A Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad: For Dummies
This complete guide to using your iPhone overseas includes comprehensive details so that after reading, even the least tech-savvy people should know how to use their smartphones abroad by following the instructions below.
Whether you want to just use the Wi-Fi functions or if you want to go to the extent of using an international SIM card, adding international service, or even freezing your service in the States, the answers for how to do it are right here. For you Droid users out there, I believe you will get the same great information out of this post, but the specific images and instructions are straight from my iPhone. Just apply the same steps to your own smartphone, and hopefully you’ll get the same results! Let’s get to it.
Note: if you don’t happen to have a smartphone at all (OR if you’re interested in buying a cheap phone overseas), skip to the “Dumbphone Users” section at the end.
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Which Traveler Scenario Applies to You?
We’re going to break this down into three traveler scenarios:
Traveler A: Going on a short trip and wants Wi-Fi capability to keep in touch with family and friends or check Facebook, mail, post to Instagram, etc., but doesn’t necessarily need an international SIM card.
Traveler B: Going abroad for a significant amount of time and would like an international SIM card to have all the bells and whistles (calling and data capabilities) of the smartphone abroad.
Traveler C: Going on either a short or a long trip, and is interested in adding global services to your already existing plan, so that you can just pay a little more to use your phone overseas.
Choose the one that best fits your situation, and proceed.
Traveler A: Using Your iPhone Abroad for Wi-Fi Functions
You don’t need to do anything special to your phone before you go abroad, unless you are leaving for at least a month. If you are not going to be needing your US cellular service at all for a month or longer, I suggest that you put your service on hold. You should be able to do this online or by calling your carrier’s customer service. I know that for Verizon you should do this online in your MyVerizon account. If you call customer service and ask them to do it, they charge a $15 fee. On one trip to Mexico, we waited until we arrived, then we did this online and it took effect immediately. When you get back into the States, you can go back online and have them reactivate your service. If this is possible to do with your service, it could save you a significant amount of money that would otherwise be wasted.
Note: You will not be able to receive texts or calls while your service is on hold.
After you arrive in your destination country:
Step 1: In your Settings or by swiping up your control panel, turn Airplane Mode ON. This ensures you will not use any data or incur any unexpected charges. Why is this important? If you don’t freeze your account and your phone happens to pick up service in foreign countries (this depends on your carrier), you might be tempted to use apps or answer calls that will sky rocket your bill. International charges will be applied to your account, and the sight will not be pretty.
Step 2: In your Settings, select Wi-Fi, and turn your Wi-Fi ON. Airplane Mode automatically turns Wi-Fi OFF, so you will want to go in and turn it back ON. Your only chance to use your phone’s Wi-Fi-capable apps and functions will be when you are connected to Wi-Fi. If you aren’t picking up any free signals, you’ll want to head to a coffee shop or your hotel in hopes to find one.
Step 3: To connect to a Wi-Fi signal, go into your Settings, select Wi-Fi, and select a network. If your hotel or a restaurant provides Wi-Fi that takes a password, you’ll need to get the password from them, then select that network and type in the password to connect.
While connected to Wi-Fi, guess what you can do on an iPhone, even if you’re in a foreign country? (Sorry Droids, iPhones only on this one, also- these won’t work if you suspend your service) You can use:
- Facetime: A nice way to chat with family and friends back home as long as they have iPhones and are awake at the same time as you! (Mind the time zone!) Just open your Contacts, select the person you want to FaceTime, and hit “FaceTime” in your options. If they don’t have an iPhone, it won’t work.
- iMessage: Yes, iMessage functions on Wi-Fi (between iPhones only), so you can text all you want with others who also have iPhones and iMessage, even overseas! You don’t have to do anything special to make iMessage work (as long as it is turned on in your Settings), your phone already knows what to do. Simply text anyone else with an iPhone. If you aren’t sure who has one, you can look back in your texts. Anyone you text that has blue text bubbles is an iPhone, anyone with green text bubbles is not.
