A comprehensive guide on how to take your smartphone with you abroad at low cost


Don’t even think about leaving your smartphone at home this summer when you travel to a foreign country.

As much as we despise our bond with our phone, we can’t deny that it’s an indispensable travel companion that solves many problems, from maps when we get lost to restaurant recommendations when we are hungry.

So what are the ways to be able to use your smartphone abroad since your cellular service does not generally extend to international travel?

To put it in a nutshell, there is a cheap way that involves a lot of work. Or there is an easier method that will most likely cost you a pretty penny.

Let’s start with this latter route. All you have to do is contact your telephone company such as AT&T or Verizon to set up international roaming for access to wireless services abroad. It’s easy. But here’s the catch: data, minutes, and text messages can easily exceed $ 100 (on top of your regular phone bill) on a two-week trip.

(There is one exception to this. If you have a T-Mobile or Google Fi Subscriber, you get free international roaming in more than 200 countries without having to change your account.)

In this column, I will focus on how to take your smartphone abroad with you at a cheaper price, which involves setting up a wireless service with a foreign carrier’s network. Using this method, a two-week international trip costs $ 15 to $ 40 for wireless data.

But this option requires many steps and foresight. So here’s a guide for those willing to put up with some headaches in order to save money.

To ensure that your phone works with a foreign carrier’s network, you must first confirm that your phone is unlocked. This means that your wireless service provider has lifted restrictions that prevent your phone from working on other networks. (This is not the same as opening your phone with a passcode, fingerprint, or face scan.)

Modern Verizon phones are generally unlocked by default. However, AT&T requires that customers with an installment plan have their phones fully paid off before the wireless operator unlocks the device.

Whichever telephone company you use, it is best to be on the safe side. Check with your mobile operator that your phone is unlocked and ready to be taken abroad. AT&T customers can use a web tool to check their unlock status and request unlocking. Verizon subscribers can call the carrier’s support line to confirm that their devices are unrestricted. Or, of course, you can simply take your phone to a cellular provider.

After confirming that your phone has no carrier restrictions, it’s time for the harder part: buying a foreign SIM card for your phone.

There are two main approaches to buying a foreign SIM card, each with pros and cons:

  • Before your trip, you can order a SIM card online and have it sent to your home. First, do a web search on the top rated networks in the target country. Then, look at a digital retailer like Amazon for SIM cards sold by one of these brands. After landing, follow the instructions that came with the calling card to set it up.

    The advantage of this approach is that you can start your vacation as soon as you arrive without having to look for a SIM card. The downside is that if you choose a sub-brand SIM card, there is a risk that the service may not work when you arrive.

  • You can buy a SIM card from a mobile phone store in your destination. First, find a wireless store near your hotel. After checking in, go to the store and tell the representative that you are a tourist who wants to buy a SIM card for the duration of your trip. The branch representative will help you choose a data quota and set up the phone for you. The advantage of this approach is to get help from a service agent. The downside is that a potential language barrier could make it difficult to express what you want.

I’ve tried both methods. To make sure cellular service is working properly, going to a cellphone store is probably the safest option.

How Much Data Buy? It depends on the length of your trip and how you use your phone. If you use your phone for light tasks like looking up maps and looking up things to do and restaurants, a gigabyte per week should be enough. If you plan to keep posting on social media to induce FOMO for your friends, go for two gigs a week.

Before you leave, pack and download everything you need for your phone. Here are some must-dos:

  • Pack a SIM card ejector and some tape. When you get to your destination, use a SIM card ejector, which is a small metal pin, to eject your SIM card tray and replace your SIM card tray with the foreign one. When you get home, you’ll need to eject the tray again to switch back to your domestic SIM card. The ejector is tiny so use a piece of tape to stick it to your wallet or passport.

  • Download offline maps. The Google Maps app allows you to save the map data for large areas on your device, which is useful in areas with poor cellular service. Find your travel destination and tap Offline Maps in the app’s settings and select Custom Maps to save the map data for the general area.

  • Install an app for phone calls and SMS. If you use a foreign telephone service, you will lose access to your usual telephone number and will therefore have to switch to an alternative to calling and texting via a data connection. Messaging apps with voice calls include WhatsApp, Signal, and WeChat.

  • Download entertainment media. It is advisable to download all of the media that you plan to consume, such as movies, books, podcasts, and music, through a Wi-Fi connection at home. This will help you avoid burning your cellular data.

  • Limit your data consumption. By default, many apps on your phone download data in the background. Leaving these apps alone when using a foreign SIM card is a quick way to burn all the data you just bought for your trip. To prevent this from happening, you need to change some settings.

    So do this on one iPhone: Open the Settings app and tap Cellular to load a switchboard for apps that use cellular data. Turn off cellular access for everyone except those you need to travel. Similar to Android, open the Settings app, tap Network & Internet, Data usage, and then select Mobile data usage. Here, select the data-guzzling apps and disable background data.

It all sounds like a lot of work, but I promise that after trying it out once, traveling with your smartphone will be easier with every trip. And there is another bonus: you can spend the money saved on groceries or gifts.

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