Top Tips for Using Your Cell Phone While Traveling Abroad

These days, we don’t go anywhere without our smartphones. As much as you may try to convince yourself that you’ll limit phone usage while traveling, we all know that’s easier said than done. You will most likely want to post that perfect Eiffel Tower pic immediately to Instagram, or start a live video from the Great Wall of China, and you’ll be wishing you had been better prepared. So what do you need to know before traveling abroad with your cell phone?

 
Bringing Your Cell Phone when Traveling Abroad  

Below are some tips on how to get the most out of your cell phone while traveling internationally, from battery life hacks and how much extra it may cost you to use your cell phone while away.

Power Up

Before we get into the options you have for cell phone service while abroad, there is one major, yet basic thing you need to do to make sure you can charge your phone: find out what kind of plug the country you are traveling to uses. Plugs differ from country to country, so you need to check and see what adapters you will need to bring. The International Electrotechnical Commision has a handy guide to chargers, which includes voltage.  Most chargers will automatically switch voltage, but you should check before traveling to make sure you don’t need a voltage converter as well. Your phone should have its voltage written somewhere on the phone, or, if you aren’t sure, you can always check with the manufacturer. I travel with at least 4 adapters, so I can charge my phone, tablet, e-reader, electric toothbrush, and anything else I may need to power up. You can buy a universal power adapter, which can be converted to different plugs from several countries, and has USB ports to charge all of your gadgets. This one from Huanuoav has 4 USB ports, and starts at $15.99 on Amazon. You might also want to bring a portable charger, so during your long days of sightseeing and taking pictures, you can keep your phone powered up.

Keeping your phone charged is just a tiny piece of the traveling-with-your-phone puzzle. Once it’s on, there are a few options to consider for texting and data.

WiFi

The best and most obvious way to use your phone is with WiFi. A lot of museums, cafes, restaurants, and even stores will offer it for free. Your hotel will also most likely have it (but be sure to check before booking). You might have until you’re back at your hotel before uploading that amazing photo of you and an elephant, but this option is going to be your cheapest. If you are going to a remote location you know will not have WiFi, or you’re afraid the WiFi won’t be up to your standards, you can try one of the newer portable WiFi services like Tep Wireless. You can rent a portable hub, bring it on your trip, and return it when you get home!  Don’t forget, you most likely will be charged for texting even if you have WiFi, unless you have a plan that includes international texting, which we will get to next.

International Texting and Data

You may be traveling somewhere that does not have WiFi widely available, or maybe you just don’t want to wait to post to your social media accounts. Don’t worry, there are plenty of options out there for you. International phone plans will vary by service provider.

Unlimited Plans

Sprint and T-Mobile are the best phone plan for the international traveler, with unlimited texting and data included in their monthly plans. The data is slower at 2G, but you can upgrade to faster speeds for an extra $5/month, which might be worth it during the time you will be traveling.

Add on Plans

Verizon offers a Travel Pass, which is $5/day in Mexico and Canada, and $10/day in over 130 countries. This will give you unlimited text and data while abroad, as well as calls to the US. They also have a monthly plan that starts at extra $15/month with lower cost per text, a data allowance, and talk minutes, all which vary by country. You will find a similar plan with AT&T, with $10/day for international texting and data. If you choose not to add on an international plan before you travel, pay-per-use rates start at $2.05/mb, with 0.50 per text on AT&T, and $.99/mb (in Canada and Mexico), with 0.50 per text on Verizon. If you think you are going to be tempted to be on your phone, and you don’t already have T-Mobile or Sprint, your best bet is tacking on one of the international plans while you are away, to avoid any sticker shock on your next cell phone bill.

Prepaid Plans

As far as prepaid phones go, ProjectFi and metroPCS both offer worldwide texting, calling and data. ProjectFi’s is included with your base plan, and metroPCS offers a World Calling add on for $10/ month on top of their base plan.

Unplug

You may purposefully want to avoid posting to social media or checking in with friends and family back home while you are traveling. Maybe you are one of the few people left who actually wants to soak in every moment in real life, not through the screen of your smartphone. If you are one of these people, there are still things you need to do to ensure you don’t rack up extra charges on your cell phone bill. Usually, as soon as you land in a foreign country, your phone will know that you are not in the US anymore, and a message will most likely pop up telling you that you are abroad along with rates in that country. In order to not incur roaming or data fees (which can happen even if you are not actively using the internet or apps that require the internet/data), you have to turn off the cellular data and roaming on your phone, which you should also do even if you plan on using WiFi. You may want to do this before you even land to avoid any surprises on your next bill. You could even just turn your phone off or, dare I say it, leave it at home.

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