When I first started traveling, I learned to live without my phone. I even took it to Spain once simply as an alarm clock, only to have it stolen in one of the most jovial muggings ever. (A guy approaches my friend and me in a dark alley and opens with: “Spanish lesson! Camisa! ::yanks shirt:: Pantalones! ::yanks pants:: — I run away, but he nicked my phone).
If you travel for any extended period of time, or want to live in this century, the reality you’ll face is hopping from free Wi-Fi hotspot to the next. This certainly can work if you’re only in the country for a few days. In fact Wi-Fi, cheap coffee and clean bathrooms are really the only reasons I set foot in McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and KFC anymore, since they tend to reliably offer it. Usually, I’ll need to find my hostel or AirBnb host or connect with someone via Skype — which is why I also carry a speed test app from Ookla on my phone (500kbps up and down speeds are usually sufficient for calling).
For more extended periods of time, it helps to come up with a long-term solution. Here’s the usual process I go through:
Is Your Phone Unlocked?
Until last year, I had a locked phone, which meant I could only use it in conjunction with my carrier (AT&T). No other carriers are allowed when your phone is locked. Thankfully, this is slowly changing.
In December 2013, the US carriers and the FCC came to an agreement where starting at the end of this year, carriers will now notify customers when their phones are no longer under contract, and therefore eligible for unlocking (for free if you’re a current customer).
Even further boosting the awareness of unlocking in the US, T-Mobile no longer bundles their plans with the handsets, which means they can be unlocked when you purchase them (Ask your rep nicely). This opens up a lot of options for staying connected!
If your phone is locked, you still can use most of its features by renting a portable Wi-Fi hotspot and active SIM card. They typically run $15-20 per day for unlimited data (though sometimes can be cheaper if you only use them in one country). Keep it charged, turn it on and connect like a regular hotspot. A friend and I used this all over Europe, which saved us a lot of hassle with bookings and roaming around various cities looking for free Wi-Fi (and paying 2 Euro for a coffee each time). VOIP calling from your car? Yelp searches in city centers to avoid tourist traps? No problem!
Check Your Carrier’s International Data Plans
Many carriers offer international data plans that you can purchase before you go abroad. They aren’t cheap (about the same as Mi-Fi) but can be useful in a pinch if you’re leaving the country very soon.
As Scott mentioned in his article yesterday, T-Mobile actually offers free international data to its customers, but it’s slow by modern standards, using EDGE/2G speeds. This can make surfing a bit of a chore if you’re accessing websites that are content and media rich, but definitely useful if you’re already a subscriber. I actually just stopped in a T-Mobile store yesterday to ask about an a la carte international SIM card and plan, but was told you have to be monthly subscriber to take advantage of the free EDGE/2G data abroad.
Get a SIM Card
If I’m only visiting a country for a few days, I’ll use an international SIM card. I currently have two, one from OneSIM and one from Piranha Mobile as a backup. These can work great in a pinch to load a map or a review or check the information on a hotel/hostel/restaurant’s website. It can also save the hassle of hunting down a local SIM provider, navigating language barriers and dealing with complicated schemes for topping up credit.
However, if I’m staying in a country for more than few days, I’ll opt to purchase a local SIM card, solely for the savings. I’m getting the same local carrier that the international SIM uses, but usually at a cheaper rate. PrepaidWithData is an excellent site that does a pretty good job of keeping track of what plans are available in each country, but there can be inaccuracies.
Moreover, there is legwork involved. You have to locate a store, ensure it’s open, often bring a passport, hope you get someone that can/wants help you in their non-native language and determine which plan you want (and believe me, the plans get strange – like giving me more data when Manchester United scores a goal or wins a game, or only letting me buy more data once the next Sunday has passed.)
Typically the cards themselves are the same, you just need to make sure it fits your phone. Most phones use MicroSIM, though newer versions of the iPhone and iPad now use NanoSIMs. Unless your phone is very old, you won’t come across the standard SIM size very often anymore. If you upgrade your phone, you can often cut your SIM cards to fit a small form factor. I’ve done this successfully with a kitchen/chef knife several times, but you can also buy a cutter, since the cuts have to be pretty precise. Here’s an instructional video on how to do this. It’s tricky, so it might be worth testing with a card that no longer works first.
Ensure Your APN Settings Are Correct
If you have an international card (and generally when you switch between SIM cards) you’ll have to update your APN settings. These are generally servers that your phone points to in order to send and receive data, text messages and voice mail. Sometimes you have to manually tell it where to look. I use a service called Unlockit.co.nz that automatically detects which carrier I’m trying to access and sets the APN servers accordingly. You can use it here (Android and iPhone) though keep in mind you’ll likely have to be connected to Wi-Fi the first time when you switch SIM cards.
If you’re buying a local SIM card, be absolutely sure that the APN is set correctly before you leave the store. Even if the clerk tells you it takes time for your phone to register on their network, you should double check that these are correct to avoid headaches and future trips back to the store. In a vast majority of cases, phones register in a minute, so you can resolve these issues quickly.
Purchase Credit and Activate Your Plan
Lastly, even though you bought a card and it can communicate with the network, you need to buy credit to activate one of many plans offered by the carrier. And of course, they are all different, even amongst national subsidiaries of a giant Telecom like Vodafone.
There are a number of prepaid SIM data plans, but they typically fall into two categories, pay per day and pay per MB. The advantage of pay by day is that you simply activate and deactivate the service when you need it, usually by accessing a website or calling customer support (ironic no?). This can be great if you think you’ll be having heavy bandwidth usage and you know exactly how long you’ll be gone. This scheme is more typical with international SIM card vendors.
Paying by megabyte can be more flexible and cheaper, as you only pay for what you use, but you can run into issues topping up. I prefer vendors that allow me to connect a credit card, which can auto-top-up whenever my credit balance runs low. Typically for local SIM cards, the carrier may be able to sell you starter credit, or you’ll get some amount for free (though neither case is universally true). Then you’re at the mercy of tobacconists and 7-Eleven’s and snack shops in the country. Hopefully, they sell credit on the right carrier, in the right increments you need. Once you buy credit, you need to activate a plan, a list of which is usually included in the packet you received with your SIM card. This is a matter of usually sending a text message to the carrier and receiving confirmation. I’ve had issues where the carrier switched what plans they offered and none of the ones listed on the SIM packet were valid anymore.
Hopefully this will help you come out of the dark ages next time you travel. I don’t compromise on restaurants when I’m home, why should I eat poorly-made, overpriced food abroad?