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Tips on Using Smartphones Internationally

28 May 2013 7,444 views 29 Comments

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.

jodi bart with pepper phone

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.

International Calling

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.

International Data

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).

Recommended Apps

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:

Social media apps are also very helpful for sharing real-time experiences

Social media apps are also very helpful for sharing real-time experiences

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.

Screenshots

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.

Camera

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.

Journal

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.

taking notes

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

Tip for iPhone Users: When you arrive overseas, tap on:
Settings>General>Usage>Reset Statistics. Then periodically
check your usage against your international data
package while abroad (tap on: Settings>General> Usage,
and view data sent + received under “Cellular Network
Data”).
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  • Stella Cooks

    Thanks so much for this timely post! We're going to the UK in three weeks, and I've been procrastinating about finding out how to use my iPhone 4S. Like you, it's my primary camera, and I'm a fan of Notes, too. Too bad I can't screen grab this entire post!

  • http://www.wildandcrazypearl.com/ Emily Goodstein

    #1 best use of your smart phone while traveling abroad: sending me a 30th birthday text on my actual birthday! xxoo

  • disqus_0MJzZMcNOn

    Very thorough research and helpful hints. I will be going to Europe this fall and will certainly benefit from the helpful hints provided in the article. Although my parents are no longer alive, I will be communicating with other loved ones. This has been so helpful. I still use my iphone 3g but all the tips were immensely helpful. I will pass on to my three boyfriends who will be joining me on the trip.

    Andrew

  • David Bernay

    In my experience, Verizon provides the best coverage for travel abroad (pricing and most countries covered). Regardless of which carrier you use, you will need to check in advance if the global data plan will cover you where you are traveling because there are limitations. The data plan won't be helpful if your destination is not covered. If this happens and you don't notice it, you'll be using data roaming instead and it will cost you a LOT of money. If you are in this situation and don't have access to wifi, turning the data coverage on and off very fast will allow you to check email messages without racking up high bills.

    I wouldn't necessarily recommend a calling plan. Depending on how long you plan to visit a country, you could always bring a phone from home and buy a local SIM card to install. In many places, these are available in airports, bus stations, newspaper stands etc. Using Skype credit will also be much cheaper than the ATT or Verizon calling plan. Additionally, the app “Viber” is a great way to call people back home but the only catch is that they also must download the app to receive your phone calls.

    If in doubt, call your phone carrer's global services department to learn about all your options!!

  • Sara

    All great advice…I tend to use only wi-fi…keep my iphone in airplane mode the entire time. I can call using Skype from a good wi-fi connection if I need to… I also use What's App (like Viber) to “text” while abroad.

    One other option (if you have an unlocked smart phone) is to get a pre-paid sim card in the country in which you are traveling. Even in Brazil you can get one for $5 with just your passport. Put some money on it and you are good to go!

    (It's what you can now do at T-mobile, which is beneficial if you are a non-US resident traveling in the US for a short time!)

  • jodibart

    I hope this post is helpful to you on your trip, Stella. Have such a great time. I love having an exciting trip to look forward to!

  • jodibart

    My husband is a sweetheart – I loved that he did that too.

  • jodibart

    I'm so honored that you decided to come out about your sexuality on my blog, dad. I do hope these tips are helpful to you are your “boyfriends.”

  • jodibart

    I am so glad you weighed in with your own experience here, David. I think you are the most well-traveled person I know!

  • jodibart

    Thank you so much, Sara. I know you are an expert in this stuff since you have been working abroad in Brazil for FIVE years now! Unfortunately, my iPhone is not jailbroken.

  • http://Marcos.Kirsch.com.mx/ Marcos

    This time I disagree strongly with the advice. If you are traveling internationally, you should get a local pre-paid SIM card. American cellphone carriers are extremely expensive and their international plans are rip offs.

    First order of business: make sure you own an unlocked GSM compatible phone, which is used in most of the world except the US. Verizon and Sprint phones need not apply (they use CDMA) unless you have a world phone, like the iPhone 5. In my case, Sprint unlocked my iPhone 5 for international SIM card use by simply asking nicely, even though it was brand new.

    When in Mexico, I use a prepaid Telcel Amigo SIM card which I reload online before travel. I get voice and 1 GB or so of data for $10 or $15 dollars. Right now I'm in Israel and have a Cellcom SIM with 250 MB of data, unlimited voice and SMS, for one week use for about $13. This is super practical: people can call you using a local number, and you have access to email, Skype, iMessage, Maps, etc.

    This is great for driving: you can use apps like Waze to help you get around while on the wheel.

    Added bonus: unless American carriers, nobody else restricts you from tethering. It's your data, you paid for it, use it however the hell you want. So I can use my iPhone to provide internet access to other people or my laptop or my iPad. Very convenient.

    I've used prepaid SIMs so far in Mexico, Israel, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, etc. It's by far the cheapest and most convenient thing. They are sold everywhere, they are cheap, you will never spend more than you anticipated.

  • jodibart

    I hope this post is helpful to you on your trip, Stella. Have such a great time. I love having an exciting trip to look forward to!

  • jodibart

    My husband is a sweetheart – I loved that he did that too.

  • jodibart

    I'm so honored that you decided to come out about your sexuality on my blog, dad. I do hope these tips are helpful to you are your “boyfriends.”

