How to Use Your Smartphone Overseas

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Introduction

People are stuck to their Smartphones. Everywhere you go someone is staring at their phone, while in the street, at work, on the bus, almost everywhere. These useful devices help us look up information, play games, take pictures and videos, do business, and stay in touch. When we travel overseas, we expect to keep our Smartphone with us, but foreign countries and their cellular networks throw a monkey wrench into our desire to stay connected. We ate BuyVia believe that constant connectivity is almost mandatory these days.

Be sure to read How to Buy an Unlocked Smartphone.

In this article, we will help you sort out the different ways to use a Smartphone in another country when we are traveling. Some might state that its even more important to be able to use your cell phone in another country. These tasks are really important when you travel:

  • Communicating with work
  • Posting about your trip on social media
  • Accessing maps to know where you are
  • Reading restaurant reviews
  • Utilizing translation software
  • Emergency contact

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Using your Existing Smartphone and Plan

It would be most convenient to simply take your existing phone and to use it in another country. Some phones are capable of this, but the cost involved may make it excessively expensive. We will examine the major carriers to see what their overseas Smartphone travel policies are.

At a minimum, you could turn off your cellular data and use Wi-Fi exclusively. Most hotels feature free Wi-Fi, and many cafes and restaurants have free Wi-Fi too. This is the lowest cost method but limits your connectivity. You would not be able to bring up a map or use GPS instructions when you’re lost unless you happen to have a wireless network nearby. The major downside:

  • Unable to get phone calls
  • Unable to get text messages
  • No connectivity to bring up searches, maps, GPS

If your needs are fairly limited, this is a great way to proceed. Just make sure you know how to go into the settings on your phone to turn off cellular data.

If you are a cruise, you will pay a lot more for your Smartphone access.

Lets say that you need more access than Wi-Fi, how do the major carriers handle international roaming?

AT&T Wireless

AT&T Wireless utilizes GSM technology, making easy to use most of their phones internationally. AT&T has several international plans that cost extra, in addition to your regular phone bill. Over 150 countries are part of this program. AT&T Passport international calling plans are:

  • Passport - $30 for unlimited messages, Wi-Fi, $1/min., 120MB of data (overage:$0.25/MB)
  • Passport Plus - $60 for unlimited messages, Wi-Fi, $0.50/min., 300MB of data (overage:$0.2/MB)
  • Passport Pro - $120 for unlimited messages, Wi-Fi, $0.35/min., 800MB of data (overage:$0.15/MB)

If you do not have a plan, you’re going to pay through the nose for each minute, text message, and piece of data. We would not recommend doing this.

Boy is this expensive, but if you just need a little bit of use, you can just bite the bullet and pay up. Supplement the data with hotel Wi-Fi to maximize your savings.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile also utilizes GSM, allowing most of their phones to operate internationally. For a limited time, they have a great deal for international travelers who currently subscribe to their Simple Choice Plan in the US. This is supported in over 120 countries. This excludes no credit plans. If you are not on this plan you need to pay a lot for calls, texts, and data. Simple Choice Classic Plans are also eligible.

Get unlimited data and texting when traveling internationally. Calls are 20 cents a minute. The service is ridiculously slow at 128 Kbps, but good enough for checking email, Facebook, and perhaps maps. You can pay extra to get higher speeds, but this is expensive.

  • $15 for 100MB
  • 7 day pass: $25 for 200MB
  • 14 day pass: $50 for 500MB

Verizon Wireless

Verizon operates a CDMA network in the United States, which is incompatible with the majority of international cell phone networks. If you have a CDMA only phone, you can use it in roughly 30 countries. Contact Verizon Customer Service to see what type of device you have.

They do sell some Smartphones which incorporate GSM technology, making them capable of operation outside the US. Look for global-ready devices that support:

  • 4G LTE
  • Dual Band GSM
  • Quad Band GSM
  • UMTS capabilities

Verizon has support in over 140 countries worldwide. Their plan is the following:

  • $25/month access fee/line – includes 100MB
  • Add $15/month and get 100 minutes/100 text/unlimited received text
  • Overages: $25/100MB, 0.25/minute, 0.25/text sent

These prices are extremely expensive and very limited.

Sprint

Sprint operates a CDMA network in the United States, which is incompatible with the majority of international cell phone networks. If you have a CDMA only phone, you can use it in roughly 30 countries. Contact Sprint Customer Service to see what type of device you have.

