How I stay connected while abroad

Reader Michael asks the following question in the comments section of a recent post:

On a somewhat related note: have you ever explained what you do when you are out of the country (such as a trip to Brasil or Europe) with your iPhone? Do you buy a sim card, just use the phone when you are in wifi, etc? Would love to know your strategy.

My technology setup is actually pretty embarrassing for someone that works online. When traveling abroad I stay connected exclusively through Wi-Fi. Ultimately when I’m outside of the US I’m either sightseeing or in the hotel, and I don’t mind having the two be completely separate. That’s to say I can be outside uninterrupted while being fully connected in the hotel.

On the Wi-Fi front I primarily use Google Voice (and sometimes Skype) to make phone calls. One great development over the past few years for me on the technology front has to be iMessage. It allows you to text anyone else with an iPhone just by being connected to wifi, and that’s incredibly valuable to me.

Other than that, it’s all email and instant message for me.

Am I missing out? You guys tell me. If there were a simple data plan for international travel that a non-tech person like me could understand I’d probably go for it. But I don’t want to constantly have to call to change my service, monitor data, check how the costs vary by each country, etc. So maybe I’m just best off the way things are…

Would be curious to hear how you guys handle staying connected while abroad.

Filed Under: Advice, Travel
  1. The only thing you might do, depending on what iPhone you have, is get it unlocked and buy SIM cards for different countries. I’ve done this often, especially when traveling by myself. For example, I was in Tokyo last spring by myself and it was in valuable to have a cell phone with Google maps to find my way around. And getting Sim cards from other countries is much cheaper than paying for data roaming through a plan based in the United States. In some cases, it’s pretty cheap. For example, I think Hong Kong was only about $10 for enough data and text messaging to last you a week. And sometimes it’s nice having a local number if you’re meeting people and want to say in touch with the while there.

    Another good app for the iPhone is called what’s app. This lets you send text messages over Wi-Fi to anyone, regardless if they have an iPhone or not. I just have to have the app. I’ve found that a lot of people outside the US use this app.

  2. How can you stay just on wifi on your iPhone? I am always deathly afraid to even turn my phone ON for fear of getting notifications and texts.

  3. This is pretty much the same method I use. Anything else is way too complicated. Besides, I have no desire to be bothered with incoming phone calls while traveling abroad.

  4. andrea, turn your data connection off, and then turn on airplane mode, then you can turn on wifi independent of that so you do not incur any fees

  5. I am WiFi only too. I find it rewarding to go out in a foreign city and be “unplugged.” You’re more likely to meet people and it also forces you to practice using your foreign language skills more than you would with your face glued to a screen.

  6. @Brain – Agreed on Whatsapp for texting – Whatsapp lets you connect with anyone with any platform (i.e. iOS or Android or Blackberry).

  7. @Andrea Hill AT&T doesn’t charge to receive sms/mms internationally and if Data Roaming is turned off (as it is by default) you won’t receive any data charges. And if you’re really afraid, of course, you can just turn on Airplane Mode, then turn on Wi-Fi.

  8. It’s so funny that people who travel as much as we do are absolute opposites!

    Since I travel so much I have no need of a cellphone contract in one country. So I buy my iPhone outright, which means it’s then unlocked and I can use it with a prepaid SIM (so I know exactly what I’m spending) anywhere in the world. I then redirect my Skype numbers (UK, AU, US) to whatever phone I’m using at the time at literally a couple of cents per minute.

    Some places getting a SIM is super-easy, some places less so. Most cellphone stores will do it for you:

    • Germany: has a cheap 5GB deal. Just head to an O2 store, but keep cash on hand.
    • France: total nightmare; the pinnacle of French efficiency. SFR is the best bet. Bring your passport.
    • Italy: TIM is my favourite. Bring your passport.
    • UK/rest of europe: O2 has a great Euro-roaming deal for 25MB per day for GBP2.
    • Japan: riotously expensive but really useful, Softbank is the one to go for.
    • Australia: Telstra, despite its wonkiness in cities at the moment.
    • NZ: NZ Telecom, for the coverage outside cities. Kiosks in airports.
    • HK: 3. Several shops right next to the arrivals door.
    • Singapore: StarHub, available from any UOB exchange kiosk.