  • jodibart

    I am so glad you weighed in with your own experience here, David. I think you are the most well-traveled person I know!

  • jodibart

    Thank you so much, Sara. I know you are an expert in this stuff since you have been working abroad in Brazil for FIVE years now! Unfortunately, my iPhone is not jailbroken.

  • http://Marcos.Kirsch.com.mx/ Marcos

    This time I disagree strongly with the advice. If you are traveling internationally, you should get a local pre-paid SIM card. American cellphone carriers are extremely expensive and their international plans are rip offs.

    First order of business: make sure you own an unlocked GSM compatible phone, which is used in most of the world except the US. Verizon and Sprint phones need not apply (they use CDMA) unless you have a world phone, like the iPhone 5. In my case, Sprint unlocked my iPhone 5 for international SIM card use by simply asking nicely, even though it was brand new.

    When in Mexico, I use a prepaid Telcel Amigo SIM card which I reload online before travel. I get voice and 1 GB or so of data for $10 or $15 dollars. Right now I'm in Israel and have a Cellcom SIM with 250 MB of data, unlimited voice and SMS, for one week use for about $13. This is super practical: people can call you using a local number, and you have access to email, Skype, iMessage, Maps, etc.

    This is great for driving: you can use apps like Waze to help you get around while on the wheel.

    Added bonus: unless American carriers, nobody else restricts you from tethering. It's your data, you paid for it, use it however the hell you want. So I can use my iPhone to provide internet access to other people or my laptop or my iPad. Very convenient.

    I've used prepaid SIMs so far in Mexico, Israel, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, etc. It's by far the cheapest and most convenient thing. They are sold everywhere, they are cheap, you will never spend more than you anticipated.

  • jodibart

    I hope this post is helpful to you on your trip, Stella. Have such a great time. I love having an exciting trip to look forward to!

  • jodibart

    My husband is a sweetheart – I loved that he did that too.

  • jodibart

    I'm so honored that you decided to come out about your sexuality on my blog, dad. I do hope these tips are helpful to you are your “boyfriends.”

  • jodibart

    I am so glad you weighed in with your own experience here, David. I think you are the most well-traveled person I know!

  • jodibart

    Thank you so much, Sara. I know you are an expert in this stuff since you have been working abroad in Brazil for FIVE years now! Unfortunately, my iPhone is not jailbroken.

  • http://Marcos.Kirsch.com.mx/ Marcos

    This time I disagree strongly with the advice. If you are traveling internationally, you should get a local pre-paid SIM card. American cellphone carriers are extremely expensive and their international plans are rip offs.

    First order of business: make sure you own an unlocked GSM compatible phone, which is used in most of the world except the US. Verizon and Sprint phones need not apply (they use CDMA) unless you have a world phone, like the iPhone 5. In my case, Sprint unlocked my iPhone 5 for international SIM card use by simply asking nicely, even though it was brand new.

    When in Mexico, I use a prepaid Telcel Amigo SIM card which I reload online before travel. I get voice and 1 GB or so of data for $10 or $15 dollars. Right now I'm in Israel and have a Cellcom SIM with 250 MB of data, unlimited voice and SMS, for one week use for about $13. This is super practical: people can call you using a local number, and you have access to email, Skype, iMessage, Maps, etc.

    This is great for driving: you can use apps like Waze to help you get around while on the wheel.

    Added bonus: unless American carriers, nobody else restricts you from tethering. It's your data, you paid for it, use it however the hell you want. So I can use my iPhone to provide internet access to other people or my laptop or my iPad. Very convenient.

    I've used prepaid SIMs so far in Mexico, Israel, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, etc. It's by far the cheapest and most convenient thing. They are sold everywhere, they are cheap, you will never spend more than you anticipated.

  • Roger Richard

    good points that you have mentioned her…..

    tech-blog.co.uk

  • Sunny

    Thanks Marcos. I’m going to Israel July 2014. Question about sim card: If I get a local number can I still get iMessage on my iPad in a wireless environment? Also if the cell number has been replaced with a local number, how are you getting iMessage on your phone if your friends still have your home cell number?

  • http://Marcos.Kirsch.com.mx/ Marcos

    > If I get a local number can I still get iMessage on my iPad in a wireless environment?

    Wireless environment? Do you mean through WiFi? Yes, iMessage will work.

    > Also if the cell number has been replaced with a local number, how are you getting iMessage on your phone if your friends still have your home cell number?

    That’s a tricky one. I don’t think that will work. This is one of the reasons I register my email as an iMessage address on my iPhone/Mac/iPad. More importantly, in Messages under Settings on all my devices I set “Start new conversations from” (basically the reply address) to my email, not my phone number. So as long as others iMessage you to your email, it will work.

  • http://Marcos.Kirsch.com.mx/ Marcos

    I changed my local SIM card strategy since this post was written. I switched to T-Mobile and now I get free data (read: iMessage, WhatsApp) virtually everywhere in the world. I also get free SMS. And I also get 20 cents per minute phone calls. It’s no longer worth it for me to deal with swapping SIM cards.

    I’ve used this already in Mexico, Costa Rica, and several islands in the Caribbean, and I plan on doing this in Brazil this summer.

  • jodibart

    Smart!