A Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad: For Dummies

This complete guide to using your iPhone* overseas includes comprehensive details, such that even the least tech-savvy people will be able to use their smartphones abroad by following the instructions below.

This post contains affiliate links. 

In this guide, we’ll go over:

1. How to use Airplane mode and Wifi
2. How iMessage and FaceTime work overseas
3. Best apps for texting overseas
4. Using international SIM cards with your American iPhone
5. Locked vs unlocked phones
6. Must-have travel accessories for your iPhone
7. Freezing your existing cell phone plan
8. Adding international service to your existing cell phone plan
9. Keeping your US phone number even if you cancel your service
10. Overview of the best cell phone plans for travelers
11. Dumbphones: Buying a cheap international cell phone
12. International Hotspot: Global Wifi Device

*Android users, while your exact Settings instructions will vary a bit from the iPhone’s Settings instructions detailed in this post, the ideas are exactly the same.

Read it, save it, pin it, share it. Help me help you and your friends to be smart with your cell phone bill when you travel.

First, What Type of Traveler Are You?

If you have no idea what you should be doing with your iPhone abroad, start here to identify which parts of this guide apply directly to you.

A – Short-Term Traveler: You’re going on a one-time short trip (less than a month) and you want Wifi capability to keep in touch with family and friends or check Facebook, email, post to Instagram, etc., but you don’t necessarily need an international SIM card or international data. Pay attention to sections 1, 2, 3, 6.

B – Relocator: You’re going abroad for at least a month to one location or region and would like an international SIM card to have all the regular calling and data capabilities of your smartphone abroad. Examples: Study abroad students, working or volunteering abroad, or moving abroad. Pay attention to sections 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9.

C – Convenience Traveler: Trip length doesn’t matter so much to you, you just want to be able to add international service to your already existing plan, so that you can easily use it in multiple places without having to think twice. Pay attention to sections 3, 6, 7, and 10.

D – Nomad: You’re peacing out without a long-term plan, you need all the data in all the countries. You’re hoping to not switch SIM cards all that often, or at all if possible. Pay attention to sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10.

1. Using Airplane Mode and Wifi

This section will help you completely avoid international charges on your iPhone bill.

Why is this important? If you don’t freeze your account (Section 8) and your phone happens to pick up service in foreign countries, you might be tempted to use apps or answer calls, and that will skyrocket your bill.

SKY. ROCKET. Your bill. International charges will be applied to your account, and the sight will not be pretty.

Avoid international charges, yet still enjoy the apps on your phone by connecting to Wifi.

You don’t need to do anything special to your phone before you go abroad. After you arrive in your destination country:

How to Turn on Airplane Mode and Use Wifi at the Same Time (Yes, you can)

Swipe down from the home screen to access your control center:

Comparison of two smartphone control center interfaces showing icons for airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, music playback controls, screen rotation lock, do not disturb mode, screen mirroring, and sliders for screen brightness and volume, with the left side in 'Do Not Disturb' mode and the right side connected to Wi-Fi.
Turn Airplane Mode ON, then turn Wifi ON.

As long as Airplane Mode is ON, you won’t be charged for data. To double triple make sure you won’t be charged for data, do this:

  • Settings –> Cellular –> turn Cellular Data OFF

Any apps that function on Wifi (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Mail, Voxer, etc.) are accessible as long as you are connected to Wifi. Go to town.

Turning off Airplane Mode and Cellular Data essentially turns off your phone number and the data you normally pay for.

This means you cannot receive or place regular phone calls or SMS messages (iMessage excluded, see next section). Also, you can’t access anything that needs Wifi to function if you’re not connected to a Wifi signal.

No Control Center? Using Airplane Mode and Wifi for Dummies:

Step 1: In your Settings, turn Airplane Mode ON (make sure the little airplane icon is highlighted). This ensures you will not use any data or incur any unexpected international charges.

Step 2: In your Settings, select Wifi, and turn your Wifi ON. Airplane Mode automatically turns Wifi OFF, so you will want to go in and turn it back ON.

Your only chance to use your phone’s Wifi-capable apps and functions will be when you are connected to Wifi. If you aren’t picking up any free signals, you’ll want to head to a coffee shop or your hotel to find one.