You can find a great resource of travel apps here for even more options of what you can do with your phone abroad. One of those apps is Voxer, the free app I highly recommend for staying in touch with family and friends across the world. Any apps that function on Wi-Fi (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Mail, Voxer, etc.) are accessible as long as you are connected to Wi-Fi.
The only functions you cannot do with your phone in this scenario are receive and answer phone calls and text anyone who doesn’t also use iMessage. And of course, you can’t access anything that needs Wi-Fi to function if you’re not connected to a Wi-Fi signal. I hope I have made that clear by now.
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Traveler B: Using Your iPhone with an International SIM Card
Similar to Traveler A, if you will be gone for at least a month, go online to your account or call your carrier’s customer service and ask them to put your account on hold or freeze, and be sure to give the date of the day after you leave the States for it to take effect. If this is possible, you may pay little or nothing for the time you are gone, rather than your regular bill amount. You can re-activate your phone once you are back Stateside.
Before you leave the States:
Step 1: Unlock your phone. This is really easy. You just call your customer service and ask them to unlock your phone for international use, they send a request to Apple to unlock, the request comes back approved, and presto, your phone is unlocked. It took all of 10 seconds for them to unlock my phone. The phone call took a bit longer, of course. Click here for more information about how to unlock your phone. Why is this important? It’s important if you want to be able to use your own phone once you get abroad. If your phone is locked, you will have to buy a local phone rather than use your own. Unlocking your phone gives you the ability to use an international SIM card. Read more about international SIM cards here.
After you arrive in your destination country:
Step 2: Purchase a micro SIM card. There are a few different sizes of SIM cards, regular, micro, and nano. Getting one might be as easy as purchasing one from a vending machine like this one in the London Heathrow Airport. In most cases, however, you will need to locate a store where they are available for purchase. SIM cards usually cost between $5-20.
Editor’s Note 1/14/15: iPhones 5 and 6 now use the nano SIM card (see comments for details)
Things to keep in mind when you buy an international SIM card:
- If you purchase it from a cellular carrier, you may be required to show your passport (bring it with you).
- Some SIM carriers are better than others, offering better deals or cheaper prices. If you have a chance, ask around to see which carrier the locals prefer before you commit.
- Some SIM carriers might simply be a better option because they exist in more than one country. For example, in Italy you could go with an Italian SIM carrier (i.e. Tim), or a general European one (i.e. Vodafone) that will recharge your data or minutes in more countries than just Italy. This is a good thing to keep in mind if you’ll be traveling through multiple countries.
- Make sure it is the right size and will work for your phone, whatever phone you decided to buy it for.
Step 3: Purchase any extra credits or data that might not have come included on your SIM card. These will be available in the same store that you buy your SIM card, and many convenience stores also sell them. They come in the form of cards with scratch off codes, or it may be an automated system that the store clerk can do for you. Your SIM card provides your phone number, while credits and data provide your service. It is pay as you go with SIM cards, so once you use up your credit, you will need to buy more. On that note, you will still have all your apps on your phone, switching out the SIM is simply switching out the phone number.
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Step 4: Insert the SIM card into your phone. For iPhones, make sure your phone is off, take off any case you might have, and find the tiny slot on the side with a little hole in it. Use a paper clip to push into the hole (push hard), and that little tray will slide out, where you can remove your SIM card associated with your account in the States (be very careful not to lose this!) and replace it with your new international SIM card. Turn your phone back on to set up your new SIM.
Step 5: Add any credits/data that you purchased. If you’re using a card with a scratch-off code, just follow the instructions on the card. Usually you dial a number, and a recording tells you what to do, entering your scratch off code to activate your credit. Be careful if you are in a country that speaks another language, perhaps ask someone else to help you load your credits to make sure nothing gets lost in translation.
Once you have activated your credit, you should be good to go! You will have a local phone number, and you should be able to use everything on your phone just as you would in the States.
Traveler C: Adding global service to your plan
This part is a little tricky for me to write about because there are many different cellular carriers within the US and each carrier’s services and rates are going to vary. However, I use Verizon and can tell you what I know about Verizon, then you can take this and apply it to your own carrier so at least you will know what to look for. There is such a thing called Global Services within Verizon, and if you look at the plans and pricing, you will see that it’s an add-on deal that goes on top of your already-existing service. It enables you to use your phone while overseas, and it gives you several options of how you’d like to pay for it.
