Using Your Phone Abroad
If you’re on vacation, consider allowing yourself to be offline most of the time. Use WiFi to check email or anything else important once or twice a day and otherwise leave the phone in airplane mode. If, however, you want to be as connected as you are at home, then you’ll need an international plan or a different SIM card.
Before you decide, take a few minutes to do some research. Check your provider’s website for details on the roaming plans they offer. Then think about your needs. Check to see how much data you typically use in a month. If you don’t know how to do that on your phone, log in to your account online or call your provider and ask for help. It’s probably easier than you think!
If you use T-Mobile, see if your plan allows for free international data. You may not need to make any calls or send texts while you’re abroad, especially if you use a messaging app such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Viber. Set up a Skype account and you’ll be able to call US land lines from abroad using data on your phone.
So, assuming you don’t have T-Mobile’s amazing free data option, you basically have three choices: get an international plan from your provider, buy an international SIM card before you leave home, or pick up a local SIM card when you arrive in your destination. Which one is best for you depends on how you plan to use your phone while traveling and how many countries you’ll be visiting.
If your phone isn’t – or can’t be – unlocked, then the change of SIM card options won’t work for you. So set up an international plan and be done with it.
But, if your phone is unlocked or it could be and you’re willing to unlock it, read on.
There are some exceptions to this but generally speaking, here’s what I suggest:
What is an International SIM card?
These cards work in multiple countries and allow you to select a package that works for your needs. You’ll need to buy and set it up before you leave home. When it comes to being on vacation, I only recommend these for people visiting multiple countries in a short time who don’t have a good roaming option from their home provider, and still want to be connected while they’re away.
There are multiple options out there so if you want more information about these, get in touch.
What’s the deal with local SIM cards?
In most countries, they’re cheap. You can often buy the card with enough credit for a few local phone calls and text messages for $5 or less. Sometimes that includes a little bit of data. Data plans run the gamut in terms of cost but they’re almost always lower than US prices – often significantly. For example, in Bali you can get a SIM card with 4G/LTE speeds that includes 4GB of data and enough credit for making a few local calls and text messages for about $9. In Denmark, a similar card with 3GB of data and some phone credit can be had for $15.
With cards as cheap as they are, I don’t recommend them to everyone going on vacation for one main reason: buying and setting up a card can take away from your holiday time.
In some places, you can pick up a card at the airport when you land and someone will set it up for you before you leave the building. In others, you need to find a phone shop, get the card cut down to the size you need, show your passport, register the number, and look online using WiFi for instructions on setting up the data. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum. In most countries, it’s pretty easy to get set up with what you need. But spending time on this during your annual vacation may not be worth it. If you book travel with me, I’ll send you information about buying a local SIM card in your destination and whether I think it’s a good option for you.
If you’re traveling with a smartphone, especially in a foreign country where English is not the primary language, there are 3 apps I recommend you download and set up before you go. These apps are all free and available for both iPhones and Androids. Once set up, all can work offline so you can leave your phone in airplane mode, saving you battery life and roaming charges.
- XE allows you to convert rates between multiple currencies offline. Choose your desired currencies while you have a data or WiFi signal and the app will store the exchange rate for offline use. If you want an updated rate, just open the app while connected and pull down for a quick refresh of the rates. If you set this up before you leave home or arrive in a different country, you’ll have a good handle on how much you’re spending from the time you land.
- Bonus tip for those who don’t like doing math: put in common US$ amounts to see what they are in your new currency so you have a few benchmarks. For example, if you’re going to Bali and you know that $10 is around 130,000 Rupiah, you’ll quickly learn that you can a get a massage for less than that. Now, to get your brain thinking in Rupiah, do the reverse using whole numbers in that currency. 100,000 Rupiah is $7-8 so any time you look at a price tag or see a menu, you’ll already have that reference in mind.
- HERE WeGo is a map app that works offline if you download the map for your destination country while online. These can be large files so I suggest downloading with WiFi. The GPS on your phone will work even if you’re in airplane mode but search capability in GoogleMaps and other map apps is limited or nonexistent if you’re offline. The newest version provides walking, driving, and, where applicable, public transportation directions. Bicycle routes are also included with a warning that they’re a work in progress so care should be taken. Because HERE isn’t great at finding landmarks or businesses, you’ll need the address of your destination to reliably search for it.
- Bonus tip: recent searches remain in your history so search for your hotel right after you download your destination country. You may not always have the address handy but now HERE will remember it for you.
- Google Translate keeps getting better. Like HERE, you’ll need to download some content while you have internet access. This time, the language of the country you’ll be visiting. German, Russian, and the four Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese) come along with the app but there are more than 50 languages you can download for free. And if you’re willing to sacrifice a little more memory on your phone, you can upgrade to better offline versions of those six languages. In addition to the ability to type in a phrase in English or your target language and have it translated, you can use your phone’s camera to show Google Translate what you’re trying to understand. It isn’t perfect but you should get the idea. If there are key phrases you keep returning to, tap to add a star and you’ll be able to access them from your Starred list. The online translations are often better than the offline so if you have allergies or dietary restrictions, consider translating the relevant information while online, then save the result with a star. You’ll be able to access it offline and say or show it to anyone who needs to know.
- Bonus tip: if you’re connected to the internet, there’s even more you can do with the app. Dealing with a non-Roman alphabet and can’t type in the character you need translated? Draw it with your finger on the screen. Is someone saying something to you but you don’t know how to write it out? Ask them to speak it into the microphone. If you use an Android, there are even more options with the app but I’ll let you find those gems on your own.
If you use WiFi on any device, I strongly recommend setting up a VPN. Public and shared WiFi is easy for people to hack into, allowing them to see what you’re doing online. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) will establish a secure connection that prevents hackers from snooping into your life. I’m currently using Private Internet Access and am, thus far, satisfied with their service but there are plenty of other options out there. In some parts of the world, using a VPN is illegal so if you book travel with me and are headed to one of those places, I’ll let you know.
For anyone who takes photos on vacation (that’s everyone, right?), make a plan before you leave home on how you’ll back up those photos. There are many options for doing this but I recommend Dropbox. It’s free and you can set it up so that photos on your phone or tablet back up to Dropbox wirelessly.
If you’re traveling with a laptop and camera, you can back up the camera photos to Dropbox easily through your computer.
If you travel often with a laptop and want something more comprehensive, consider an online backup service. Backblaze is one of many options that allow you to set it and forget it. When your computer is connected to the internet, the service will scan for new files and back them up automatically. Added benefit: Backblaze can help track down a lost or stolen computer. Using that link to Backblaze can get you a free month of service.