Step 3: To connect to a Wifi signal, go into your Settings, select Wifi, and select a network. If your hotel or a restaurant provides Wifi that takes a password, you’ll need to get the password from them, then select that network and type in the password to connect.

2. Using iMessage and FaceTime Overseas (for free)

Two smartphone app icons displayed side by side; the Messages app icon shows a blue speech bubble with a red notification badge indicating one new message, and the FaceTime app icon features a green video camera symbol.

Sorry Android, this is for iPhone only.

Connect your iPhone to Wifi with iMessage and FaceTime turned ON and activated:

  • Settings —> Messages —> make sure iMessage is ON
  • Settings —> FaceTime —> make sure FaceTime is ON
  • If you have been switching SIMs and phone numbers around recently and iMessage isn’t activating on your iPhone, restart your phone and try again.

iMessage and FaceTime work through your Apple ID if they can’t use your affiliated phone number. This means that in Settings—> Messages—> Send & Receive, you will see all the options you have to reach people through iMessage.

Your email address will be one option when your phone number is frozen or unavailable (i.e., perhaps you switched out your SIM). Friends at home might see an email address instead of your phone number when you send a text, but it still works.

You won’t be charged for using these services if Airplane Mode is ON or your Cellular Data is OFF. If Airplane Mode is not on and your Cellular Data is turned on, FaceTime will charge as Data, so be careful.

Using iMessage and FaceTime for Dummies

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!)

Open your contacts, select the person you want to FaceTime with, and hit the video icon in your options.

Alternatively, open your FaceTime app (it looks like the green one in the photo above). On the top, select Audio or Video. Then type the name of the person you’d like to chat with. They should appear in a list. Then tap their name to place the call.

If they don’t have an iPhone, this won’t work.

iMessage: Yes, iMessage functions on Wifi (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 (it should already be 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, look back in your texts. Anyone you text with blue text bubbles has an iPhone, but anyone with green text bubbles does not.

3. Best Apps for International Texting and Calling (for free)

All of the following listed app functions are free on Wifi. Please note that it is necessary for each user to communicate through the same app. For example, you can’t send a WhatsApp message or place a call to someone who doesn’t have WhatsApp.

WhatsApp

Most popular app outside the US for texting and phone calls.

Download it and activate your phone number with it. Even if you freeze your phone number or switch out the SIM, you can still opt to continue using WhatsApp with the original number that you connect to it.

The only time this won’t work is if you give up your number and someone else starts using it. (Avoid that with Tossable Digits, read more about saving your phone number while you travel here).

Functions: texting, sending images and videos, voice messages, video calls, audio calls.

iMessage

Refer to the previous section.

Functions: texting, sending images, and videos from iPhone to iPhone only.

FaceTime

Refer to the previous section.

Functions: audio and video calls from iPhone to iPhone only.

Facebook Messenger

Messenger has come a long way.

Functions: texting, sending images and videos, and placing voice and video calls.

Voxer

One of my favorite apps for keeping in touch with my best friends and family. It’s like a walkie-talkie app.

Functions: texting, sending images and videos, voice messages up to 15 minutes long.

4. Using an International SIM Card with an American iPhone

aka How to get a foreign phone number with data.

SIM Cards for Dummies

A SIM card is essentially your cell phone number and whatever data you pay for, while the actual phone is just the machine that makes it all work.

This means you can take out your SIM and insert it into another (unlocked) phone and make a phone call, and the person you are calling still sees your name on the caller ID.

It also means you could take out your SIM, and still use your same phone with Wifi to access any apps, you just wouldn’t have your phone number or any data connected anymore.

Taking out your SIM essentially does the same thing as turning on Airplane Mode or turning off Cellular Data. Your phone just becomes a Wifi device.

So, getting a foreign SIM means getting a foreign phone number and data. This is ideal for people moving to one place overseas for longer than a month.

Before you do anything else (like leave the country), make sure:

  • Your phone has a SIM card slot. See the photo below if you don’t know what this looks like.
  • Your phone is unlocked. See next section for more about unlocked vs. locked cell phones.

Having an unlocked phone is 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.

As long as you have an unlocked phone with a SIM card slot, you should be able to purchase a SIM overseas, or pre-order a SIM card, with data, calling, texting, whatever you need. Then slip it into your phone, and have a fully-functioning local phone.

