Traveling Internationally with Your Smartphone

In today’s society, it seems smartphones are now extensions of the human body. Leaving home or traveling internationally without them may as well be purgatory for some.

Trying to figure out what to do with our mobile devices is becoming just as important as what airline or hotel to choose. We like to jet set with our phones because Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat simply can’t wait. If you own an unlocked cell phone of the iPhone or Android variety, arriving in a new country and purchasing a local SIM card with a data package is an easy task. However, if your phone is locked, there are a few additional steps you’ll have to take (or not take).

Unlocking Cell Phones & Local SIM Cards

If you purchased your phone in the United States, New Zealand, or Australia, there’s a huge chance it’s locked. This means your phone’s network carrier services (i.e. AT&T, Verizon, Telstra, Optus), has locked your phone so that you can’t use another provider’s network. If you’ve signed a contract for a very expensive phone at a very low cost, there is a high possibility your phone is locked. If this is the case, switching out SIM cards or going with local options isn’t a possibility. That is, until you get your phone unlocked. Before taking an international trip, it’s always best to double check with your provider if your phone is locked or unlocked.

I’ve traveled to countries on continents across the globe and I’ve been able to find out where to get my phone unlocked before I’ve even left the airport. This ‘word of mouth’ method only takes asking a couple of locals before you are directed to a well-known cell phone shop. Of course, this information isn’t too popular among the network providers of the world. And, prices of unlocking mobile phones range from the level of difficulty in getting the task done. The going rate this past holiday season in Bangkok for example, was around $60USD.  In addition, there are levels to unlocking. If you are going to go through the trouble of having this done to your phone, ensure that it is a complete and universal unlock. It’s worth noting, depending on which city you’ve landed in, you could find yourself in seedier outlets or parts of town. However, if you have a long trip ahead of you and simply can’t tear yourself away from your smartphone, this is an option worth considering.

Once you’ve unlocked your cell phone, purchasing a local SIM card is as easy as grabbing a coke. On a recent trip to Asia, I was able to secure a ‘tourist SIM’ at the airport faster than I could a taxi ride from the arrivals terminal. Convenient stores, markets, malls, and electronic shops usually sell SIM cards that come with varying data packages. Most will have the option to refill and a set of directions as to how to do so. If you plan on spending a bit of time in a particular destination, this is again an option to consider as you will have a local number.

Keeping Your Phone Locked & Wi-Fi Only

If chatting with the locals or ending up in a seedy cell phone shop doesn’t sit well with you, then perhaps you’ll have to leave your phone locked and go with the Wi-Fi only option. These days, there aren’t too many hotels, hostels, or even Airbnb accommodations that don’t have some sort of wireless connectivity. If you can limit your communication with others only to when you are back to your room, then this option isn’t so unfeasible. When chatting with friends and family back home, I suggest downloading one of the many messaging apps that are now available.

Even if your phone is unlocked and you’ve acquired a local SIM, placing international calls and text messaging is a really easy way to burn through your minutes and data. Whatsapp, Wechat, Line, Viber and MessageMe are just a few applications that would allow for you to communicate with friends and family free of charge. These apps all work over Wi-Fi and can allow your loved ones to reach out to you without them racking up fees and charges in the process. On a recent international trip, I found out that regardless of how many times you switch SIM cards, Whatsapp will still allow your contacts to message you using your original number. You just have to go through the steps of setting it up.

International Phone Plan…Last Resort

Depending on which network provider you currently use and how long you plan to travel, international phone plans can be extremely pricey and rarely worth it. I’ve tried out a few in my time and while they’ve all gotten the job done, there’s always a ledger of additional charges that were not clear from the beginning. I recently tried out a plan on my current provider with the understanding that as long as I placed calls and ‘Facetimed’ over Wi-Fi, there’d be no charges. I received a bill for $100USD later in talk-time charges as phone calls aren’t totally free over Wi-Fi, due to a local connection charge. There’s always something. If this option is appropriate for your budget, you are not interested in unlocking your phone, and you need a little more than your hotel’s Wi-Fi, then go for it. Just be sure to thoroughly go over the plan you’d like to purchase in as many details as possible.

Stephanie Roy

Stephanie Roy is a journalist, writer, and self-described Jill of all trades. From teaching English to Japanese business men in Tokyo to running a restaurant in the heart of New York City, there’s no job she not willing to try at least once. When she’s not in the kitchen testing out new vegan and vegetarian recipes, she’s surfing the web in search of last minute travel deals for her next adventure. Whether she’s eating snake in Siem Reap or chasing after Tuk Tuks in Bangkok, she promises to share and write about it all.

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