How to Use Your Phone Overseas (Ultimate Guide)

Using your phone overseas can be as easy as just turning it on, but using your phone like that overseas will cost you more than your hotel costs most likely. If you want to use your mobile phone overseas, you can do so without incurring a ton of charges by following a few steps.

I. Download these Apps to Make Traveling Easier

There are a few apps that you should download before you leave the States that can make communicating easier once overseas.

1. WhatsApp – Go to your device’s app store and search for WhatsApp. Install it. Set it up by following the on screen setup process. WhatsApp is free for the first year and only $0.99/year after that. Worth it.

WhatsApp will allow you to send text messages to anyone else that has WhatsApp on their device for free using a data connection. Since data plans in most countries are a flat rate and text messaging rates to text people in other countries are ridiculous, this can be a huge saving right off the bat.

*You need to download WhatsApp BEFORE you leave your current country. This is because when you first install it, it has to verify your phone number using a text message and then it is always associated with that number. Doing this before leaving the country ensures that it associates your usual phone number with the account and not a temp number you might be using in the new country.

2. Skype – Go to your device’s app store and search for WhatsApp. Install it. Set it up by following the on screen setup process.

Skype’s big draw is that it allows you to do video calling with anyone else that has Skype on their device as well for free using a data connection. I wouldn’t recommend doing this on a mobile data plan on your device as it’ll eat up your data allotment quite quickly, it is great to use when you have a Wifi connection available.

3. Google Voice (US Only) – This isn’t quite for your phone but has to do with phone calls. On the computer you are planning to take overseas, make sure go to google.com/voice and sign up for a google voice account and gmail account. Choose a phone number from your area in the US (it only works for the US for now) and then open mail.google.com and login with your gmail account tied to the new Google Voice account. Then click the phone icon in the chat window to the left and dial a US number to make sure it works.

The big draw for this is it will allow you to call people back in the States from your computer for free. Also handy if you need to pretend you aren’t overseas as the number that will show up on their caller ID will be the US number you selected when signing up. Just keep those timezones in mind, calling at 3am might give away that you’re in Beijing.

*You need to download Google Voice BEFORE you leave the US, as the download is blocked in some countries (even though the download is blocked, using it in other countries should work fine).

II. Determine whether your phone is GSM/CDMA

In the States, we use two different cell phone technologies, GSM, which uses SIM cards, and CDMA, which does not. The general rule of thumb is if you are using any company besides T-Mobile or AT&T, then you are most likely using CDMA and do NOT have a SIM card. If you are using T-Mobile or AT&T then you DO have a SIM card.

Why does this matter? Well, most cell phone service providers outside of the States are GSM and so they use SIM cards. Unfortunately, if you have a CDMA phone and in a country with only GSM providers, you won’t be able to use your device, period.

There is only one exception to this, Verizon and Sprint now have some devices that even though they are CDMA they are also have an included SIM card slot just for use overseas. They usually label these devices as “World Phones”. If you have one of these devices then you can put a SIM card in them when you go overseas and be okay. Easiest way to figure out if you have one of these devices is to simply call your carrier and ask if your device is capable of using a GSM SIM card overseas.

III. Check the Frequency Compatibility

So now that you’ve figured out that your phone is GSM, there’s one more thing to figure out before you can ensure your phone will work when you get there: the frequencies.

Nowadays, most phones have all 4 frequencies used for voice and text messaging (850/900/1800/1900) so, for the most part, you shouldn’t have an issue going to any country with your device and using it as a phone (heading into a small country with a name you’ve never heard before might cause an issue but most modern countries will work just fine).

The issue comes in with 3G frequencies. Depending on the carrier these vary. AT&T in the States uses 1900mhz, T-Mobile uses 1700mhz, etc. So make sure to head to our newly created specs section or another similar site, search for your device, and take note of the frequency listed for 3G (and 4G if you have an LTE enabled device and want that to work as well). After that, head to our internet/mms settings page for a list of carriers and their 3G/4G frequencies to see if they match your device. If they are, brilliant! If they aren’t you might want to purchase a phone that has that frequency built in instead or else just have slow internet.

IV. Get a SIM card from a Carrier in the Country You Are Visiting.

Before you leave, take a second to go online and do a little research on what phone companies are in the country you are visiting (and also which are the best/largest/fastest). This is easy to do by just Googling the name of the country and typing in “mobile phone companies” behind it or something similar.

