Smartphones and Travel: Staying Connected (Without Breaking the Bank)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans are now smartphone owners, and 46% say their phones are something they “couldn’t live without.” Which isn’t at all shocking; after all, people are turning to their mobile devices to do much more than text, call or email these days…and travel is no exception. Whether it’s keeping up with breaking news, chatting with loved ones back home, or even looking up directions, many people depend on their phones while traveling overseas. But using a smartphone abroad can sometimes be complicated—and expensive. Share these tips with your international travelers to help them stay connected without breaking the bank:

Young man on the streets of big city.

The first thing you’ll need to consider is whether your phone will work abroad. There are four major wireless operators in the U.S., and all of them can provide international roaming in some parts of the world. However, some carriers are more limited in where they can offer service based upon the technology they use (AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks are more likely to work in more countries around the world than devices used on Verizon Wireless or Sprint’s networks). Check with your cell phone carrier and go from there—once you know whether or not your phone is compatible with your destination’s network, you can decide which information/advice below is most relevant to your travel plans.

Get a Plan (And Call It a Day): This is considered the more expensive option, but when convenience wins over price, this isn’t a bad way to go. Long story short, you can simply pay your cell phone carrier extra for international roaming and/or the ability to seamlessly use a foreign network. International packages vary from carrier to carrier—for instance, Verizon Wireless charges $10 a day for roaming in many countries (and $2 a day for Mexico and Canada) and T-Mobile allows customers on some plans to access unlimited data and texting at no extra charge. There are definitely some good options from U.S.-based carriers right now (much better than in the past), but it’s always worth your time to do some research and collaborate with your cell phone carrier (and employer, if applicable) to figure out your best course of action.

Understand the Red Tape: In many instances, your smartphone comes locked so you can use it with only one carrier. If this is the case, in order to use your phone abroad, you will need to unlock it. Every carrier has a different policy when it comes to unlocking phones (each carrier’s unlocking process can be found online with a web search and you may also want to check out the Federal Communications Commission’s Unlocking FAQs here). It’s best to contact your cell phone provider to check their policy, or you can purchase a cheap phone that has already been unlocked. If you’re a frequent traveler and/or have an extended trip planned, this may be your best option—this way you can easily swap out SIMs as needed.

Get a SIM: Once the phone is unlocked, you’re free to purchase a SIM card. It’s recommended that you purchase a SIM card from a well-known carrier in your destination. In many locations around the globe, it’s quite easy to find SIM cards—in fact, you might even see SIM card vending machines.  Something to keep in mind is that every time you change your SIM card, your telephone number will also change—if this isn’t ideal for your circumstances, consider buying a global SIM card instead of a country-specific card.

Buy a Calling Card: This method may sound archaic, but if you know you’ll be several making phone calls back to back from a landline (or even a payphone…yes, they still exist!) and won’t have easy access to Wi-Fi, you may actually want to consider purchasing a prepaid phone card. There are tons of sites that sell them online—take a look at for international usage and rate charts for side-by-side comparisons. Make sure you read the details and fine print as some cards apply hidden extra fees for activation, maintenance etc.

Use Wi-Fi: Of course, our favorite way to communicate overseas is over Wi-Fi –when feasible, ignoring traditional services and relying on free communication is hands down the best effective option. Our favorite messaging apps for staying in touch include: Facebook Messenger, Google+ Hangouts, Line, Skype, WhatsApp and Viber. However, it’s important to always ensure you’re using a secure wireless network. It can be tempting to quickly click through whatever screens appear, but be very careful and read the fine print first. The connection terms and conditions should include details of how your data is going to be used, so read this information before deciding whether web access really is worth the information you’re giving up. Always stick to advertised, official Wi-Fi networks that have been set up by whatever venue you’re in—if you see an open network that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Or even better—use a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which reroutes your traffic through dedicated, encrypted servers. And speaking of encryption—check that your IT team has installed encryption software on your hard drives. Encrypting data makes it completely unreadable to anyone but its intended recipient.

Check Your Devices: In the United States, most electronics are 110 volts, while other countries use 220 volts. If you’re unsure what the voltage requirements are for your device, check the instruction manual or the tag attached to the product upon purchasing.  Once you’ve confirmed that you have the correct voltage, you will need to ensure that your device will fit into the wall socket. Just because the voltage is the same, it does not mean that the plug will fit into the wall. It’s best to purchase a universal adapter that will allow you to use your device in multiple countries. Make sure you purchase an adapter before you travel as you may have difficulty locating one overseas.

Know Your Emergency Options: Having a fully charged cell phone with you at all times is critical if you find yourself in an unexpected emergency situation. Before you leave, remember to program important contacts into your phone such as your destination country’s 911 equivalent (ambulance, fire, police), U.S. embassy or consulateEnglish-speaking hospitals and your organization’s travel risk management (TRM) firm. The State Department’s STEP app is also a must for any international-bound traveler—once you enroll in the program, you’ll receive important information about safety conditions in your destination and it also makes it easier for the U.S. Embassy to contact you during a natural disaster, civil unrest, or even a family crisis.

For more information regarding emergency resources for your travelers and holistic risk management, contact us today. 

Safe Travels!