They do sell some Smartphones which incorporate GSM technology, making them capable of operation outside the US. Check the Sprint International Roaming site for details on your device.

Sprint international rates are pretty expensive.

  • $2.49/minute
  • $0.50/text sent, $0.05/text received
  • $40/month for 40MB of data. Overage: $10/MB

Buying a Local SIM Card

The cheapest way to get constant Smartphone access internationally is to buy a SIM card in each country you visit. While this is inconvenient and requires that your cell phone is unlocked, you will save a ton of money and have enough data for all your needs, wherever you are traveling.

The drawbacks of purchasing a local SIM card:

  • You will not be able to get calls from your normal phone number
  • You will not get text messages from your normal phone number (not a problem if you are using Apple’s iMessage or 3rd party texting App like WhatsApp)
  • It will take time finding a store, getting your phone activated
  • You will need a different SIM in each country, unless roaming is supported

Local SIM Compatible Smartphones

Key attributes to ensure you can use a local SIM card:

  • Your Smartphone must be unlocked
  • Smartphone must support GSM
  • Smartphone must support local carriers’ frequencies
  • SIM card size must match what is being sold in the local country (nano, micro, full size)

Nano SIM: iPhone 5 and newer, iPad Air and newer, iPad Mini and newer, Samsung Galaxy S6 and newer

Micro SIM: iPhone4/4S, Samsung Galaxy through S5, Samsung Galaxy Note through 4, iPad 1 – 4

Regular SIM: iPhone 3/3GS

Check to ensure that all of the above conditions are met by your device before you leave on vacation.

Unlocked Smartphones

Most of the Smartphones that are capable of local SIM card support are sold by AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile. Here is there policy on unlocking Smartphones for use in other countries:

  • AT&T requires the device to be fully paid off before they will unlock it
  • T-Mobile requires 18 months before they will unlock a phone, 1 year for prepaid phones.
  • Verizon does not lock their 4G LTE Smartphones
  • Sprint will unlock 4G LTE capable devices after 90 days

There are many unlocked Smartphones that are sold on eBay. You can also pay full price and get an unlocked Smartphone from the major wireless companies.

International Local SIM Options

We travel fairly often and maintain a couple Smartphones that are GSM and unlocked, so we can use them whenever we travel. Using a local carriers’ SIM card gives us maximum flexibility at minimal cost.

You can also buy or rent international SIM cards before you leave on vacation. These work in multiple countries but will not be as cheap as buying a local SIM card. If you are wary of the hassles finding a local SIM card store, this maybe your best bet.

Another option is to rent a mobile hotspot or Mi-Fi device before you leave on your trip. This will give you Wi-Fi access everywhere, bit will not offer any talk or text support without an App.

Country Specific Local SIM Card Information

Here are some helpful suggestions on how to quickly purchase a local SIM card in a variety of countries:

Canada

Rogers is one of the main cell phone providers in Canada. They sell sim cards but their service is very expensive. Sim cards run about $20, 1GB data that is valid for 30 days costs $30.

China

China Unicom sells the iPhone in China and runs a high speed 4G network compatible with it. They run 3G on the 2100 Mhz band upto HSPA+ speed (max. 21.1 Mbit/s).  and 4G/LTE on 1800 Mhz.

You can buy a prepaid SIM card with a monthly package ( Click on 套餐介绍 ) from 66¥ to 886¥. 3G Solutions has an english listing. Each includes a varying amount of data, texts, and minutes. We purchased a 156 plan that included 420 minutes and 500MB of data. Printout this chart and point to the plan you want.

3G Web Surfing Pass (3G 上网卡)

This data only SIM card is available for smartphones, tablets, Mi-Fi boxes etc.

  • 3 GB, valid for 6 months: 3 GB national data: ¥ 300
  • 6 GB, valid for 1 year: 6 GB national data: ¥ 600

The monthly boundaries are calendar based, so if you buy your China Unicom SIM on July 31 you would be charged the monthly fee. August 1 you would be charged the monthly fee again. If your timing is lucky, select China Unicom as your provider. These SIM cards lasts for six months. If you own a smartphone that needs a Micro-SIM, such as the iPhone 4, the store selling you the SIM card should snip it for you. iPhone 6 and 5’s require a nano SIM.
China Unicom SIM card package

We suggest you purchase your China Unicom SIM card from one of their stores to ensure you do not get ripped off by a small vendor. We bought ours from the electronics store Gome. Have the store install it and activate it for you.

