Tips, Tricks, And How To Use Your Phone Cheaply When You Travel Overseas

I’m currently backpacking around the world. I left the U.S. last week and I’m currently in New Zealand. From here, I’ll head to Southeast Asia, followed by India, Dubai, and Russia, before coming home in June. However, I’m still connected to my friends, family, and ZAGGblog by way of my iPhone 5S, which I brought with me.

If you’re traveling from the U.S. overseas, here are a few things to know about how wireless service works. It’s actually quite nice.

  • If you have a 4G LTE device, it should already be unlocked. If it’s a Verizon device, it’s definitely unlocked, right out of the box, due to an agreement Verizon signed with the FCC when it acquired a block of LTE spectrum a few years ago. There’s no real good way to know if your phone is unlocked other than to pop in a SIM card from another carrier. If it asks for an unlock code, you’ll need to call your carrier for that.
  • In nearly all other countries of the world besides the U.S., GSM is the predominant network technology. If your device only supports CDMA, you’re out of luck before you even leave town. Most recent devices (Samsung Galaxies, iPhone 4S on up, the HTC One lineup, etc) are quad-band, so they’ll work in just about any civilized country you could think of.
  • In nearly all cases, you’re better off getting a SIM card in each country you travel to than using your a U.S. SIM card and paying the roaming fees. If you’re traveling for work and your company picks up the bill, I suppose it’s not your problem to worry about.

Since I’m in New Zealand right now, I’ll use it as an example.

Right after I got off the plane and cleared Customs, there were cell phone shops in the airport offering to sell me a SIM and service. I stopped at a couple different shops and looked at the plans they offered before deciding to go with Telecom NZ for my three weeks here. For $30 NZD (the equivalent of about $26 U.S. dollars), they gave me a SIM card with a local phone number with 60 minutes for incoming / outbound calls and 3 GB of data (3G and 4G), which would be valid for 60 days. $26 dollars.

I didn’t go with a plan that offered any real amount of minutes or text message allotment for two reasons: first, they were more expensive. Second and more importantly, with an iPhone, I can use iMessage to talk to anyone back home with an iPhone or iPad for free, since iMessages are sent using your data connection and not via SMS. If you’re reading between the lines here, that also means I can FaceTime anyone back in the States as well at no extra cost. I’ve used both iMessage and FaceTime and it works beautifully.

4G LTE isn’t as widespread here in New Zealand, especially when you get outside the major cities. I’d equate it to AT&T or T-Mobile back home. Whereas, Verizon has 4G LTE in every corner of every corn field. Outside the major cities, 3G works decently well.

One thing to note: public WiFi here in New Zealand (and many other countries, from what I hear) isn’t free. Depending on who the WiFi provider is, you’re usually looking purchasing a plan that lasts a certain amount of time OR a plan that gives you a specified amount of usage. As such, I’ve relied entirely on my iPhone for connectivity so far by tethering my laptop to it. No, there’s no extra charge for that. When you buy a data plan, carriers over here let you use that data however you want. Refreshing idea, isn’t it? Pay attention, U.S. carriers.

If you have an Android device, you don’t have the luxury of iMessage, but you’re not completely cut off if you opt for a data-only plan with no minutes or texts. You can use the Google Hangouts app for messaging and video calls, as well as Facebook Messenger, Skype, Voxer, and a slew of other free apps. As long as you aren’t using your actual phone number, the service is most likely using your data connection only.

For my purposes, I’ve easily figured out who has an iPhone or iPad back home that I can communicate with via iMessage, and I use Facebook Messenger and email for everyone who doesn’t. The way I see it, if you can’t get in touch with me on iMessage, Facebook, or email, I probably don’t care to talk to you anyway.

If you do decide to purchase a phone locally, be prepared for the hefty full retail price. Here in New Zealand for example, the Galaxy Note 3 sells for $850 NZD (about $737 U.S. dollars). The Galaxy S4 sells for $750 NZD (about $648 U.S. dollars). Of course, there are always lower and mid-range smartphones you can pick up for a reasonable price, like the Sony Xperia M for $200 NZD (about $175 U.S. dollars). On the very bottom end of the spectrum, you can get a basic Nokia dumbphone for $9 bucks.

If you’re traveling outside the U.S. and have any questions about staying connected, feel free to ping me on Twitter: @mbchp. You can also keep up with my adventures as I backpack around the world on my personal blog, www.BackpackingEarth.com.

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You should follow Mike on Twitter for more great tech insights and good conversation. Be sure to say hello! You can also keep up with Mike on his personal blog: BackpackingEarth.com on Facebook, or on Google+.

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  • rhonda

    thanks for the tip