Raise your hand if you’ve ever bought an international calling card…or if you remember when Skype was a new fangled invention…or if you’ve spent hours in sketchy foreign internet cafes. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that I was dealing with all this just to keep in touch while traveling abroad.
These days, it’s way easier for me to keep in touch with my friends and family while I travel. Thank goodness.
I’ve gotten questions from a few people (okay, like one person…okay, that person was my mom) about how we’re able to text or call people from all over the world, so I thought I’d do a quick post about it.
Both David and I have iPhones through American carriers (mine is with AT&T and David’s is with Sprint), so if you’ve got an Android phone or are with another carrier, I’m afraid I don’t have much advice for you, sorry.
But if you’re in the same situation as us, read on! You can use the following strategies for short-term or long-term international travel…
Before you go abroad:
Call your phone carrier and ask to have your phone put on “vacation mode”
With AT&T and Sprint this was a straightforward process. You just tell them where and how long you’ll be abroad and they’ll limit your cell service, which means you can’t accidentally get roaming charges. With AT&T, that brings my monthly cell phone bill down to $10 per month while it’s on vacation mode.
You could just cancel your service if you’re going to be out of the country indefinitely, but I really wanted to hang onto my American phone number and vacation mode lets me do that.
You should theoretically be able to keep your phone on vacation mode indefinitely, but you will need to call and renew it every once in a while. My brother kept his iPhone on vacation mode for a full two years while he was in Uruguay, and he just renewed it every few months and had no issues.
Unlock your phone (if possible)
The point of unlocking your phone is so that you’re free to remove your SIM card and pop in a new one from a different carrier. A lot of people confuse the unlocking process with jailbreaking and are worried that it’s illegal. Now, I am not a lawyer, but if you go through your carrier, unlocking is completely legal and relatively easy to do.
I’m on an AT&T business family plan, which meant it took a few extra steps to get the unlock approved, but if you have a regular account, you can just do the unlock request online here.
It took a few days for my unlock request to be approved, and once it was, all I had to do was restart my phone. I had read that I might have to wipe my phone and restore it and blahblahblah, but it really was as simple as re-starting my phone.
David opted not to unlock his Sprint phone (I actually think they weren’t allowing it when we were last in America), but here is a summary of Sprint’s policies about unlocking their phones, including a section on international travel.
I’ve also heard that there are certain places (in Thailand specifically) where you can pay to have your phone unlocked, but I can’t speak to the legality of this.
Alternatively, you can just buy an unlocked phone in America or your destination country.
Register for a Google Voice number
Google Voice is an awesome service that lets you make calls over the internet from your computer. It’s free to sign up, calls to America are free, and international calls anywhere in the world cost pennies per minute.
We loaded our Google Voice account with $10 USD before moving to London in January 2014, and nearly a year later, we still have $8.55 in our account. So yeah, your money goes far.
When you register, you will get to choose a new phone number which you can then use to make outgoing international calls or hand out as your “international” number. It’s difficult to receive incoming calls through Google Voice unless you have Gmail open at all times and are glued to your computer, but you can still get texts and voicemails e-mailed to you, which is great. More info about Google voicemails and texts can be found here.
You will have to verify an existing U.S. phone number to get a Google Voice number, so it’s important that you do this step before leaving the States!
Once you’re abroad:
Get a SIM Card (if you have an unlocked phone)
Locate a store that sells SIM cards. For us, it was the True Move Mobile store in Chiang Mai’s Kad Suan Kaew mall. I’ve heard that 7-Eleven stores sell SIM cards, but I asked two near our street and neither had them. I’ve also heard that you can sometimes get a free card in certain airports when you arrive, so that’s something to look out for.
For me, the SIM card itself cost 49 baht and the plan we picked is 299 baht per month (about $10 USD per month), with no longterm contract. The plan includes 100 calling minutes (local only), unlimited 3G (but once you pass 500 MB of data they slow your 3G way down), and unlimited WiFi.
Use WiFi constantly (if you have a locked phone)
If your phone is still locked, WiFi will become your best friend. Even without an international SIM card, you can still text, make calls, and use the internet — all for free over WiFi. It’s the best.
You can still get a lot of use out your iPhone thanks to the advent of Apple’s iMessaging, FaceTime, Google Voice (more on these below), and the fact that so many businesses have free WiFi for customers now.
Whenever you grab a drink or bite to eat, just ask the restaurant staff if they have WiFi and 99% of the time, they’re happy to provide the password to customers. Often times the password is already written on the menu or a sign in the restaurant. Easy peasy.