France

The main cellphone carriers in France are SFR, Orange, and Bouygues Telecom. We learned from our trip that SFR is the most economical for American travelers with iPhones or other smartphones.

Where to Buy

We bought our SIM card from a local SFR store for 14 with 10€ of calling credit. We signed up for a short term plan called SFR La Carete seul for 20 days that costs 20 and included unlimited mobile internet.

3 top-up – 24hr unlimited internet
10 top-up – 7-days unlimited internet
20 top-up – 20-days unlimited internet
24 top-up – 20-days unlimited internet + 10 calling credit

Have the store activate the phone and load the card.

Manually set these iPhone Data settings: (Settings – General – Network – Cellular Data Network)

  • APN: sl2sfr
  • AFN: sl2sfr
  • Username: Leave blank
  • Password: Leave blank

Turn your iPhone off and on again to get the new settings to load.

You can call 500 or Text 22213 to see your credit balance.  The default PIN is 1234

Germany

The main cellphone carriers in Germany are Vodafone and T-Mobile.

Vodafone SIM card package

Vodafone sells the iPhone in Germany and runs a high speed 3G network compatible with it. We bought a Vodafone Callya-Starterpaket with a SIM for € 9.95. This is also known as CY Package Mappe 10 Euro Stgh. We then added €15 to this card.

The tariff we selected is the Call Ya Open End Internet – web sessions for €12.95. This is good for 7 days and 1 gigabyte of data transfer.

The SIM comes with a 4 digit pin code printed in the documentation. This needs to be entered whenever you turn on your phone. You can go into Settings to disable this feature.

These SIM cards lasts for six months. If you own a smartphone that needs a Micro-SIM, such as the iPhone 4, 4S, the store selling you the SIM card should snip it for you.

We suggest you purchase your Vodafone SIM card from one of their stores to ensure you do not get ripped off. We bought ours from the Vodafone Munich store at Marienplatz 28, right next to the Apple store.

Vodafone requires you to manually set the APN in Settings to: event.vodafone.de

You need to manually open a browser window to: web.vodafone.de – refresh this page which also shows your data usage, whenever you establish a new connection.

Hong Kong

In 2013 we learned from a local that 1010 has the best network. So we decided to investigate. As of 2013, 1010 in Hong Kong did not have any prepaid LTE plans.

A 1010 store is located right in the public area of the Hong Kong International Airport, Terminal 1, Unit No.7T040, Aisle F, Level 7, Departure Hall, right before you go through security. TEL: 0700-2300, 2261-0812. A couple meters away from the 3 store. I recommend going there as Circle K, VanGo, and 7-Eleven stores will not have technical staff to help.

You pay HK$88 for a micro SIM (iPhone 4), HK$100 for nano SIM (iPhone 5) for the One2Free Power Prepaid SIM. 3G HSPDA support for speeds up to 7.2Mbps

  • 7 days of unlimited data and voice
  •  or:
    • Data costs HK$8/ hour, maximum of HK$28 / day or HK$78/ week.
    • Local Voice calls cost HK$0.10 / min.

Indonesia

simPATI SIM card package

Main cellphone carriers in Bali

simPATI (Telkomsel) Some of these carriers support GSM900/1800/2100 network frequencies.

Suggested Wireless Carrier

We chose to go with simPATI Freedom Prepaid Sim Card due to its lower cost and 3G GSM Compatibility. There is an expiration date on the front of the packaging. As of 2013, no provider in Bali sold prepaid LTE SIM Cards.

Where to Buy

A booth outside in the area where passengers walk through on their way to transportation sells these SIM Cards, within the Denspar International Airport (DPS).

Prepaid SIM card plan

When we purchased the simPATI Prepaid SIM Card from the store, they took a picture of our passport.

  • SIM Card with xxMB Data costs 10,000 Rp – it comes with 5000 Rp of credit
  • Add 50,000 Rp when you purchase the card. This will give us 2 weeks and 300MB of Internet data
  • If you need more, add 200,000 Rp to get 2.5GB of data for 30 days
  • Standard or Micro SIM Card are available
  • Local Voice calls cost 300 Rp/minute
  • Text messages cost 100 Rp, International SMS costs 500 Rp
  • To call the US for 3 cents a minute, dial 01017 then the number
  • The SIM Card lasts 90 days and can be added onto (topped up) and extended in lengths in 30 day increments

Prepaid SIM card Activation

This is how we set up our iPhone on this prepaid SIM Card.

