Strategies, pricing and how-to info on using your phone overseas.
The summer travel season is upon us, with notions of escape, unplugging and faraway lands.
But while the idea of disconnecting from technology when abroad seems relaxing, the stress of visiting a foreign country without a smartphone connection can quickly counteract the benefits of a digital detox. After landing in an unfamiliar place, you may realize that an inability to use your phone to look up mobile maps or places to eat can be crippling.
So what to do? There are two ways to take your cellphone abroad and get data — the frugal way and the pay-full-price way. The inexpensive method involves some tinkering and planning ahead, while the full-price way is easy but requires paying even more money to your carrier.
First, the full-price option. For many years, U.S. wireless customers have been able to pay extra to their carrier for international roaming, or the ability to seamlessly use a foreign network.
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Among other options, AT&T sells an international package with a modest amount of data (800 megabytes, enough to last about a week) for $120, and Verizon Wireless charges $10 a day for roaming in many countries. And in recent years, T-Mobile USA and Sprint began offering free international roaming, but with a caveat: The data speeds are very slow.
Toni Toikka, chief executive of Alekstra, a research firm that analyzes cellphone bills, said he finally caved in to paying AT&T an extra $120 whenever he traveled abroad after growing tired of juggling multiple cellphones and SIM cards when in Europe and New York.
“After all the frustration, they finally got me,” Toikka said. Paying AT&T or Verizon some extra money is the most convenient option for taking a smartphone abroad, he said.
The cheaper way
For frugal travelers, there are some smart alternatives if they are willing to do a bit of homework.
To get a good deal, bring an “unlocked” smartphone, which is a phone not restricted to use with one carrier, into a foreign carrier’s store, buy a data package and insert its SIM card into the phone. (In wireless-industry jargon, these are called prepaid international SIM cards.) Even better, some overseas carriers let you order a SIM card ahead of time so you can get it before your trip or have it delivered to your hotel.
Here is a guide to taking your smartphone abroad on the cheap, including analyses by Alekstra on the costs of mobile services in five popular travel destinations: China, Japan, England, France and Spain.
Unlocking your smartphone
First and foremost, to use a foreign carrier’s SIM card, you usually have to unlock your smartphone or buy a cheap unlocked phone. Typically, when you buy a new smartphone, it comes locked so you can use it with only one carrier. After you have fully paid off the phone, you can ask the carrier to unlock it.
Consider an AT&T iPhone 6S: After paying the $650 for the device, you can go to AT&T’s website to request an unlock. In my experience with unlocking a used iPhone 6 that I bought from a friend, AT&T’s system took a few minutes to process the request and then notified me that the phone was unlocked.
Each carrier’s unlocking process can be found online with a web search. Verizon generally does not lock newer smartphones, but you should call customer service to check that yours is unlocked before traveling. Sprint requires requesting the unlock through customer service on its website or over the phone. T-Mobile offers an app for Android users to ask for an unlock; otherwise, you can contact T-Mobile on the phone or through a web chat to request it.
Alternatively, you can buy a cheap unlocked phone. Motorola offers its second-generation Moto G, a well-reviewed cheap Android phone, for about $150 on Amazon.
Download apps for messaging
If you get a foreign SIM card, you will be using a different phone number from your regular one. To simplify taking a smartphone abroad, we recommend ignoring traditional phone and texting services and relying on free communication services that rely purely on data connections.
There are many data-based apps for messaging and calling. WhatsApp, the messaging company acquired by Facebook, is a reliable service that can be used in most countries for placing phone calls or sending messages over a data connection.
In China, the messaging app WeChat is popular.
Once you have freed your smartphone of carrier restrictions and downloaded a messaging app, it’s time to find a service package for wherever you are traveling. Toikka recommends buying service from well-known carriers in each country because they are more reliable than off-brand carriers.
For a longer visit, you might consider the 2GB package offered by both carriers for $24.90.
If you want to buy a SIM card before the trip, on China Unicom’s website you can order a SIM card including 1GB of data for $25 or 2GB for $35 and have it delivered to your hotel.
Japan: Toikka recommended considering the carrier eConnect. It sells a 1GB package that can be used for 15 days for $25.95. For a longer visit, it offers a 3GB package for $40.64 that is valid for 30 days.
What’s more, you can order the eConnect SIM card ahead of time on the company’s website and schedule a delivery date to your hotel.
France:Orange offers a 2GB package in its stores for $33.60. That is its largest data offering, but if you run out of data, you can always buy another 2 gigs. If you order online, Orange offers a “holiday” SIM card that includes 1GB of data for $44.86.
Spain:Vodafone offers three cheap options in its stores. Its 1GB package costs $11.20, the 1.5 gigabyte option costs $16.80, and the 2GB option costs $22.40. Each of the packages works for 30 days. We would recommend the 1.5GB option for a one-week trip, the 2GB package for a two- to three-week trip and the 2GB option for a four-week visit.
England: The carrier EE offers a handful of options in its stores, including a 2GB package for $21.75 and a 4GB package for $36.25. Both plans are valid for 30 days.
We recommend foreign SIM cards with a few caveats. If you are traveling to multiple countries — among England, France and Spain, for example — you will need a separate SIM card for each country, and the costs will add up quickly. In that situation, contacting AT&T and Verizon to set up international roaming or tolerating T-Mobile and Sprint’s slow data speeds may be better than the extra trouble of juggling multiple SIMs.