Tech tips: To help you plan a smooth summer vacation, here’s an overview of the tech you should pack to use a smartphone abroad, and more important, what you need to do with your phone before you depart.
Many travelers are familiar with this scenario: You are finally going on that well-earned vacation. You decide to take your smartphone on the journey. But you run into a host of tech snags after you arrive at your destination.
You might quickly burn through your cellular data limit, for instance. Or maybe you can’t log in to some apps that send you text messages to confirm your identity. Your maps may not load. And your battery runs out of juice just when you need the smartphone most.
These headaches may spoil what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation. They may even make you wish you had left your phone at home. But your smartphone is your most vital travel tool: You rely on it for navigating unfamiliar places, finding places to eat and things to do, and taking photos.
Smartphone travel checklist
Tech accessories to pack
3+ power cables
A multi-port wall charger
SIM card ejector
Order foreign SIM card
Download offline maps
Print out backup codes or set up authenticator
Fret not, traveler. To help you plan a smooth summer vacation, here’s an overview of the tech you should pack to use a smartphone abroad, and more important, what you need to do with your phone before you depart. (Much of this advice can also be applied to domestic travel as well.)
Pack the right accessories
The tech you pack should revolve around keeping your phone running. Michael Zhao, an editor for Wirecutter, a New York Times company that recommends products, helped me create a list of essentials:
A backup battery:When traveling, you will be using your smartphone for an extraordinary number of tasks, so you will burn through your battery quickly. A small, lightweight external battery pack is a must. Wirecutter recommends the Jackery Bolt, and my battery pack of choice is the Anker PowerCore Slim. Both are compact and capable of charging a smartphone two times.
At least three power cables: Pack two power cables for your phone: One that stays in the hotel room and another to carry with your battery pack. Your third power cable should charge your battery pack.
A multi-port wall charger: For the sake of traveling light, don’t pack multiple power bricks to charge your phone and battery. Buy a multi-port wall charger that can power all your gadgets at the same time. I pack the Anker PowerPort 4, which has four ports — enough to charge my devices along with my partner’s phone and tablet.
A plug adapter: If you’re headed abroad, know that some countries use power outlets that are incompatible with your plugs. Research the type of local power outlets to determine if you need a plug adapter. Your best bet is to order a kit that has adapters for every type of outlet.
SIM card ejector: And if you plan to use a foreign wireless carrier’s service, you will need to pack a card ejector, which looks like a small metal pin, to swap out your SIM for the foreign carrier’s. A SIM card ejector was likely included in the box when you bought your smartphone. If you lost it, you can use a small safety pin. I tape my SIM card ejector to my passport holder.
Plan for foreign trips
If you want to use your smartphone abroad, the easiest way to do so is to pay your carrier an international roaming fee. (T-Mobile or Google’s Project Fi customers get international roaming for free in many countries.)
By paying an international roaming fee, you will be able to use your phone number, and you won’t have to deal with the hassle of installing a foreign SIM card. The problem is that it is expensive: AT&T, for example, charges $60 in 200 countries for 1 gigabyte of data, which is not enough data for a two-week trip.
Using a foreign SIM card is a cheaper alternative, and it’s not difficult if you prepare by doing the following:
Unlock your phone: Your phone must be unlocked to work with foreign SIM cards. Many newer smartphones come unlocked by default, but you should call your carrier to confirm that your device will work with other wireless carriers.
Order a foreign SIM card: Often, when you arrive at your destination, you can buy a SIM card at the airport or a local cellphone store. But I have found it to be less stressful and more affordable to order a SIM card online and have it shipped to my home before I travel. For example, before traveling to Taiwan last month, I ordered a $12 SIM card with unlimited data for 12 days. I set it up to activate on the day I arrived in Taiwan.
Download important apps and maps: You never know whether a foreign country’s cell service will be sluggish or spotty, so it’s best to download crucial media ahead of time on your home Wi-Fi network.
Research and download the ride-hailing apps that are legal at your destination. And use Google Maps to download offline maps for the cities you are traveling to.
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That will spare your battery, and you will burn through less data when you are constantly looking up directions.
Also, if you are not fluent with the language at your destination, an extremely helpful app is Google Translate, which can use your phone camera to translate languages on the fly. Make sure to download the language pack in advance.
Have a backup plan for logging in to important apps: Many people use a method of two-factor authentication that requires entering a special code that is texted to their phone when logging in to an app or service. Because you won’t have access to your phone number, you may have to find alternative ways to log in.
So for accessing my Google account overseas, I print out a list of backup codes that I can punch in for logging in; I tape the list to my passport holder. You can also use an authenticator app, which generates a security code for logging in without having to send a text to your phone. This type of app also doesn’t require a network connection.
Consider some extras
After going through the crucial tasks to take your phone abroad, there are more tech options to make your vacation more pleasant.
For entertainment, I load up my tablet with books, comics and games before departing. I also occasionally pack a Roku stick, which can be plugged in to a hotel television set, to stream content I would actually want to watch.
Zhao, the Wirecutter editor, said noise-canceling earphones provide an extra level of comfort when he travels. He owns a $350 pair of headphones, the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II, which drowns out most of the noise on airplanes.
“How did I ever travel without them?” he said.