Phone Travel in a Nutshell

Everyone who travels has a phone. This is a fact of modern life. As accustomed as we are to carrying around these devices in our pockets, even the most frequent flyers can get a little squeamish about switching them on abroad. What is worse: to have no phone access abroad, or to pay through the nose for it? Follow these 5 simple steps to use your phone abroad and spend your money on more interesting things.

1. Check Your Phone Status

First, make sure the iPhone is unlocked. Most are; Verizon automatically are; you may have to request it from AT&T. You’ll want to make sure it is unlocked before leaving the US.

2. Change Your Settings

Here are the settings to change:

Settings > Cellular > Enable LTE > Data Only
Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Roaming > Turn off all switches on this page
Settings > Cellular > Personal Hotspot > Off
Settings > Cellular > “Use cellular data for:”

I default by turning off all apps. Once you get set up, the next time you open an app and you need cell data for that app, it will prompt you to enable. This prevents crappy apps from using background data without you knowing it.

Settings > Cellular > Wi-Fi Assist (very bottom of the settings tab under the other apps) > Off
Settings > Cellular > Reset Statistics (so that you can track how much data you are using once you have a new carrier)
Settings > Wi-Fi > Ask to Join Networks > On

You’ll want to use wifi as much as possible, so turn on the annoying reminder every time your iPhone sees an open wifi network to connect.

Settings > General > Background App Refresh > Off

(Not related, but a good time to double check that Find My iPhone is enabled, under Settings > iCloud > Find My iPhone > On & Send Last Location. Make sure you have the Find My iPhone app installed from the App Store and get your friends to do it as well. You can also go to icloud.com to find it.)

Settings > iMessage > Send & Receive
“Start New Conversations From”
Choose an email address.

That way when you text someone, they will respond to your iMessage only and not accidentally SMS an international number.

3. Remove the SIM

Once you’re on the plane, remove your SIM card. You’ll also want a SIM tool just to make life easier, or just use a paperclip.

A diagram of how to remove a SIM card from an iPhone with a paperclip.

Keep the SIM card like it’s your passport. You don’t want to get back on US soil and not have service. Seriously, if you lose your passport they’ll still let you back into the country. No SIM card means you have to go to the AT&T or Verizon store.

4. Get A New SIM and a Prepaid Plan

When it comes to getting a SIM card in another country, look for the shadiest place. Definitely don’t get it at the international airport when you land and don’t get it from a retail store of the local cell carrier. Find a hole-in-the-wall shop that is labelled Handy, Mobi, or some other odd way of saying mobile phone.

I normally ask for 2 to 5 GB of data and as few minutes of talk time as possible (100 minutes is typical) and prepaid. The plans usually expire, so make sure you only buy enough to use in that period. You can always top-off later on (just go back to any store to top-off; many convenience stores can also do them at checkout).

They are less likely to try to upsell you like the carrier’s employees might. However, make them show you the options on a brochure or something; and make sure you get charged an amount that matches that. This is an easy chance for them to charge you an extra 10 euro or whatever, so just act dumb and demand that it matches whatever is on the brochure.

Save all the receipts you get, because you’ll probably need them to top-off if you run out of data.

Once you get the prepaid plan worked out, they’ll usually offer to install the SIM and activate it. It’s faster for them to deal with the activation text messages which will usually be in the local language with lots of shorthand. Don’t leave the store until you’ve confirmed you can visit a random web site. It’s worth hanging out 5-10 minutes while that happens, rather than having to come back and convince the guy that he messed up and needs to fix it (which he’ll promptly deny).

5. Toggle App Data On/Off

When you need to use an app, if you turned off cell service for everything, it will popup a message directing you to go to settings and turn it back on for that app. You’ll also get alerts if a wifi hotspot is available. Only recommendation is to never turn on cell access for Facebook, which will do it’s best to use a bunch of data in the background when you don’t have the app open. I normally can get by with Google Maps, Safari, and that’s about it.

Do you have a preferred phone carrier when abroad? Do you have other tips to share? Please leave a comment below, or message me directly at @JudsonLMoore.

featured photo: Steve Schroeder