Once you’ve done your homework and decided on a carrier, Google where their stores are before heading overseas. If you can find one in the airport you arrive in, youll be able to get a SIM card immediately and use Google Maps to then navigate your way to your hotel room. Imagine having to do this without Google Maps. Asking for directions, speaking to other human beings, scary, I know.

V. Unlock Your Device

If you’ve found out that your device uses a SIM card and will work on the carrier you’ve chosen overseas the next step is to SIM unlock the device so it will accept the new SIM card hen you insert it.

If you have a device from a carrier (i.e. T-Moble, AT&T, Vodacom, etc.), then it is most likely SIM locked to that carrier. If you have a device you bought directly from the manufacturer or from Google (i.e. Nexus 4) then it is most likely unlocked already. If it is unlocked already, then no need to do anything, just skip this step and head to the next section. If it is locked, then you can unlock it in one of two ways.

1. You can simply ask the carrier to unlock it. Most carriers will do this for free so long as you’ve been in contract with them for more than 90 days (at least here in the States). All you have to do is call them and tell them you are heading overseas and want your SIM unlock code from them. If they give it to you, simply save it and put it in when prompted for it by the phone when you insert the foreign SIM card. If they don’t give it to you, head to the next option below.

2. If you cant get the unlock code from your carrier for free, then you can always purchase one. We have a supplier we use for these codes for our own devices that we can recommend. Head there, choose Products & Services, choose your device, and purchase an unlock code (they are the cheapest and most reliable we’ve found but feel free to Google your device name and the term unlock code behind it if you want to try and use another supplier).

Purchase an Unlock Code
(no we are not paid for any traffic we send them, we just honestly find them pretty reliable)

Once you purchase it it’ll take up to 48 hours to get the code sent to you. Once you receive it, simply put in any unauthorized SIM card and it will prompt you for the code*. Once inputted, your device will be permanently unlocked and ready to accept a foreign SIM card.

*For iPhone users, there is no need to enter in a code. Simply wait for the email saying your device has been unlocked and plug it into iTunes. iTunes will let you know that your iPhone is now unlocked and you are good to go.

VI. Buy a Prepaid SIM card when you get overseas.

1. Hopefully, you’ve Googled where to find the carrier you planned to use before you set off and know where to go to get the SIM card (and if you were lucky, it was in the airport you arrive in).

Once in the store, you need to find out about their prepaid SIM only plans. I recommend getting a data plan (i.e. 1.5Gbs, 2Gbs, 3Gbs, etc.) and adding a little bit of talk time on top as well. If you’re like me things like Google Maps, Facebook, Yelp, web browsing, etc. will be used far more often than talking on the phone (also keep in mind that you can use WhatsApp for text messaging and Google Voice on your computer for calling).

VII. Setup the Internet Settings

1. Last thing you need to do is put in the new carrier’s internet settings. Soon as you put the SIM card in, you’ll be able to make calls and send texts but internet and MMS are a totally different ballgame. Each carrier has their own settings for your phone to be able to access the internet and send picture/video messaging. For our full list of internet settings, head here and write down the one you need for the country/carrier you’ll be using as you’ll have to input it during the next step.

Here’s how to add the correct internet settings for each of the major mobile operating systems:

Android (4.2.1)

  1. Pull down the notification shade.
  2. Select the button at the top right to be taken to the quick options menu.
  3. Select Settings at the top right.
  4. Select More.
  5. Select Mobile Networks.
  6. Select Access Point Names.
  7. Tap the three dots at the bottom right and select New APN.
  8. Enter the information for each field for the carrier you are using from our list of settings.
  9. When you’ve entered everything, tap the three dots in the bottom right corner and select Save.
  10. Now tap the empty dot to the right of the new APN to select it.
  11. Wait 2 mins and then try to access a website from your internet browser.

iPhone/iOS:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Select General.
  3. Select Cellular.
  4. Select Cellular Data Network.
  5. Turn ON Mobile Data if it is off.
  6. Select APN.
  7. Enter the information for each field for the carrier you are using from our list of settings.
  8. Hit the Home button.
  9. Wait 2 mins and then try to access a website from your internet browser.

Windows Phone:

  1. Tap Settings.
  2. Select Cellular.
  3. Select Add Internet APN.
  4. Enter the information for each field for the carrier you are using from our list of settings.
  5. Wait 2 mins and then try to access a website from your internet browser.

Safe travels and make sure to send lots of pics back to us. Thanks!

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  • pnbalaji

    I would suggest installing talkatone which allows calling to any US number with google voice.