How to Install a SIM Card

After you arrive in your destination country:

Step 1: Purchase a SIM card. There are three different sizes of SIM cards: regular, micro, and nano.

Newer iPhones use nano-SIM cards, but most SIM cards for sale will come in a “one size fits all” format, with perforations in the plastic such that you can punch out the size you need to fit in your phone’s SIM card slot. Be sure to check before you buy.

Getting one might be as easy as purchasing one from a vending machine like the one in the photo below from London Heathrow Airport (I’ve never done this!). In most cases, however, you will need to locate a store where they are available for purchase This I have done a ton of times.

SIM cards are cheap. You can get a SIM with a decent amount of data and calling for under $20 just about everywhere, then you just “top up” when your data gets low.

You may want to do a bit of research on the best carriers in your destination country before you choose one.

Two side-by-side images displaying a smartphone; the left image shows a close-up of the side with volume buttons and a mute switch, while the right image depicts a hand ejecting the SIM card tray with a paperclip.
SIM card slots look like this. Pop it open with a paperclip. Push hard.

When purchasing an international SIM card, keep in mind:

  • If you purchase it from a cellular carrier, you may be required to show your passport, so bring it with you.
  • Some SIM carriers have better coverage or offer better pricing than others. 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, like Tim, or a general European one, like 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 2: Purchase any extra credits or data that might not have come included on your SIM card. These will be available in the same store where you buy your SIM card. 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. Don’t worry, you will still have all your apps on your phone, switching out the SIM is simply switching out the phone number.

Step 3: 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. 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.

Tip: tape your home SIM card to a card in your wallet for safe keeping. For additional security, store that card in a room safe if you have one.

Step 4: 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.

A smartphone lying face up on a textured surface with its SIM card and tray placed next to it, highlighting the steps involved in changing or replacing a SIM card.
iPhone 4 SIM card slot with micro SIM card.
Four various SIM cards displayed on a white background, each with different branding and color schemes, representing the connectivity options provided by multiple telecommunications companies.
Regular-size SIM cards- NOT fit for iPhone anymore. Nano SIMs are the size of the chip alone.
A vending machine under a blue 'SIM CARDS' sign, stocked with various SIM card packages, offering a convenient way to purchase mobile connectivity on the go.
I wish it were always this easy!

Buy an International SIM Card Online

If you want to pre-order an international SIM card for iPhone and have it topped up and ready to go for immediate use, try one from SimOptions.

It’s a bit more expensive than an international plan like T-Mobile or Sprint, and also more expensive than a local SIM, but it is super convenient and guarantees you’ll hit the ground abroad with service. Plus, you can easily top up your data online.

You can get a Europe SIM card easily. Check out all your international SIM card options at SimOptions.

Learn more about pre-ordering international SIM cards.

Smartphone on a wooden surface displaying a 'No SIM Card Installed' message on the lock screen, with the SIM card tray open showing the installed SIM card.
You can switch SIMs while your phone is on. It’s not a problem.

5. Locked vs. Unlocked Phones

aka How a US iPhone works overseas

When a phone is “locked,” it essentially means it will only operate with the carrier through which you have a contract and, most likely, a monthly payment for the phone.

Carriers do this so you won’t jump ship and start using another carrier. If you bought it through a specific carrier, like at a Verizon store, chances are it came locked.

However, US cell phone carriers will unlock your iPhone for international use if you just ask them. “Unlocking” is a software issue, not hardware, so your carrier can unlock your phone remotely. This will enable your iPhone to be compatible with SIM carriers in other countries.

Unlocking your phone basically means you could go abroad, purchase an international SIM card, put it in your iPhone, and use your iPhone abroad with that carrier as explained in the previous section.

It sounds simple, and sometimes it is, but it requires action on your part, and it’s different for every carrier (if you purchased through a carrier). Click here to find out how to unlock your iPhone with your carrier and use it overseas.

iPhones purchased direct from Apple and paid for in full are always unlocked.

6. Must-Have Travel Accessories for Your iPhone

1. Pop Socket

Before they were super popular, one of the top five questions I got asked anywhere was “WHAT is that THING on your phone???”