  • Turn off your smartphone
  • Insert the Prepaid SIM Card
  • Turn on your smartphone
  • Carrier settings were configured automatically
  • Text to 3636 the following: UL ON 50k
  • If you get a text message back asking you to confirm, simply reply: 1
  • You now have 384kbps, 300MB for 2weeks

If you are activating the 30 day plan, 200,000 Rp plan dial: *363*

Choose 2. Paket Internetan, choose 2. Flash Unlimited, choose 3

Prepaid SIM card Top Up

Here is how you can add money to your account.

Enter *888# to get your card’s balance.

Enter *808# to get your phone number

Enter *889# to get your package information

Dial *116# to contact customer service

  • Visit a convenience store and purchase a top up also known as Pulsa
  • You will receive a receipt with a PIN number
  • Have the store enter the top up code for you or follow the instructions on the card
  • You should receive a text message or SMS confirmation with new balance

Italy

The main cellphone carriers in Italy are TIM and Wind

Wind SIM card package

Wind sells the iPhone in Italy and runs a high speed 3G network compatible with it. We bought a SIM for € 10 with € 5 credit, and had to show our Passport. It takes 24-48 hr to activate the card. We then added €10 to this card.

The SIM comes with a 4 digit pin code printed on the card holder. This needs to be entered whenever you turn on your phone. You can go into Settings to disable this feature.

After you SIM is active, to enable the Internet No Stop plan, Text:

NO STOP NO to 4033

This will enable €9 for 1GB of data transfer over 1 month, €5 activation fee. After 1GB, speed is throttled to 32 Kbps.

These SIM cards lasts for six months. If you own a smartphone that needs a Micro-SIM, such as the iPhone 4, 4S, the store selling you the SIM card should snip it for you.

We suggest you purchase your Wind SIM card from one of their stores to ensure you do not get ripped off. We bought ours from the Wind Rome store.

Korea

EG SIM card package

Main cellphone carriers in Korea

LG, KT Telecom (Olleh, Evergreen Mobile), SK Telecom. Some of these carriers support GSM900/1800/2100 network frequencies.

Suggested Wireless Carrier

We chose to go with EG Prepaid Sim Card (Evergreen Mobile) due to its lower cost and GSM Compatibility. As of 2013, no provider in Korea sold prepaid LTE SIM Cards.

Where to Buy

Several GS25 convenience stores are located in the public area of the arrival hall within the Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN), 1st floor. One is in the middle of the hall, while another is all the way on the end.

Prepaid SIM card plan

When we purchased the EG Prepaid SIM Card from GS25, they took a picture of our passport using the kiosk that sells the SIM Card.

  • SIM Card with 500MB Data costs 20,000 won
  • Standard or Micro SIM Card 5,500 won. Nano SIM Card 9,900 won
  • 55 won per MB of Data, 500MB 11,000 won, 1GB 16,500 won
  • Local Voice calls cost 4 won /sec
  • Text messages cost 20 won, MMS costs 240 won
  • US Calls cost 150 won / min
  • The SIM Card lasts 60 days and can be added onto (topped up) and extended in lengths in 30 day increments for 10,000 won

Malaysia

DiGi SIM card package

Main cellphone carriers in Kuala Lumpur

DiGi, Celcom, U Mobile. Some of these carriers support GSM900/1800/2100 network frequencies.

Suggested Wireless Carrier

We chose to go with DiGi Best Prepaid Sim Card due to its lower cost and GSM Compatibility. As of 2013, no provider in Kuala Lumpur sold prepaid LTE SIM Cards.

Where to Buy

Convenience stores are located throughout Malaysia. Find a 7-11 or other store and purchase it there.

Prepaid SIM card plan

When we purchased the DiGi Prepaid SIM Card from a convenience store, they took a picture of our passport.

