How to use a Cell Phone Internationally
Most of our travel adventures are an attempt to disconnect and fully immerse ourselves within that location. We fully subscribe to the belief that in order to get a true feel of a place, one should “do as the locals do.” This typically means disconnecting from our lives back home and going “off grid.” There are some trips, however, where avoiding the outside world is not entirely possible, and a cell phone can be extremely useful.
In the very least, I like having a cell phone simply for Uber. Uber has expanded worldwide, and it’s great to have that constant wherever we go, knowing that no matter what we will have reliable transportation. Additionally, if you’re an avid Instagram user like us, it’s nice to entice friends and family back home with periodic photo updates of what you’re up to. That doesn’t mean you should be texting away though!
I’ll never forget my first trip abroad, and the hassle of trying to figure out our cell phone situation. Despite adding a an international plan to our cell provider (AT&T), we quickly realized that it wasn’t as simple as just turning your phone back on. Phone settings, and even the way you dial numbers is confusing. Hopefully through my trials and tribulations I can make others’ lives easier with some helpful tips and tricks.
International Plans by Domestic Carriers
First and foremost, international plans with your domestic carrier are a decent option if your trip is for a short period of time. Most domestic carriers allow you to add various types of international plans in increments of one month, and you get to pick what you want: minutes, texts, data, or some combination thereof. Being that we are in the smartphone age, I really would only ever recommend purchasing data, as most everything can be accomplished with just a data plan. WhatsApp or iMessages, Skype, and even Facebook Messenger all make it easy to “text” back home if necessary while only using data. As I mentioned before, I try to avoid this at all costs anyway, so data is all I need for Instagram, Uber, and the occasional visit to Google Maps.
The biggest downside of upgrading your domestic carrier plan for a month of international coverage is the cost. The plans are not cheap. It will of course depend on your existing plan, but my AT&T plan in 2013 was costing me $120 for only 400mb of data per month.
The other problem is figuring out the phone settings. The aforementioned issues we ran into in Scotland left us spending an inordinate amount of time just connecting to the local cell service, and then we couldn’t even figure out how to dial. Quick hint: learn the country code for where you’re visiting ahead of time. If you have an iPhone, pressing and holding the “0” key will give you the elusive “+” sign needed for international country codes. Additionally, when using the country code, for many countries you then must leave out the first number of the area code. Example:
South African Cell Phone Number: (084) 0894434
If you’re dialing from a South African plan, that’s all you need to know. But if you have an international plan with your domestic carrier, you will dial as follows:
+27 (84) 0894434
Notice the dropped “0” in the area code, and the plus sign ahead of the 27 (South Africa’s country code. The plus can also be substituted with “00”)
Unlocked Phone + Local Carrier
Utilizing your domestic carrier’s international plans is a great option in a pinch, but here’s a insider pro-tip: Foreign cell plans are typically pre-paid, and phenomenally affordable. My Cell-C plan in South Africa was all pre-paid, and around $30 per month got me 4 gb of data and plenty of minutes to call the U.S. (it was $0.01 per minute to phone home!).
In order to utilize local cell carriers, all you need is a SIM enabled, GSM, unlocked cell phone. Unlocked isn’t as familiar a term in the U.S., but here’s the basic rundown:
When you buy your iPhone for $200 with a 2 year contract, what’s really happening is AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint are agreeing to subsidize the remaining cost of your iPhone ($450) to Apple in exchange for a 2 year commitment from you. Because of this, your phone isn’t fully yours, and your carrier “locks” it so it can only be used with their service.
Unlocking a cell phone on contract is a near impossible task, so I recommend purchasing an unlocked one upfront. Google and Apple both offer options to purchase Android and iPhone’s unlocked for full price. Google and Motorola have some great budget Android options that are unlocked and cost as little as $200. For an iPhone you will spend a bit more, but for me it’s worth the flexibility of international travel.
Now that you’ve got your unlocked cell phone, the next step is to travel! Every airport I’ve ever been to has countless cell carrier kiosks within steps of exiting the plane. Pick one, and go to them saying you’re visiting and need a SIM card. They’ll immediately know what to do (Europeans are much more versed in the ways of cell phones abroad, so these kiosks are used to it) and begin setting you up with a local pre-paid plan. Once you have an active SIM card in your phone, it’s is as simple as buying a top-up. In South Africa, you can do this at any ATM, which is super convenient. Peru was a bit more mysterious, as the cell providers didn’t actually sell their own minutes, but the grocery store next door did. Once you’ve purchased minutes, there’s typically instructions on a code to dial on your phone where you can then buy data packages.
Overall, the prospect of being without a phone abroad should never be a fear. There are many options, including your own domestic carrier. By and large my favorite method is to employ the local cell carriers. They’re cheaper, super easy, and overall the best option in my opinion.
Look below for step-by-step photos on changing the SIM card on a Motorola and iPhone.
Have any other cell phone tips? Feel free to leave a comment!
Motorola G SIM Instructions
iPhone 6 SIM Instructions
specificnorthwestAugust 7, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Immensely helpful! I plan on saving this for later trips!! Thank you!
The Passport PairAugust 7, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Glad we could help!
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