I just recently got back from Canada for the Women’s World Cup (USA! USA! USA!) and besides a new love for Montréal – amazing food, beautiful European architecture, and everyone speaks French but isn’t angry to speak to you in English after an initial “Bonjour”, how can this place be bad? – the other thing I brought back with me was the understanding that not a single person I went with knew how to use their phone once we crossed the Canadian border.
While they were scrounging, nay fiending, for open wifi networks, I was ready with Yelp reviews of where we should go eat, Google map directions to where we needed to go and was still in contact with everyone back in the States as if I never left. Déposez le microphone, à pied.
With this new realization fresh in my mind, I figure this might be a good time to do a comprehensive article and video on just how to use your phone overseas. From the ways to save money by not giving in to ridiculous roaming fees and “travel plans” from your own carrier, to ways to get everything from high-speed data, to texting, to phone calls and video calls without much of an expense at all –my entire two week trip cost be around $60 extra to be able to use my phone pretty much like I would in the States. Interested? Let’s get started.
Get Phone Service from the Country You Are Traveling To
The easiest way to save some money while traveling is to get phone service from a carrier in the country you are traveling to. The thing is, using the carrier that is native to that country is always a lot cheaper than what you’ll pay for using your carrier on their network. And when I say cheaper, I mean way cheaper.
I got 1GB of data for my phone on Telus for $30 compared to $2/Mb I would have been charged if I used AT&T and roamed instead. After whipping out my abacus, that comes out to a savings of about $1,988 for the same amount of data!
First thing is first: you’re going to need a phone that will work with other carriers overseas. Generally, here in the States, our phones are all locked to the carrier we bought them from (with the except of some phones from Verizon). What that means is that when you head overseas and try and use another SIM card, your phone will simply say that the SIM is not supported and not let you use it.
How to Unlock Your Own Phone
To get it unlocked so you can use other SIM cards, you’ll need to purchase an unlock code. You can either Google around for an unlock code supplier or you can buy one from me here:
The site you buy from (mine or not) will tell you if you’re phone can be unlocked (more info on what phones can’t be unlocked here), how much it’ll cost, and the turnaround time. It usually takes a few days for the code to be processed so make sure to order it well in advance of leaving the country.
If you have an iPhone and got it unlocked, there won’t be a code, just an email saying the unlock is complete and you can just plug it into iTunes and iTunes will unlock it for you after that (yeah, I know, iTunes unlocks it: legit). Otherwise, if you have any other phone, and get the unlock code back, you can do the following steps to input it:
- Take out the current SIM card.
- Put an unauthorized SIM card in. I recommend doing this before you leave the country. Borrow a friend’s SIM and put that in to make sure it works before you head overseas so you don’t have issues once there. (If you have AT&T, for example, get a friend with a T-Mobile SIM to put their SIM in your phone).
- Once the new SIM is in, turn on the phone.
- It’ll prompt you for the unlock code. Enter it in slowly and make sure to enter it in correctly. If it works, it’ll say successful. If it doesn’t, do not attempt to put the code in again. Contact your unlock code supplier first (as a precaution since phones only allow a certain number of attempts before they will lock you from entering any more codes –permanently) and ask them how to proceed.
Now, when you get to whatever country you’re heading to, you can put in one of their SIMs but will still have all of your info on the phone (photos, contacts, etc.).
Purchase an Unlocked Phone If You Can’t Unlock Yours
Now, if you happen to have a phone that cannot be unlocked (i.e. Sprint and a lot of Verizon phones, for example), you can always buy an unlocked phone. The one big thing to check is the LTE frequencies and to make sure that they have the ones that will work with the carrier you are going to use (more info on that in my other article/video here). Here are my favorite unlocked, inexpensive phones with the most LTE frequencies built in and where to buy them:
- Amazon Fire Phone – This one is on here simply because it’s been heavily discounted since it originally came out and it comes with a free year of Prime ($99 value) make it’s $159 price tag seem more like $60, since Prime is awesome to have anyway.
- ASUS ZenFone 2 – New phone from ASUS with a 64 bit quad-core processor, large 5.5″ screen, decent camera and a $199 price tag for it brand new.
- BLU Studio Energy – Two words: Battery. Life. This phone has a 5,000mah battery which is perfect for long excursions through the jungles of Panama, or mountain climbing all day in Africa without needing to find a plug. That and the price of $145 make it a decent contender. Only downside is that it doesn’t get LTE, but it’ll get HSPA+ so still not a total slug when it comes to data speeds. Just make sure to select the “Global Version” as it’ll have more compatible frequencies with carriers outside the States vs the “US Edition”.
- Motorola Moto E (2nd Gen) – And then there’s the old go to for most people: the Moto E. A phone from Motorola that has LTE, pure vanilla Android and no bloatware, and a $99 price tag brand new. It’s no wonder it’s so popular.
Setup Your Messaging & Calling Apps Before You Leave
Once you either have your phone unlocked or your shiny new unlocked phone arrives, we need to set up some things before we leave the country –namely, apps.
While you could get a plan overseas that includes calling time and text messaging, and while that is still cheaper than roaming on your original carrier in those countries, it’s even cheaper to opt for a data only plan and let apps to the messaging and calling over data instead.
There are a few apps that you really good at doing this (and all of them are free). Check out the list below and download a few, if not all of them, in preparation for leaving.
