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Best Options for Using a SmartPhone Internationally

By Edited May 28, 2015 2 0
Traveling Internationally with a Smartphone
Credit: mjpyro

If you are planning any international travel and would like to use your smart phone abroad, there are few things you need to think about before you head out.

First of all, your GSM phone will work in another country, but if you do not have a prepaid international plan, it is going to cost you big time. I would not recommend that option unless you have signed up for an international roaming package with your domestic carrier or you will get a nasty surprise on your next bill, possibly $1000 of dollars in data and roaming fees.[5]

Most world cellular networks work with GSM technology. Without getting into how the technology actually works, just know that on this type of network, you can remove the SIM chip from your phone and put another carrier’s SIM chip inside. This will allow you access to the local carrier’s network to make local calls at their rate, not the roaming rate.

There is one crucial element to using your GSM phone internationally and swapping out SIM cards though. It must be unlocked from your carrier. In other words, your carrier must lift the block that prevents it from being used on other networks. They do this so you will not sign up with them, buy a phone with a heavy subsidy from the carrier, then cancel a few months later. They want to make sure you stay on the plan long enough to pay out the subsidy.

However, the good news is that most carriers will provide you with the unlock code for your phone if you have been with them for a while, sometimes in as little as 3 months.

Another option would be to buy an unlocked phone off sites like Ebay or Amazon, which I have personally done several times.

If you are afraid to take your brand new iPhone into certain countries, this would be the best option for you. Make sure you buy a Quad Band phone just to be sure you have all of the bands covered for any countries.

If you are interested in an unlocked phone, search for that in either of those sites and you will find any type of phone you could possibly want in the unlocked version, even brand new iPhones being sold from other distributors or even Apple itself.

There are two carriers in the USA that offer access to your GSM SIM chip: AT&T and T-Mobile. Verizon and Sprint work off of technology called CDMA and you cannot remove the SIM chips so this is not going to work for you. Most people that travel internationally take that into consideration when choosing a domestic phone carrier.

If you have that type of phone, you can simply purchase a SIM chip in that country to use on one of their carriers for local calls. However, you still want to avoid making international calls or sending data as it will eat up your prepaid credits you bought on the foreign SIM network really fast.

What are the options when traveling abroad if you want to use your smartphone to make phone calls and send texts messages with or without data?

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Domestic Carrier Options

Major domestic phone carriers offer prepaid voice and data packages designed for international travel. The cost of a text message or per minute rate on phone calls is pretty straightforward in the plan but the data cost will vary and that is the major drawback to these plans

One carrier offers 100 megabytes of data for $25 a month. At .25 cents per megabyte, that is not cheap, but it is if you compare it to what you would pay if you did not have a cell phone global package like that. Sending data without a global plan would run you over $20 per megabyte if you were to pay as you go traveling internationally.

But even if you buy one of these plans, 100 megabytes of data a month is not enough to do much of anything with so why bother. For example if you emailed an average sized photo, that would use between 3 and 5 megabytes of data from your monthly plan. If you planned on sending video, you can forget about having any megabytes left after the first day of the month. Ten or so  videos ranging in length from to 2 or 3 minutes will eat up virtually the entire monthly balance.

Here are some other examples according to the Verizon and AT&T websites although the results are going to vary based on several things like resolution and the size of photos and videos.

  • Visiting 50 web pages are roughly 50 megabytes[1]
  • Thirty social media posts with photos are roughly 10 megabytes[1]
  • Downloading 10 songs is roughly 40 megabytes[2]

Sample Carrier Options

Here are two of my favorite options for using a domestic cellular plan internationally.

T-Mobile offers a Simple Choice plan for $50 a month with no yearly contract which includes unlimited talk, texting and data on your home network in the USA.[3] However, the appeal for international travelers is that you get unlimited data (including texting) in more than 100 countries. As an added benefit of this plan, calls back to the United States are only .20 a minute. And since T-Mobile allows you to remove the SIM chip from their phones, you could replace it with a local carrier’s chip in Europe or wherever to make local calls.

Straight Talk offers a monthly international plan of $60 per month which includes unlimited calling, text and data.[4]

Tips for Saving Data

Best Options for Using a SmartPhone Internationally
  • Always opt for the lowest resolution or email version when sending or uploading any photos or videos
  • Take photos and videos on your phone, but do not upload or send them anywhere until you get back to the hotel room where you can use the free Wi-Fi
  • Use unlimited citywide Wi-Fi access services like Boingo which accesses hotspots around the world for $7.95/month

Texting for Free Services

Best Options for Using a SmartPhone Internationally
Text for free services like WhatsApp are growing in popularity. It may have been an unknown company in the USA before Facebook bought it for $19 billion in February, but it is well known in Europe and South America.[6]

Just about all of Brazil uses it whenever possible with their mobile phones.

To use WhatsApp, simply download the app for your type of device, then enter your local cell number to activate it. It will send you a text message to your cell phone number with an activation code which you input into the app. Then when you want to message someone else on WhatsApp, simply open the open and fire away. You can send text, photos and videos over the network. When you are in Wi-Fi range, it uses that to transmit the data. When outside of that range, it transmits the data over your cellular network, but it only cost you data against your monthly limits.

I routinely use it to communicate with people in Brazil from the United States and the best part is that it is free. Well, technically the first year is free and after that it is 99 cents a year, but who knows what will happen to it now that Facebook has control of it.

Similar, you can take advantage of Wi-Fi with other apps like Skype which can be used from any hotspot. A lot of cities in Europe have hundreds of free hot spots that you can use with these free text, voice and data apps.

If you are concerned (or paranoid) about sending data from a foreign country over WhatsApp or Skype, simply turn off the Cellular Data option on your phone for peace of mind. I will say that my iPhone automatically connects to Wi-Fi if available so I never worry about this.

If you are using public hotspots for Wi-Fi, be aware that they are open networks so do not send sensitive data over them. Keep it lightweight over public networks. I would not enter sites where I had to use login information unless it was absolutely necessary. I would wait to check my email and Facebook later, or at the very least change the password immediately when I got back to the hotel just in case.


Best Options for Using a SmartPhone Internationally
Credit: Apple.com

If you are traveling internationally and are concerned about staying in touch with people back home, there are several options you need to plan out and take advantage of before you leave.

If you feel overwhelmed, try one of the cell phone plans listed above, even if you have to go with Verizon or AT&T because you are locked into a contract.

By far the best option is to take advantage of Wi-Fi, preferable in your hotel room, with apps like Skype and WhatsApp to text and transmit data and video.



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  1. "AT&T Global." AT&T . 18/05/2014 <Web >
  2. "Global Roaming Facts." Verizon Wireless. 18/05/2014 <Web >
  3. "T-Mobile Global Plan." T-Mobile Global . 18/05/2014 <Web >
  4. "International Calling From Straight Talk.." Straight Talk. 18/05/2014 <Web >
  5. "Stuck With a $10,000 Phone Bill." Wall Street Journal. 1/01/2015 <Web >
  6. "Facebook buys WhatsApp for $19 billion." CNN Money. 1/01/2015 <Web >

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