That “thing” is the cheapest insurance policy I’ve ever bought. That “thing” is a pop socket. Since I bought it, I haven’t dropped my phone while taking photos, texting, or other.

It acts as an extra grip on the slippery iPhone, plus it provides leverage so that I can reach the entire screen with one hand (iPhones are getting so big these days). It also acts as a stand so I can prop up the phone to watch videos, and it really helps if I’m lying in bed and holding my phone above my face so I don’t drop it on myself.

I got it brand new with the case I mention next, stuck it on in March of 2017, and it has not budged at all.

I’m not convinced there is much else out there that is more worth your next $15. I am completely unaffiliated with them and completely in love with their product.

Expert tip: Do NOT purchase a generic version, the stickiness is not guaranteed to be strong. Saving a couple of bucks is not worth losing your iPhone which cost several hundred dollars if the sticky part gives. Stick with Pop Socket 😉

Update 2022: I’m now happily using a PopWallet+ from PopSockets so I can keep my ID and credit cards with my phone without worrying about finding a credit card iphone case that works, because honestly I couldn’t once I bought the iPhone 12. I’m now using an Otterbox case with my PopWallet+ and it sticks just fine and has served me well.

A smiling woman in a blue jacket takes a selfie on a mountain trail, with a scenic view of a valley and lake in the background, conveying a sense of adventure and the enjoyment of nature.

2. Hidden Credit Card iPhone Case

I’m not a purse girl. I love having my ID and credit card ready with my phone; however, I DON’T like it when everyone else can SEE my credit card just hanging out on the back of my phone. Especially if I pass my phone to someone to snap a photo of me.

Look at that photo above one more time. You’d never know there is a hidden credit card slot.

Two images side by side of a smartphone in a black Spigen case with a circular grip stand on a wooden surface; the left shows the case alone, and the right shows a credit card tucked into the case's back slot.

This brilliant little baby is by Spigen, and I swear by it for my iPhone 6.* It is a little worn, but I used it from March of 2017 through December 2018 without breaking, nor did my phone get any dropping damage whatsoever with this case on (I rarely drop it because of the grip of my Pop Socket).

For the ultimate credit card phone case stealth mode, I highly recommend it.

*Update 2022: If this amazing Spigen case fits your phone, get it. If you don’t have an older phone, don’t get it because the new Spigen cases are NOT as good.

I’ve upgraded my phone and am now happily using a PopWallet+ from PopSockets so I can keep my ID and credit cards with my phone without worrying about finding a credit card iPhone case that works. I’m now using an Otterbox case with my PopWallet+ and it sticks just fine and has served me well. I still use this tempered glass screen protector.

3. Waterproof Case

This is a simple waterproof phone case by Joto, sort of like a dry bag for your phone for those of us who don’t have Lifeproof cases. It has smart material so you can operate the screen through plastic. For $8, another great insurance policy for the active traveler.

4. Anker Charger

I can’t get through any packing list or iPhone post without mentioning my absolute favorite mobile USB phone charger. No matter which one you get, go with one from Anker, they are a great brand and make powerful batteries.

I’ve had mine since the summer of 2015 and it still charges my phone up to 7 times on one charge. I never leave home without it.

7. Freezing Your Existing Cell Phone Plan

aka How to not pay money for services you aren’t using.

If you are leaving for at least a month and not going to be needing your US cellular service at all during that time, 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.

For Verizon, you can freeze your service online in your MyVerizon account. In my experience in the past, if you call customer service and ask them to do it, they charge a $15 fee, so be smart about how you do it.

On one trip to Mexico in 2014, I waited until I arrived, then I did it online and it took effect immediately. Upon arrival back to the States, you can go back online and have them reactivate your service immediately as well.

Even if your carrier charges a small fee to keep your line “alive” while it hibernates, it could still save you a significant amount of money that would otherwise be wasted.

Note: You will not be able to receive regular SMS texts or phone calls while your service is on hold. Your phone becomes a Wifi device without an active SIM card (you can still use iMessage and FaceTime with your AppleID).

Because I switched to T-Mobile, I do not have to do this anymore. This is for people who want to keep everything about your regular account the same, but you’ll be leaving for long enough to put it on hold for a bit.

The other option would be using Tossable Digits to keep or save your number while traveling, but cancel your plan completely for now (see section 9).

