How To Travel With Your Smartphone & Avoid Roaming Charges

Your flight lands and you swipe your smartphone out of airplane mode. A second later, you get a text message, and it goes a little something like this; “International data roaming rates of $1000,000/day apply. Your normal rates mean nothing now. We’ve got you right where we want you. Hahaha. For details, please text or call – Thank you for choosing blablabla and we hope you have a safe trip.” The notification message is free, but that’s about the last freebie you’ll get for the rest of your trip. Let me show you how to fix this problem.

FUNCTION:

No one wants to read complicated hyper-technical copy (unless you’re a geek). This is especially true when you want to keep full use of your phone while dodging a bank-breaking phone bill after your trip.

Good news! The majority of new(er) model smartphones are built with international travel in mind. You should have no problem using your phone during your trips. More good news! I’m going to give you some basic information to make sure you don’t have any problems using your phone abroad. I’m feeling big-hearted. Here’s what you need to know;

Country: Mobile technology and frequencies aren’t the same in every country, but they are similar in many countries.

Service Provider: Much like varying countries, different service providers use different technology and frequencies as well, but again, they are similar in many countries.

GSM: Global System for Mobile (Communications) – This is the most widely used cellphone technology in the world. Think of it as the Visa credit card of cellphone tech, accepted everywhere (almost).

CDMA: Code Division Multiple Access – This cellphone technology is much less common but not entirely extinct yet. Here’s a list of CDMA mobile operators all over the world. Most new phones are CDMA/GSM compatible, but if you’re in to antiques, a CDMA only phone is pretty much useless outside of North America … Unless you want to use your phone as a projectile or paperweight.

Frequencies: Little invisible signals that let you text, call and browse using 3G (3rd generation) or higher data in most countries across this big beautiful earth of ours. Here’s a GSM world coverage map and GSM country list.

UNLOCKED PHONES:

Unlocked phones can be used all over the world so long as you buy a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card that matches the location you’re in. Find out if your phone is locked or unlocked. Ask your phone company, find an independent cellphone service/unlock shop or ask your geekiest/most tech smart friend, we all have one. You can also buy unlock codes, but I’ve personally never done it. I don’t trust them. In North America, a lot of phones are bought on 1-3 year contracts, most of which are locked on the phone company’s networks (Fido/Rogers/Telus etc) and can be unlocked for a small fee ($25-50 CAD).

Being locked on your service provider’s network is fine, if you don’t leave your country. But the minute you touchdown on foreign turf, you’ll get hit with a frenzy of roaming messages and charges. If you’ve paid for your phone in full instead of monthly contract payments, YOUR PHONE SHOULD BE UNLOCKED.

You shouldn’t have restrictions on a phone you own outright. Paying for a phone in full is common practice in the Caribbean, Europe and a lot of Asian countries (particularly China due to the extremely high rate of cellphone theft). I read a crazy statistic the other day that said something like 70% of the world’s stolen phones end up in China! Hit the next link to read a crazy BuzzFeed story on a stollen iPhone and some guy named Brother Orange. It’s hilarious!

NOTE: Unlocking a phone can sometimes take a few days to kick in and a few phone calls to get done. Start working on this a week or two in advance to make sure it gets done correctly. Keep your account information and your IMEI number (found in your software info or beneath the battery cover on older models) accessible.

ROAMING:

What is roaming anyway? Roaming is an evil little term used to describe the outrageous rates your cellphone company charges when you use your phone outside of your country. The increase in rates applies to data usage, calls and texting. After university, I worked briefly as a Fido customer service rep’ and half of my calls were from angry (I mean raging) customers asking why they were being charged so much for traveling with their phones (roaming).

Years later, not much has changed. Cellphone companies know you can’t live without your phone. They make their websites extremely hard to decipher and their customer service reps are meant to push sales and upgrades to earn the companies more profit.

Don’t fall into the roaming/international packages trap that most phone companies will pitch you either. Sure, the rates are a tiny bit better than the roaming rates you’ll get overseas without the roaming pack, but they’re still deplorable. That goes for 9 out of 10 phone service carriers. Call me crazy, but you shouldn’t have to choose between the lesser of two evils when it comes to traveling with your phone.

How To Travel With Your Smartphone And Avoid Roaming Charges 2

SIM CARDS:

SIM cards are your saviours. They’re available in every country and so long as your phone is unlocked, you can buy them, use them and dispose of them when you leave. Many airports have SIM card boutiques, but if not you can usually grab one at any halfway decent phone store. SIM card prices and the services you get for them are tricky at times, but they’re still much more affordable than the sinister roaming rates I mentioned earlier. Expect packages that range roughly from $10 to $30 to $50 dollars (CAD/USD/AUD/EURO) offering a combination of talk, text and data options.

I can’t stress enough the importance of being well-researched with local carriers. Aside from that, there’s really no downside to buying SIM cards for your unlocked phone when you travel, just be sure to keep your home SIM card somewhere safe.

One company that keeps travellers and their smart phones in mind is KnowRoaming. This company has created a super thin SIM card that fits onto of your usual one, lets you connect to local carriers around the world, keep your home number and more. It works in over 200 countries, it’s perfect for multi-destination travellers.