- WhatsApp (Android/iOS) – If you haven’t heard of WhatApp then you probably haven’t left the country. Ever. This is one of the most popular apps around the globe for messaging using data instead of regular SMS. Download it, confirm your phone number, tell anyone you need to get a hold of to download it as well and add all of your friends for a quick and easy way to communicate with all of them once you are overseas without having to give them a new phone number, etc. *The reason we need to set this up before hand is because it needs to confirm your US phone number before you leave, otherwise it’ll be a lot harder for people to find you once you put in a foreign SIM with a foreign number.
- Facebook Messenger (Android/iOS) – You probably were already conned into downloading this by the regular Facebook app you have on your phone at some point, but, if not, now is when you might actually use it. Once you download it, you can use it to communicate with anyone on Facebook (see: everyone you know). Just like with WhatsApp, make sure everyone knows you are overseas and to use one of these listed apps to contact you instead of regular texts.
- Hangouts (Android/iOS) – What used to be called Gtalk is now Hangouts and since it is a Google product, most Android devices (including your own) probably already have it installed. You can use it (just make sure it is showing that it is sending a hangouts message and not an SMS) to message any other Android user (or iPhone user for that matter) that has it installed on there device. Again, for this to work well, you’ll need to let whoever know to message you through this app to reach you instead of your regular text.
- iMessage (Built in to iOS) – If you have an iPhone, you are in luck. iMessage actually uses data to send messages instead of SMS (assuming both you and the person you are talking to have iPhones). When you put the new SIM in once overseas, just make sure to text everyone with iMessage/iPhones and let them know that this is your number while overseas. On their phone it’ll show a new thread with a new international number, but all the messages they send and you send them won’t count as international SMS but as good old, data.
By the way, when a message turns blue instead of green, that’s how you know you’re using iMessage and the data network.
- Hangouts Dialer (Android/iOS) – For iOS, there is no separate calling app, the original Hangouts app from above can make the calls, but for Android you need to download the separate app. Once you have it on either though, most calls to numbers in the US are free and since it uses data it doesn’t care whether you happen to be in the US or not when you make those calls. So if you need to call someone in the US while in another country, open the app, dial away and call using the Hangouts Voice option (you can also use this for video calls with the Video Call option, but, as I’ll mention shortly, save doing that for when you have WiFi to make sure to save your mobile data usage).
- Skype (Android/iOS) – Old blue. Skype has been the go to for video calls for a while, but, if you weren’t aware, they can also be used for voice calls over data (like Hangouts) and the call quality isn’t too shabby. As with the Hangouts app, you can dial most US numbers for free and if the other person has Skype, you can just contact them through that regardess of where they are (i.e. someone else in your party has Skype and is with you and you both followed this guide, you could call them through Skype using their username instead of phone number and be able to talk to each other while abroad). Again, as with Hangouts, you can use this for video calls to, but try and hold off until you find a WiFi hotspot, will ya?
Get Service from a Carrier Overseas
Once you’ve got all your apps set, checked that your hotel/Airbnb/whatever has WiFi, and figured out where the closes cell phone carrier’s store is to where you’re staying/inside the airport, you’re all set to fly, drive, run, swim, however you plan to get to where you’re destination is.
When you arrive, head to the nearest cell phone provider (which you looked up before leaving of course, cause you’re a thorough kind of person, of course) and check to see what data only prepaid plans they have. As I mentioned before, there’s no need to get messaging and calling, as, even though it’s cheaper than roaming, data only is still even cheaper.
Pick whichever one fits your needs/budget and remember you can always top it up with more money if you run out (check with the store clerk on how exactly to do that before leaving the store) and make sure to get am activated SIM from them in the size that your phone takes –most take Nano SIMs, including the newer iPhones, but bring your phone in with you and make sure to get whatever size it takes.
Pop in the SIM and you’re phone should automatically setup the internet settings, if it doesn’t, either ask the clerk to help you set them up or refer to my article on it here to do it yourself.
Google for where you’ll be eating dinner tonight to confirm that internet is working and you’re good to go.
Tips For Saving Your Precious New Data
So while you should now be set to use your new found internet powers while traversing other continents, you should be aware of conserving some of it for the sheer fact that, unlike the States, most other countries do not have unlimited data plans (or even high use data plans) so try and save some of that data, at least a little bit. Here are a few ways to ensure you don’t run out mid-navigating to a place in a city you don’t speak the language:
- Keep track of the data. On the iPhone, head to Settings > Cellular and you’ll see Cellular Data Usage with Current Period listed. For Android, head to Settings > Data Usage for the same counter. Regardless of device that number should reset when you put in the new SIM card and you can use it to track how much you are using and top up before you get to the amount you purchased.
- Avoid watching videos. We all love a good cat video, but while you’re on vacation, take a break. Videos will drain you data usage a lot faster than anything else and it’s best to keep the data for important things like looking up how to say “Where is the bathroom?” in French. Save the Netflix binging and other video watching for when you get to a WiFi hotspot.
- Don’t video call people. Again, another killer of data. Instead of video chatting with people, use the voice chat, or even better – since that uses some decent data as well – message them instead. Of course, when on a WiFi network, video chat to your heart’s content.
And there you go, guys. An exhaustive guide on how to use your phone when traveling overseas. Hope it helped some people out there and if it helped you please share it on you social networks –it’s greatly appreciated.
Otherwise, if you have other tips to add to this, please leave them in the comments below for others to use!