*Editor’s Note July 2016: I have since switched to T-Mobile, here are my thoughts on who should also do this
The options will vary and be limited according to what country you will be in. I am currently in Mexico as I write this, and there is a special plan between the US, Mexico, and Canada, which would allow me to pay $15 per month for 1,000 anytime minutes to make and receive phone calls. Period. By the way, this can be shared among phones on the same share everything plan. The only bummer about this plan is that it also costs you 50 cents to send a text, and 5 cents to receive. I do not know for sure if you could still send free iMessages via Wi-Fi or if they will charge you if you have this plan enabled, if anyone has the answer to that, please share in the comments!
I have opted not to get the plan, because I have Skype credit and can make phone calls as necessary through that, and I can still check my voicemail via Skype to see if I’ve received any messages. (Make sure you add a passcode to your voicemail if you want to do it this way! It can be done online). The reason I would choose this plan if I were getting one is that the only thing I can’t do on my iPhone when I’m abroad is make and receive phone calls, and this would solve that. With my Wi-Fi capabilities, I can still use all my apps for free, as long as I’m connected to Wi-Fi of course. This means that I could have full use of my phone while in Mexico for just $15 more per month if I wanted to. The other option for me here would be to pay $4.99 per month for the use of the phone, and then pay by the minute, MB (data), or text, but I can see that getting expensive quickly.
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The point here is that there are possibilities to use your phone abroad just by adding some global services to your plan. Get online and do your research to find out what kind of international services are available to you for a decent price. Watch out, because if you opt for a plan like the $4.99 one where you pay as you use minutes, etc., that could easily get out of hand. Watch out as well because if you don’t opt to add an international service plan, yet your carrier picks up some foreign carrier in your destination country (AT&T and T-Mobile are known for this), you will find that your phone works, phone calls and all, but you will NOT like what you see when the bill comes, because any minutes and data you use will be charged at full international rates (YIKES).
If you opt for this route, I suggest taking care of it before you leave the US, for convenience.
Dumbphone Users: Buying a Cheap International Cell Phone
You won’t be able to use your dumbphone abroad unless it is SIM card-compatible, and even then some countries are strict about what phones will work with their carriers. Check behind the battery to see if there is a little SIM card in there. Most dumbphones in the US are not SIM-compatible, but don’t worry, because your destination country is bound to have many international cell phones for you to choose from for cheap. The phones will already be SIM-capable and some might even come packaged with a SIM card and credits included. This means that you do not need to have a smartphone overseas, you can still have a regular phone, but the ones overseas will be SIM-capable, and that is the key to using it abroad. Read more here if you are confused about SIM cards. You will simply need to purchase a new phone, and in most cases this won’t cost you much. I have paid as little as $10 (Brazil) and as much as $65 (Italy) for a phone abroad.
Traveler A may also opt to purchase a local phone and SIM card for use abroad. It’s a really simple process, much easier than it is to get a cell phone through a major carrier in the US. Refer to the steps in the Traveler B section for buying a SIM card, and you will just also need to add the step of buying a cheap phone while you’re at it, something to put the SIM card in. If you go this route, you will also need to add credits, or minutes, as you go.
Finally, I must throw in a disclaimer that the way SIM cards are obtained and how they function throughout different countries may not be exactly like I have said above. I’m sorry but until I go to every country in the world and try it out, I can’t tell you exactly how they work everywhere. However, this is how it works in most of the foreign countries that I have been to, so I hope you are able to at least get the gist of it, even if you have to figure it out a bit differently in your destination country. The bit about the Wi-Fi should be legit everywhere. Unless you end up somewhere that has some sort of block or limited use on their public Wi-Fi, you should be able to use your Wi-Fi and apps just as I said above.
Now it’s your turn! I would love to hear about your experience taking your phones abroad. What did you do right? Is there something you wish you knew before you left? Can you add anything else to the information here? Please share in the comments!
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