  • SIM Card costs 8.50 RM – with 5 RM talk time
  • Also buy an extra 30 RM when you purchase the card
  • Standard or Micro SIM Card or Nano SIM Card are available
  • Data cost 5 RM a day for 500MB, then it is free for the rest of the day. It is then throttled.
  • Local Voice calls cost 0.06 RM/10 sec – 0.20 RM/next two minutes
  • Text messages cost 0.08 RM, MMS costs 0.25 RM
  • The SIM Card lasts 60 days and can be added onto (topped up) and extended to one year if you pay 30 RM

Macau

Right after you get out of customs, there is a vending machine that sells SIM cards for Macau. You can even purchase one that works in Hong Kong also. MOP$100 will buy you 2 days of online access and $32 worth of voice calls.

Taiwan

Taiwan Mobile, Taiwan Star (T-Star), Far Eastone, First International Telecom, emome or Chunghwa Telecom. Most of these carriers support GSM900/1800/2100 network frequencies. 4G/LTE is supported on frequencies: 700, 900 and 1800 MHz. Most carriers do not offer 4G LTE on prepaid.

You can also rent a mobile hot spot from Telecom Square (A Japan based company) They have a counter in the airport. NT $199 – NT $299 per day. Several models have unlimited data per day.

Suggested Wireless Carrier

We chose to go with Taiwan Mobile Prepaid Sim Card or T-Star Prepaid SIM Card due to its lower costs and GSM Compatibility.

Where to Buy

Upon arriving in Taoyuan Airport (TPE) and clearing customs, turn left and head all the way to the end of the arrivals hall. Turn left again and you will see a cell phone shops selling pre-paid sim cards. They are both in Terminal 1 and 2.

Taiwan Mobile also has stores across Taiwan. We found that most 7-11 Convenience stores in Taipei do not sell the SIM cards, but can add more money to them. 7-11 stores in Hualien carried the SIM Cards.

Prepaid SIM card plan

When we purchased the Taiwan Mobile Prepaid SIM Card from their cell phone store, they took a picture of our passport and our drivers license. They need 2 official picture IDs. Be prepared to wait up to 30 minutes to get activated, they need to send the information in.

  • SIM Card costs NT$800 for 10 day pass with 10 days of unlimited 3G data. NT$550 credit on card
  • Standard size or Micro SIM Card are available
  • 7 day package is available for NT$450 – T Star Charges NT$500 for 7 days
  • Local and domestic long distance Voice calls cost NT$0.1095/sec
  • Text messages cost NT$1.5629 per message
  • The SIM Card lasts 60 days and can be added onto (topped up) and extended

United Kingdom

The main cellphone carriers in the UK are O2, . We learned from our trip that O2 is the most economical for American travelers with iPhones or other smartphones. O2 has Simplicity plans that start at £5. We got a Pay & Go plan for £10 with 100 minutes and 500MB of Internet browsing.

We bought our SIM card from a local Carphone Warehouse store or try an O2 store for free when buying £10 of calling credit and 500MB of internet.

We then added on unlimited internet browsing for a month. To OPT IN to the £7.50 O2 Web Bolt On send a free text message containing the keyword "WEB" to 21300 or call free on 2425 from your O2 mobile.  This may change and then you'll have to top up £10 to get 500MB more data.

Have the store activate the phone and load the card.

If needed, manually set these iPhone Data settings: (Settings - General - Network - Cellular Data Network)

  • APN: payandgo.o2.co.uk (letter o not the number 0)
  • Username: vertigo
  • Password: password
  • MMS APN: payandgo.o2.co.uk
  • Username: Leave blank
  • Password: Leave blank

Turn your iPhone off and on again to get the new settings to load.

Ignore the Visual Voicemail APN box - it's not available to Pay & Go customers or Pay Monthly customers (with a non iPhone tariff)

If you're a Pay & Go iPhone customer, using your iPhone sim for the first time, you'll need to top up by at least £10.

For your remaining Bolt On balance send a free text message with the keyword “BALANCE” to 20202 or call 4444 option 2 free from your O2 mobile. Call 4445 for customer support.

Conclusion

You need not leave your Smartphone behind when you travel. It is an extremely valuable tool when you visit foreign countries. We have covered many different ways to give your Smartphone access in a wide variety of countries throughout the world.

Do you have some tips on using your Smartphone while traveling, for fellow world travelers?

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3 responses to “How to Use Your Smartphone Overseas”

  1. Linda Harris says:

    You have every country but the Caribbean . Any suggestions !

  2. Jacinto says:

    Great web site. A lot of useful information here. I am sending it
    to several buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious.
    And naturally, thank you for your effort!

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