    If you (or anyone else) wants links to my writeups of these, give me a shout on Twitter: I’m @thatjohn.

  9. like you, i just use wifi on my iPhone and Macbook Air. There is an app called LINE that i use for phone calls to my wife, and the occasional skype, but otherwise pretty much rely on email and messaging like you.

  10. I turn on the AT&T international data plan for my iphone. It is actually very reasonable for short trips because they pro rate it. So, if you pick the $30/month one and you go on a 1 week trip, it might only cost you $7.50. You just need to call them to activate it/deactivate it. There are no activation fees. They will tell you how many megabytes you’re allotted (you can choose more expensive plans if you are a heavy user). The great part is that you could use the whole month’s worth of megabytes, but if you have it on only 7 out of 31 days, the monthly bill will be 7/31 of it.

  11. (Also, this mythical idea that being “unplugged” somehow makes you a “better traveller” or leads to more “genuine experiences” is such hokum.

    Having ready access to maps (despite iOS 6 Maps being the worst thing to ever happen to the iPhone), the miraculous Google Translate app (with its “speak this” function), timetables, recommendations, Twitter at my fingertips to ask questions of my travel community and share my experiences is completely invaluable. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had amazing experiences from a “oh, you’re there? Try this other thing!” tweet, Instagram comment or Foursquare discussion.

    If you can’t immerse yourself in a culture if your phone can potentially connect to the Internet while in your pocket, the problem isn’t the phone — it’s you.)

  12. I’m surprised that you don’t have global data plan on your phone. If you have AT&T the lowest tier is 120mb\$30. They have more expensive packages with higher limits. It’s not cheap, but can be a lifesaver when traveling abroad. Much more convienient than hunting for Wifi or local SIM. Of course you have to be judicious with data usage, but it’s great for last minute directions and info lookup. There are third party apps that help you with tracking data usage to make sure you stay within the limit. Of course keep in mind that this is data only so for actual phone calls I relay on Skype as well.

    The other nice thing is that you can add/remove this plan as needed so if you don’t happend to travel for a couple of months you can just turn it off. This is specific to ATT, but it think other US carriers have something similar as well.

  13. I forgot to add that because I turn on the international data plan for my iphone, I no longer really need to worry about WiFi at the hotels I’m staying at — doesn’t matter if the Wifi sucks, or it’s not free. That data plan is plenty enough to get my emails and texts and to keep on top of work while I’m traveling.

    I agree to some extent that it’s good to put the phone away while sightseeing, but even on the most interesting trip, there’s going to be downtime while you’re out of the hotel. Maybe you’re waiting for the metro, or in the taxi, or in a line at the airport. I use that time to check my email so that I don’t have to be tethered to the hotel in order to catch up on emails that I could have done in line.

    Lastly, I cannot count the number of times I’ve been lost in some city (or suspicious of cabbie giving me the tourist route) and my iphone with access to Maps has saved the day. No wifi when you’re lost.

  14. When in Germany, for phoning to the US, I use a Lebara SIM card in a cheap phone. EUR 0.15 per call plus .01 per minute. Quality has been good.

    For Internet, I use the Fonic surfstick, EUR 2.50 per day, subject to a maximum charge of EUR 25 per month. It throttles you after 5GB per month, but that doesn’t affect me.

  15. @bluto I use BlackBerry so the app I have is Mobile Data Alerter. I’m sure there is something similar for iPhone and Android.

  16. I luckily signed up for Sprint’s unlimited worldwide data 2 years ago for $30 a month.. they offered me what Bluto did was to add and cancel whenever I wasn’t travelling. Since I’m gone once or twice a month I just stayed on the plan and ate the cost whenever I had a rare month I didn’t travel. I figured the cost I spent would outweigh any significant increases or now the fact that they don’t offer it anymore.

    So I have worldwide unlimited data to keep track of everything, absolutely cannot travel without it anymore.

  17. Question. My iphone is past te 2 yr contract would att unlock it? Also if I get a new iphone but keep ths one can I unlockit and use it with sim cards whie traveling?

