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I travel internationally frequently, and I’ve lived in a couple of countries other than the United States. Every time I go abroad, I have the same obstacle: how to deal with my phone? Do I just shut it off and forget about it? Do I get an overpriced international plan (my carrier doesn’t have very good or very flexible international plans)? Do I try to unlock it so I can get a local SIM card wherever I am?
If you’re planning to travel or live abroad, here is everything you need to know about using your phone in a way that lets you stay in touch with your friends abroad and back home, without getting slammed with a huge phone bill when you get back Stateside.
1. Airplane mode is your friend.
If your phone has an airplane mode, activate it when you board your flight abroad. Not only will you be acting the good citizen and following the in-flight phone policy, but also when you land in your destination your phone won’t automatically start roaming. When you’re in roaming territory and you, for instance, have your data on, just a minute or two of data roaming (especially if you use a lot of apps) can mean a pretty sizable increase on your phone bill. You can avoid it altogether by just making sure your phone is on airplane mode before you even land.
Personally, I’ve had my iPhone in airplane mode for the last 7 months or so while I’ve been living in Santiago, Chile. I can use wifi wherever I find it, but I don’t have to worry about accidentally using data roaming.
2. Use apps to stay in touch for free.
These days, you can access the internet from just about anywhere you go. Most hostels and hotels have wifi, as well as lots of cafes, libraries, and other public spaces in cities all over the world. If you have a smartphone, this is great news for you when you’re trying to stay in touch internationally. Apps like Whatsapp and Viber make communicating from abroad a cinch – I honestly don’t know what I’d do without them.
Viber lets you make phone calls to your contacts for free, using wifi. If you and your friends have iPhones, using FaceTime Voice is also a good way to make a phone call. Whatsapp lets you text and send pictures and videos using wifi. It’s free to download, and 99¢ after the first year that you have it. Here in Chile, it’s more common to use Whatsapp than to text, even for the people that live here permanently. The best part is that when you’re using apps and the internet to stay in touch, you don’t have to worry about phone plans or the cost of text messaging at all.
3. If you’re traveling for longer, get an international plan.
If you’re planning to travel for an extended period of time and visit lots of different countries, then getting an international phone plan before you leave the States is a smart plan and probably worth it for you. One of the most economical choices is the T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan. You get unlimited data and texting in over 120 countries around the world, all for $50 per month (or even cheaper with a promo code ). If you have a different carrier than T-Mobile, it’s worth noting that they’ll pay your early termination fee for your other carrier so you can switch to T-Mobile.
4. If you’re moving, consider unlocking your phone.
If your plan is to settle down for a while in another country, it’s worth looking into unlocking your phone before you go, so that you can use it with a SIM card from your new home country. Some carriers will unlock your phone if you ask, some will only do it after a certain period of time, and of course you can always look for someone to do it...under the table, if you catch my drift. Personally, I haven’t unlocked my phone – I’m still using it in airplane mode for wifi, and I have a cheap local phone – but many of my friends have done this and it makes using your phone abroad much more convenient. After it's unlocked, you can buy a local SIM card and choose a pay-as-you-go plan, or even get a local phone plan. Then when you go home, you just switch out the SIM card.
Wherever you’re going, have fun and keep in touch!