Will Your Cell Phone Work When You Travel Abroad?
“Will my phone work when I travel abroad?” It’s a question we get asked before just about every trip. And the short answer is.. kind of … but probably not.
However, it’s 2022, so almost everywhere in the world has wifi, which means you’re never far from being connected. There’s even wifi at our luxury desert camp in the middle of the Sahara Desert! It’s not the fastest in the world, but still. Can you imagine the innovations that have brought us to this point?
Before we dive into this, we want to just say: travel can be an incredible way to get you off of your devices, and into the present moment. Take advantage of that!
Okay, okay, you still want to know how to use your phone.
Here are our top tips on all things cell phones and travel, and how to best prepare before a trip if you’re hoping to use your phone while you travel.
First, let’s start with the basics.
To use your cell phone when you travel abroad, you will need two things:
– A compatible device that supports international roaming
– An active international roaming plan with your carrier
Talk to your network before you travel
If you’re not sure if your device is compatible, you can check with your carrier or look up the specifications of your phone online.
Our favorite network for travel is T-mobile, which allows customers unlimited text and data while traveling. If you don’t have T-mobile, you’ll need to call your phone company and see what options are available for travel. They will range, depending on how long you need them and where you’re going.
Ask your network about international roaming charges and coverage
Because those add up QUICK. If you’re going on a cruise, put your phone in airplane mode right when you leave the harbor. We have heard horror stories about $22,000 bills created by those who left their phone on and left it roaming while at sea. For general trips, you’re unlikely to see a bill quite that high – but they do happen and it can add up quickly. Especially if you’re jetlagged and up watching TikTok videos in your hotel room at 3 am (ask how we know 😉
Most carriers will offer some sort of international roaming package that includes data and minutes for a fixed price.
Turn off data roaming on your phone and just use wifi
The best way to do this is to put it in airplane mode. You can still use wifi, but this will prevent your phone from connecting to a foreign network and rack up data charges.
Many cafes, restaurants, and almost all of the hotels we stay at on our tours will (except for Cuba) offer free wifi for customers.
If you’re not sure where to find a wifi hotspot, you can use an app like Wi-Fi Finder, which will help you locate one near you. Once you’re connected to a wifi network, use WhatsApp, Skype or Facetime to stay in touch with your friends and family back home.
Just keep in mind that public wifi networks are not always secure, so avoid doing anything sensitive like online banking or shopping while connected to one.
Invest in a portable charger
If your phone is on, and roaming, plus you’re taking photos galore, your phone is going to die faster. One of our favorite travel accessories is an Anker PowerCore 10000. It’s small, lightweight, and can charge your phone about three times before it needs to be recharged.
Download apps that will help you stay connected
Some of our favorites are WhatsApp, Google Translate, and Google Maps.
Manage expectations of your loved ones back at home
Tell them that you won’t be reachable until you’re in the hotel, which means likely at the end of the day, or early in the morning. Factor in time differences, so that they know when they can expect to hear from you.
Let them know you’ll be thinking of them and will try to send updates as often as you can – but you also want to enjoy your trip and you won’t be connected to wifi all the time.
If you absolutely need to keep your phone on
Then do it. Your phones are designed to work in an emergency – you just will have to pay a hefty fee on your cell phone bill at the end of the month.
OR – use a satellite phone. These phones work anywhere in the world and don’t rely on cell towers for coverage. However, they are very expensive to use and we only recommend them for travelers going to truly remote areas.
OR – buy a portable wifi hotspot. These devices connect to cell towers and create their own wifi network that you can connect your devices to. Just keep in mind that you will need to purchase a data plan for these devices, and they can be expensive to use.
Local SIM cards are also an option
You could also choose to purchase a SIM card at your destination, like at the airport when you land. This will give you a local number, and depending on the package you purchase, data too.
Purchasing a local SIM card is usually much cheaper than using your international roaming plan, and it’s a great way to stay connected without breaking the bank.
If you’re planning on using your phone for data-heavy activities like streaming music or video, we recommend getting a data-only SIM card. These cards are specifically designed for heavy data users and usually, come with a large amount of data that you can use over the course of your trip.
You can also find out if your carrier has any partnerships with networks in other countries – for example, Verizon partners with Vodafone in many places around the world.
Note that to use a SIM card locally, you need to make sure you have an “unlocked” or “jailbroken” phone. Sometimes with newer iPhones, that’s not an option, especially if they are leased and not owned outright.
Do some research on the best way to stay connected while at your destination
For example, in Japan, they have a service called “Pocket Wifi” which is basically a small wifi router that you can rent. It’s super easy to use and means that you’re never without an internet connection.
In Cuba, you can buy an internet card to be used at public parks and in central squares.
Almost everywhere else, there will be wifi.
Now that you know the basics of staying connected while traveling, here are a few more tips to make sure you’re prepared:
– Keep your phone in a safe place. We like to use a crossbody bag with a zipper so we can keep our hands free and know that our valuables are secure.
– Be aware of your surroundings. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re using your phone, so make sure you’re not missing anything important!
– And finally, have fun!