Should I turn on “Airplane Mode” when I travel?
Yes and no. Before I got a Thai SIM card, David and I differed in our approaches to using “airplane mode” abroad. I always had my iPhone on airplane mode because I felt like it saved battery and made my phone run faster. It also felt like a double-guarantee that I wouldn’t get roaming charges.
The important thing to do is set up vacation mode before you leave. Once you do that, you have two options while abroad:
- Option 1 (Alexis’ preferred method): turn Airplane Mode on to save battery and have a double-guarantee that you won’t get roaming charges.
- Option 2: (David’s preferred method): leave Airplane Mode off and just use your phone like normal. If your phone is on vacation mode, it should say “No Service” in the upper left corner where it would normally say Sprint/AT&T/etc.
Either strategy works.
Note: When we went to Laos, David’s phone changed from saying “No Service” to “Searching” because he had specified Thailand as his vacation country with Sprint, meaning the vacation mode only worked in Thailand. In this case, he had to turn airplane mode on in Laos to avoid extra charges.
If you have not set up a vacation mode with your phone carrier, then yes, you should turn on airplane mode while you’re abroad to avoid international roaming charges. This will stop all cellular data on your phone and should protect you from expensive fees while still allowing you to freely use WiFi. Of course, double-check this with your carrier.
How do I make international phone calls?
FaceTime: Apple’s FaceTime feature is great because it allows you to make free audio and video calls to other Apple users. These calls can be made from your phone or from your macbook over WiFi.
Google Voice: As I mentioned above, you can use Google Voice as an easy way to make outgoing international calls for free/cheap over your computer’s WiFi (detailed instructions here). You can also receive incoming calls if you have Gmail open, and you can still get texts and voicemail notifications e-mailed to you when you don’t have Gmail open.
Viber: Viber functions the same way as audio FaceTiming (no video) for non-Apple users as long as you both download the app. David uses Viber as a way to make free video calls to his dad over WiFi.
How do I text internationally?
Texting iPhones: While in vacation mode and/or airplane mode, simply connect to WiFi and go into your phone’s messaging app like normal. Start typing a message and if your Send button is blue, then you are good to go and can send unlimited texts to other iPhone users for free. If the Send button is green, then the recipient doesn’t have an iPhone or something is wrong with the iCloud connection.
I also have Apple Messages open on my laptop 24/7, which makes texting easy because texts come to my computer and my phone, all for free.
Once I got a Thai SIM card, I just connected my new Thai number to my iCloud account (your iPhone should automatically ask you to do this when you first use the new SIM card). Then I told family/friends to text my Thai number instead of my American one. Still free. Still works over WiFi. Alternatively, you could text someone’s iCloud e-mail address instead of their number, and it’ll still work over iMessage.
Texting Android phones: Again, Viber is great free way for getting in touch with non-iPhone users. Just connect to WiFi, download the app, tell your family/friends to download it too, then just use it like a regular messaging app.
How do I use GPS internationally?
Google Maps App: Did you know that Google Maps GPS still works even without internet? Cause it does! I seriously don’t know how I ever traveled anywhere without having a GPS on me at all times. It’s so helpful in unfamiliar cities. You can’t look up directions offline, but you can figure out where you are and read street names/landmarks which is hugely helpful.
Handy trick: Before you get to your international destination and while you’re connected to WiFi, open the Google Maps app and quickly pull up the location you’ll be traveling to. Scroll around the city, zooming in and out, and then, even if you quit the app, your phone will have a cache of that city’s map loaded up when you’re eventually offline. Makes the GPS much faster, we’ve found.
Note that if you’re using airplane mode, your phone may have trouble updating your current location when you first get to a new city. If you’ve set up vacation mode, you should be safe to turn off airplane mode and quickly update your GPS tracker in Google Maps.
Ulmon City Maps 2Go: This offline map app is a huge lifesaver for me while traveling because when you download your destination city’s map, you can easily search for points of interest and public transit information, all without WiFi.
The most important thing to note is that you do not need a local SIM card to use your iPhone abroad. Using WiFi will be enough for most situations.
We spent 4 months in England and 6 months in Thailand without getting an international SIM card. It can be done!
The only reason I finally caved into getting a SIM for my phone a couple weeks ago was as a safety precaution for motorcycle trips in Thailand in case of a breakdown or accident.
But for everyday situations, you can easily and affordably get by using WiFi on your iPhone during international trips.
Happy travels 🙂