  18. Rich – I just upgraded my iPhone from 4 to 4S, and then asked AT&T to unlock the 4. My youngest is happy in Barcelona with an iPhone. We text, use whatsapp to text and send pictures and now Viber for phone calls, although Viber is very sensitive to signal strength and can be frustrating if one of the signals is not strong – but hey – its free! Viber also drops your call when you get an incoming call.

  19. I got grandfathered via our company into an unlimited international data plan from AT&T (not marketed at all anymore and I am afraid they will discontinue it eventually). Works great in almost every country world wide. I am not abusing it but do check my email, use the maps to find restaurants, find my way around (google map public transportation works surprising well even in Japan), read the news and keep up in general.
    Does not help me on the voice side (except using skype but that is a hit or miss via 3G).
    It is 70$ (minus our corporate rebates) and you can’t turn it on or off but I travel quite a lot abroad so its worth it.
    Also need to login at least every 30 days in the US to avoid having guys abroad abusing it.

    Unfortunately can’t tether with it so I buy UMTS cards with refills (Germany, China and Switzerland) that are quite reasonable priced. Unlike the US you can pay by the day and it ends up being not too bad.

  20. Another app to check out for calls on wifi is Viber. It automatically searches your iphone contacts for other people who have it and puts them on your Viber contact list. You can text or make voice calls and the quality is very good. It was recommend to me for a reecent trip to Europe and it worked perfectly. I was also surprised at how many of my contacts were actually on Viber. I think it is specific to the iphone, which might be a limitation for some. Its a free app store download.

  21. On the maps issue, a new feature of Google Maps is the “Make available offline” option. You can pick an area like say, Paris, and download all the map data before you leave. Since GPS is free, having the map stored locally avoids any data charges.

  22. For iPhone users, you should download Viber. It allows for free wifi phone calls on your iPhone. The only limitation is you can only call other iPhone’s with the Viber app. But they don’t have to have their wifi on.

  23. I use Wi-Fi 90% of the time, and Google Voice has been a lifesaver. I also use Skype on occasion, since it seems to be more tolerant of slow connections.

    I also have an unlocked phone, so if I am in a country long-term (or even repeatedly) I just buy a pre-paid, reloadable SIM for emergencies/backup.

  24. you should use google voice or text messaging, text to any cell, not only iphones, there is a google voice app for the iphone too, you can also text from the webpage

  25. +1 to the AT&T intl data plan for $30. Yes, it’s not very many mb, but keep in mind that the iPhone is very economical on data if you exclude email attachments and streaming media.

    Sadly, there are lots of places that aren’t included, notably China and Russia.

  26. 1. Unlocked iphone/ipad.

    2. Third party sim cards, allow calls & data at local rates say 30 countries. Prepaid, I only need 2 now for every country I have been to Asia, States, Europe, Japan, Sth America not bad. Lebara & Amysim.

    3. A “onenumber” which is a landline number (local call rate for caller) which can be redirested to any other number (yes mobiles as well) in any country by any carrier.

    4. Satellite phone, they are pocket size and reach you anywhere and are quite reasonable prices depending as always on the network. If you are thinking of buying one some countries governments heavily subsidise the handsets, could be an excuse for a trip?

    Oh and American carrier frequencies tend not to match “International Standards” check before you go

  27. I agree with Weekly Flyer – Magic Jack is amazing. I was calling people from Argentina not because I wanted to talk to them but because I loved the app so much!

  28. @bluto are you sure AT&T will pro-rate the INTL data plans? I just called them (I’m in Germany now for 5 days), and they it has to stay on your account for at least a month, and then they pro-rate it if you cancel it mid-month.

  29. @TravelerMSY Are you sure about that? AT&T has a list of all the carriers included in the international data plan. Perhaps the locations that you’ve been to didn’t have those carriers.

    Personally I’ve been to both China and Russia (Moscow, Shanghai, and Hong Kong) and didnt get charged for data usage.

  30. @Brian I believe they still do, but they kept changing the rules. Instead of calling I find it easier to mange it online where you can specify the effective billing date. The rules might also be explained there.

  31. Hi all! Basically, I always looking for wi-fi and go to skype and facebook to stay connected with family and friends while abroad. But, when I don’t have access to wi-fi for some reason, for this case I have Travelsim with me. So I can call home and not to worry about roaming fees.

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