Some people like to disconnect from the world while travelling. They see technology as a distraction from their romantic adventures.
I prefer to remain plugged in while travelling.
It allows me to enhance my experience. I can discover places I would have missed. There’s the added measure of safety, and who can forget the all too handy translator apps?
Some of the apps I use while travelling include:
- Airbnb / Agoda for quickly finding places to stay
- Google Maps for finding restaurants and hidden parts of town
- Google Music
- WhatsApp to stay in touch with family
- Google Translate
- Facebook for expat groups with local advice and to make friends
I thought staying connected while travelling would be a hassle but it was easy.
Not too long ago, foreign countries had little to no cellular service. These days, many smaller countries have modern 4G service nation wide. There’s also fast WiFi at many hotels / hostels.
Follow these guidelines to travel like a seasoned pro with a phone and stay connected.
USING A PHONE INTERNATIONALLY
#1 Checking For Network Compatibility
New phones have less compatibility issues thanks to the more standardized LTE protocol.
Still, it’s better to opt for a GSM phone to be on the safe side.
Verizon and Sprint mostly use CDMA networks for 2G/3G while T-mobile and Sprint use GSM. Having a flagship phone also increases your chances for international support.
#2 Unlocking Your Phone
This one is critical.
Phones sold through a carrier are often locked down to that carrier’s network. Almost all carriers allow you to unlock your phone for use outside of their network, but only after it’s been paid off.
T-mobile Android users can do this through an app. Other carriers may require more complex methods. It’s best to do this before travelling.
#3 A Key Feature
A key feature is dual sim card slots. If frequently traveling in and out of countries, having two sim cards in your phone can help. It allows you to transition between locations.
It’s not a critical feature.
Swapping sim cards is generally a quick process, but having two slots saves some hassle.
#4 Using Your Carrier Vs Using An International One
When travelling, the local country’s plan is going to be better than taking your plan overseas.
Some carrier’s charge expensive roaming fees while abroad. These fees can be down right criminal. Other carriers like T-mobile allow you to roam for free but at the penalty of nearly useless phone speeds.
Your best bet is to temporarily freeze your home service and opt for a month to month plan in your new location.
If travelling for a long time, I would cancel my plan altogether. Be sure to transfer your number to a service like Google Voice. You can always transfer it back to another carrier when you get home. Phone numbers may be given to another customer after about six months of non use.
Foreign phone plans are often cheaper as well. In the USA, I pay $70 for a T-mobile plan. In Laos, I paid about a $1/Gb. For a month in Laos, I never spent more than $6.
Last trip, I opted to freeze my account. T-mobile allows me to for 90 days. Next trip over 90 days long, I’ll cancel my T-mobile plan. I already use Google Voice so not having a domestic phone service will be painless.
How International Carriers Work
International carriers charge pay-as-you-go plans in a variety of ways. Sometimes they offer 1 week or 30 day tourist sim cards for shorter trips. If you’re staying for a week or two, these options work, but in general a regular monthly sim is a better option.
Some countries claim non-tourist sim cards are for residents and natives only. I have yet to find a shop that enforces this.
Most often you can get your pay as you go sim card in three flavors:
#1 Data Only
This is the version I most often opt for. It tends to be the cheapest option in many countries. I use Whatsapp and Facebook chat for communication. Those services don’t need mobile calling. Instead, they rely on VOIP and similar protocols.
#2 Calling & SMS Only
I don’t know why you would opt for this service these days. If you want calling capabilities and no internet, this is an option.
#3 Data + Calling + SMS
The most expensive option. For the reasons I stated previously, I tend to avoid this option. Calling and SMS are not necessary.
After choosing a pay-as-you-go flavor, you need to choose how much data to start with. I always ask how much refreshing data costs when I buy a sim.
Sometimes the data you buy upfront with the sim card is a lot cheaper than the refreshes. If that’s the case I get a plan with more data.
Sometimes the data upfront is more expensive. In this situation, I’ll get the smallest data plan and buy data refresh cards as needed.
Preparing your phone for travel
There are a few things you will want to do before you head overseas.
#1 Unlock Your Phone.
While unlocking a phone can sometimes be done overseas, the best option is to unlock it before a trip. For some carriers, it must be done at a store. It’s best to get this out of the way first.
#2 Bring A Sim Card Pin Or Small Tailor Pin
You’ll need a pin to pop the sim card holder out of most phones. These things are often not around when you need them most, so be sure to toss a little sim card pin in your bag.
#3 A New Quality Power Cord
Nothing is more frustrating than a loose power cord when charging a phone. Before travelling get a new charging cord to make sure your trip starts out right. Gear often gets crammed in bags while traveling, so opt for a cord that can withstand a beating.
#4 Bring A Microfiber Cloth
One of the biggest differences between bad phone pictures and good phone pictures is a dirty lens. Greasy hands and dirty pockets can regularly smudge your camera lens. Keep a microfiber cloth with you while travelling to clean the camera lens. This will make a noticeable difference in pictures.
#5 Get A New SD Card
I use a micro SD card to expand my phone’s memory, I always replace it before traveling. Memory cards have a lifespan of 6 months to 3 years.
I’ve had name brand cards die in about a year, and when they die, they die.
I won’t risk losing my travel photos to a corrupted card. It’s best to bite the bullet and get a fresh one.
FINDING A SIM CARD WHILE TRAVELLING
Finding a sim card for an overseas carrier is not difficult.
Not getting ripped off by the person selling you said sim card is more difficult.
After buying many sim cards around the world, here are my tips.
#1 Avoid Airports And Tourist Shops When Possible
While you would be buying a sim card directly from the carrier’s shops, you will also pay a premium for that card. If you can manage to survive the first few hours after your arrival without 4G, you can save a lot of money.
#2 For Longer Stays Don’t Get A Tourist Sim Card
Like mentioned before, there are a lot of versions of phone service while travelling.
The regularly advertised option for travelers is tourist sim cards. These are usually bundled services for travelers where the sim card expires after a week or a month. It depends on the one you buy.
Compared to a carrier’s normal fees for a pay-as-you-go sim card, these tourist cards are way over priced.
If your trip is short and you want to avoid the headaches, a tourist sim card is ok. Just know for longer travel and in general, the other pay-as-you-go options are cheaper.
#3 Don’t Get Upset If You Over Pay For The Card.
Even smaller shops around town selling sim cards may try to pull one over on you. Don’t get beat up. The cards are still relatively inexpensive, and data prices are the same for everyone.
Data can be purchased at most convenience stores in the form of scratch off cards. It’s usually very cheap, and I rarely have issues after I have the sim card.
#4 A Quick Google For “Best Carrier In (Country)”
In America there are 4 major cell phone carrier companies. Most countries are no different. They’ll have 2-4 major players and you’ll have to choose between them.
A quick Google search before arriving or in the airport, will help you sort it out. There are plenty of recent extensive reviews on which carrier to choose. Very often one will stand out as the best option.
This guideline will apply to any country you visit. With this knowledge I am comfortable gaining network access, with my phone, anywhere I go. It saves me a lot of time trying to figure out the nuances in each country.