NOTE: Some (not all) providers in countries like Italy, India and Germany only provide SIM cards to people who can provide proof of residence. Also, even when carriers do sell SIM cards to travellers, they may take hours or even a few days to activate. To avoid this, research and order a SIM card, have it delivered before you leave, give it ample time to arrive.

ALTERNATIVES:

Don’t have the time to get your phone unlocked? Phone isn’t compatible with foreign networks? Maybe you’ve had one too many bad phone company experiences and don’t trust SIM cards or unlocked phones? All hope is not lost, here are the alternatives;

  • Wi-Fi: For 2 reasons, this is my go-to method when I’m traveling. First, it’s the cheapest way to use your phone. Second, going off the grid and not being bothered with emails, messages, calls and notifications feels REALLY GOOD sometimes. It allows me to better appreciate the places I visit, but I digress.
  • No matter what country, frequency or technology your phone uses, if it’s Wi-Fi compatible, it will connect to a network. Most establishments like hotels, restaurants, hostels and the like have Wi-Fi. If you couple that with a few travel smart apps and offline resources, you don’t actually need to use your smartphone, except maybe for pictures.
  • Discount Smartphones: I’d only suggest this method if you’re going to be in a foreign country for an extended stay (more than a few weeks) or if money really isn’t a concern of yours (but then you’d take the roaming charges, right?). This requires a bit of research because there’s a whole world of terrible discount smartphones out there (knockoffs and fakes) and these phones can still run you north of a $100-$200. Not to mention, you still need to check if they can be used where you’re going. Still, this option may appeal to some Here’s a list of the 10 best cheap phones of 2015 according to Tech Radar.
  • Phone Rentals: This is another option that I’ve never used personally, but may be of use if your current phone won’t work in the country you’re headed to and you spot a good deal at an airport or a phone rental company (yes, those exist). I tend to stray from options like these because they’re not cost friendly. There are much cheaper alternatives, but hey, can’t say I didn’t warn ya’.
  • Portable Hotspots: These sound complicated and fancy but they aren’t. They’re portable (usually tiny) pieces of tech that bring a Wi-Fi network with you anywhere you go. iPhones have them built in. These can be on the expensive side as well but they are remarkably efficient and may be worth the money. The kind folks down at CNET have put together a neat list of the best mobile hotspots of 2015.
  • Tablets: Increasingly, as I travel, I see people using their tablets the same way they use their smart phones. They use them for pictures, messaging and even calls. Sure, it looks a little ridiculous to have a huge iPad pressed against the side of your face on the bus, but hey, this is a no judgement zone (sort of). Many newer tablets are unlocked when purchased. If you plug a local data-only SIM card into your tablet, you can download apps like Viber, Skype, Google+ Hangouts, MagicJack, Facebook Messenger, Line and a bunch of other apps that do the exact same things; let you talk and message.
  • Throw-aways/Burners: Ever watch a crime tv show and see the bad guys buy phones at dodgy gas stations, use them, and throw them away? These are, as the sub-header indicates, throw-aways or burners (if you’re really cool). These are ideal for calls and really slow, inefficient texting and maybe playing snake (remember that game?). Do not spend a lot of money on these phones, they’re not very good. Buy whatever’s most affordable and use it for as long as it lasts.

TIPS:

Do these things before you leave for the airport or at least before you board the plane to save yourself some money –

  • Reset all your usage stats (in the settings of your phone) – This will let you track all of your phone usage for your trip.
  • Turn of cellular data – This will stop you from racking up charges unknowingly.
  • Turn off data roaming – This will stop you from racking up charges unknowingly.
  • Turn off 3G/4G – This will stop you from racking up charges unknowingly.
  • If you do get the roaming packages (not suggested) – Avoid browsing websites, emails (especially opening attachments) and maps/guides. These are the most costly.
  • Turn off automatic photo sync – For apps like Google+, Dropbox, Flickr etc.
  • Switch to airplane mode – this shuts off your phone’s connection to cell towers and Wi-Fi networks but still allows you to connect to Wi-Fi when you find it. It also helps your phone charge quicker and stretches battery life.

THE TRUTH:

Traveling with your smart phone requires a bit of legwork. But hey, it’s worth it right? A few minutes online, a few conversations with your service provider (they have the worst wait times), a quick chat with a store clerk in a foreign country among other things, and you save hundreds or thousands on a potentially disastrous phone bill. I’d say it’s worth it.

The good thing about traveling with your smartphone is, like anything else, you get the hang of it the more often you do it. It comes down to being organized and thinking ahead. Worst case scenario, turn your phone off, buy a few postcards for friends and take in your foreign country experience with all of your senses. You’d be surprised at how fun it can be.

Was this post helpful? I’d love to hear from you! Do you know of any ways to avoid roaming charges and stay connected while traveling? Comment below! Let’s share our knowledge and make traveling better for everyone. You can also mention me on Twitter [at]DriftAway2015 or on Facebook at Drift Away – Travel Blog. Hope to hear from you!!

Until next time,

Drift Away.

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