Have you ever thought about what the options are for using your phone while overseas? Depending on the type of trip and your desire to remain connected, the need to access either wifi, data and voice calls on your phone will vary.
Some things to think about:
- How long is your trip?
- Will you be happy with wifi in your hotel and cafes?
- Do you need access to a data plan for work?
- Will it make you uncomfortable if you are unable to access the internet or a phone signal for long periods of time?
- Are you travelling in a remote location?
- Will you be travelling in just one country or will you be in and out of different countries?
Here are some of your options:
1) Wifi only
For: travellers who are don’t need access to a phone plan for calls or data. You are comfortable accessing what you need when and if you have wifi. You aren’t interested in navigating the potentially complicated world of phone plans or won’t be in one country long enough to benefit from the cost and time it takes to organise one. You are sticking to the well trodden tourist paths.
Wifi only should suit most travelers. These days it is rare not to have access to wifi in a hotel or hostel and even Airbnb’s usually have wifi.
You should also be able to get the odd wifi connection in the more touristy cafes and restaurants and I even spotted some wifi in a local 6-table restaurant in Santo Domingo.
There are also a few apps that make life easier when travelling without mobile data. One great app to use if you are doing wifi only is WiFi Map. You can download locations of free wifi spots and their passwords in advance. Most small towns are free to access and some of the bigger cities require you to pay for access to the information.
Another tool is Foursquare. Often a helpful local or traveller will post the password of a business. You will need to check Foursquare while you are online so a bit of forward planning is required.
In a big city? Seek out large chain restaurants like McDonalds or Starbucks as they will most likely offer free wifi.
2) Local sim card (voice only or voice and data)
For: Any traveler spending more than a couple of weeks in one country. Anyone needing to stay connected on the cheap. Anyone who wants a bit of a safety net when heading off the beaten track.
I often opt for this option if know I will be heading somewhere that requires complex navigation or organisation. I’ve gone as far as kissing my phone when I had taken the wrong bus, got dropped off in the middle of nowhere and the bus driver disappeared before I could quiz him on how I could get back to civilisation. I easily found the bus schedule on the city transport website and found an easy route to my destination.
Contacting airbnb hosts in the middle of the night when their directions have failed you is also a common one for me. The ability for my family back home to get in touch with me if I don’t have access to wifi in a more remote location also gives them a lot more confidence in my travel plans.
Often, with a bit of a research, you find that a sim card costs $1 or $2 and you can load as little as $1 worth of call time onto it.
My advice is to simply google the country name you are visiting and “phone plan”. You will usually find information on how to get a sim card and how to recharge. If you’re struggling for information or the details in English are lacking then you can always submit a request on a forum like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree or a local expat forum. You can also use your hotel or hostel as a resource.
Usually, voice only is the simplest and cheapest option. That said I have seen unlimited data plans in some Central American countries for as little as $15 a month.
To do: unlock your phone!
This step is very important if you’re going to be using a foreign sim card. You need to make sure you unlock your phone before you leave home. This could be as simple as changing your setting online or might require a phone call or in-store visit to your phone plan provider. Make sure you get this sorted out before you leave!
3) Data roaming
For: travellers travelling for brief periods in each country, have researched the data roaming policies with their phone companies and are comfortable with the policies and costs.
This is one that I am not very familiar with but do know some people opt for it mostly for the ease. If you need to make the odd phone call or quickly check a website while you’re on the road please make sure you understand how your particular phone plan treats data roaming and how much it costs.
You might not be able to rely on this method in all countries and regions depending on your phone company and plan.
Some phone plans now allow you to add-on a roaming package so you can use your phone overseas for a short amount of time and know exactly what you'll be in for upfront. This can make roaming a lot more affordable than it has been historically.
4) International sim
For: Frequent travellers or those who work while travelling.
This could be both the most convenient and the most expensive option. There are a number of companies that sell sim cards that you can use in multiple countries. You will not be getting great rates and coverage may be spotty, but the main benefit of this option is that you will have just one number that you can use anywhere in the world and your phone should simply work as you move from country to country.
I have never personally used any of these services as I have found the plans to be out of my budget and not all countries are covered. My advice would be to do your research and make sure you choose one that fits all your requirements and look for some first-hand reviews online.
5) Purchase a cheap phone
In some countries you might consider just buying a phone. Often with local promotions you will find that getting a simple phone is relatively cheap with included voice or data and it means you won't have to be as concerned with damaging your regular phone.
New plans and technologies are being rolled out all the time making it easier for travellers to stay connected. Just recently I heard about a local phone and internet company in Australia that is allowing you to access wifi anywhere in Australia if you allow your home internet to act as a hotspot. Customers will also be able to connect to hotspots overseas in 18 countries including the UK, Spain, Brazil, Japan, France and Germany.
There’s also a phone company in Central America that allows you to use your phone plan and sim in six neighbouring countries, including Mexico!
It’s never been easier to stay connected and have the information you need, you just need to do a little bit of research beforehand. Have you got any suggestions for using your phone overseas?