of your destination, zoom in to the level of detail you’ll need for the day, wait for the map to download and become clear, and then move around in each of the four cardinal directions to download each tile of the map. This trick allows you to maintain GPS functionality in offline maps even when you turn off data roaming.
- Get schedules, routes and step-by-step public transit directions (train, bus, tram or subway).
- Take a photo of an unknown landmark, or even a block of foreign text, and use Google Goggles to get helpful information and even language translation.
On my iPhone, I can save a screenshot to the Camera Roll by simultaneously holding down the center Home and top Sleep/Wake buttons, and then releasing them at the same time. It’s an amazing way to retrieve important information on your iPhone when you know you won’t have access to the web. I often take screenshots of business contact information, directions, confirmation information, turn by turn directions on a map, etc.
The camera on my iPhone 5 is so good that I often use it as my primary camera while traveling. It’s also a great tool to take pictures of information in guidebooks and written in notebooks so that I have it in my pocket and carry less books and papers.
I’m a big fan Notes, the little yellow legal pad app that comes standard on every iPhone. I copy and paste information I’ll need later from the web into a note, and also use it as my travel journal, jotting down activities, impressions, and even “Things to Google” later on.
Prepare your iPhone before leaving U.S. soil
Use your final 5-10 minutes before your plane takes off from U.S. soil to take the following steps to prepare your iPhone for responsible use internationally:
- Turn off push email (you’ll still be able to check your accounts manually). Go into Settings, select Mail, Contacts and Calendars. Tap on Fetch New Data, and set Push to OFF. Now your iPhone won’t constantly access the network to pull down emails automatically while you’re roaming. Be sure to also select Manual Fetching by checking off Manually on the Fetch New Data page to be sure that any other rogue apps won’t try to access your data.
- Turn off push notifications. Go into Settings, select Notifications. Tap on each app in the Notification Center and turn each notification off.
- Reset Cellular Usage to zero so you can track how many minutes of voice calls and how many MB of data you have used since you left the U.S. Go into Settings, select General. Tap on Usage, then Cellular Usage, then Reset Statistics. This will turn Call Time for the Current Period to 0 Minutes, Cellular Network Data Sent to 0 bytes, and Received to 0 bytes.
- Turn Data Roaming off to be sure not to run up hidden call and data charges while abroad. Go into Settings, select Airplane Mode. This will automatically turn Cellular Data OFF, which turns off data roaming. You can go to Settings and find a Wi-Fi Network while remaining in Airplane Mode.
Using your iPhone abroad
- If you want to place calls but ensure you are not using data, the phone needs to be first taken off Airplane Mode in Settings. Then, tap on General, Cellular, and turn Cellular Data OFF. Turning off data roaming blocks email, browsing, visual voicemail and downloads, but it will not block text messages (you do not need a special international plan for receiving text messages, however, you should look into one if you plan on sending text messages while abroad).
- Remember to put your phone back in Airplane Mode after you complete your call and/or use international data roaming.
- Periodically check your Cellular Usage against your international voice and data packages while abroad.
- Make sure to pack a universal phone charger and/or plug adaptors for the countries you’ll be visiting.
- Don’t get so wrapped up in all the cool things your smartphone can do that you miss the amazing experiences that come from being open and present.
More International Travel Tips
- For non-smartphone related international travel recommendations, check out “International Travel Tips or: Things I’ve learned on Vacation.”
- The New York Times also published an article, “Roam the World and Keep the Cellphone on a Budget,” by Eric Taub, that gives a good overview of the international calling options with information from all the U.S. carriers.
Tags: AT&T, business travel, data plan, Google Goggles, google maps, google translate, international, iPhone, lonely planet, smartphone, TimeOut, tips, travel, yelp