A young woman in a turquoise jacket leans on a metal railing while engrossed in her smartphone, with a maroon backpack resting at her feet, at a sunlit urban outdoor setting with industrial buildings in the background.

8. Adding International Service to Your Existing Cell Phone 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. Not to mention the fact that they seem to constantly change.

I wrote a post comparing cell phone plans for travelers, check that out to see what your carrier/plan includes.

Verizon International Service

Verizon has an option to activate a Travel Pass for $5/day in Mexico and Canada and $10/day in over 130 countries worldwide. For short-term trips, this can be a great option. For long-term trips, $10/day = roughly $300/month. Please don’t be that dummy.

Also, remember to activate your Travel Pass BEFORE you travel, otherwise, you’re screwed.

See more about Verizon’s international travel solutions here.

AT&T International Service

AT&T has the same idea as Verizon, but they call it the International Day Pass and it starts at $10/day.

Some of AT&T’s existing plans already cover talk and text in Mexico and Canada, so be sure to know what you’re already paying for before you purchase coverage.

See more about AT&T’s international travel solutions here.

T-Mobile & Sprint International Service

T-Mobile is leading the movement that has made this girl ONE HAPPY TRAVELER. The T-Mobile ONE plan gets you unlimited (2G) data in more than 140 countries worldwide. Sprint is catching on and implementing similar plans.

All you have to do to use it is overseas is make sure your roaming is turned ON:

  • Settings —> Cellular —> Cellular Data (ON) and Cellular Data Options (Roaming ON)

While you’re in Settings, turn on your FREE Wifi calling:

  • Settings —> Phone —> Wifi Calling ON

Times have changed. Even Montana has T-Mobile now, which was my biggest problem with the carrier until 2018.

Read more about the best cell phone plans for travelers.

9. How to Keep Your US Cell Phone Number When You Travel

Guess what! You don’t have to say goodbye to your precious cell phone number that you’ve had for years just because you’re going abroad for a while.

You can cancel your existing, expensive cell phone plan AND keep your number, even having calls and texts forwarded in the meantime, and reactivating it with a new service at home upon your return.

How? Use Tossable Digits. You essentially turn your existing number into a virtual number by porting it to Tossable Digits (don’t do this until you’re abroad and ready to cancel your existing cell phone plan).

You only pay for the forwarded texts and calls that you use, and you can cancel any time. Lots of people have found this to be a massively helpful solution when it comes to phone numbers and travel.

Check out everything you need to know to save your phone number while you travel.

10. Overview of the Best Cell Phone Plans for Travelers

I have a whole post dedicated to comparing cell phone plans for travelers, but here is a quick summary:

T-Mobile: Best for the frequent traveler or nomad who skips around a lot but still has a home base in the US.

Sprint: Same offering as T-Mobile, not great coverage in the US.

Verizon: Best coverage in the US, has a Travel Pass for short trips, so it is still a great option for frequent but short-term travelers. Not ideal for any long-term travel.

AT&T: Same idea as Verizon.

Project Fi: Consider Project Fi if the Wifi aspect makes sense in your area (and you’re willing to give up your precious iPhone), or stick to what you have.

Click here to read the full post.

11. Dumbphones: Buying a Cheap International Cell Phone

A “dumbphone” is what I call the opposite of a smartphone. It still has a flip screen, qwerty keyboard, or… just buttons. Remember those?

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 networks. Check behind the battery to see if there is a 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.

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.

Refer to Sections 4 and 5 above for help with using SIM cards in dumbphones.

12. International Hotspot: Global Wifi Device

An international hotspot is a portable device that connects to local data and produces a private Wifi signal just for the owner of the device to use (and share with friends or family).

You do not need a SIM card for it, but it will only work where there is cell service. For example, in Germany it might connect to Telekom, in the US it might connect to AT&T, etc., but if there is no cell service for it to connect to, it won’t magically provide a Wifi signal.

With a portable global Wifi device, you don’t need to buy SIM cards or find public Wifi for your phone, you can simply turn on your device, connect to its signal with your phone and laptop, and you are charged for every 24 hours that you use.

I don’t consider this a better option than SIM cards if you’re going on a long-term trip, because the charges will add up quickly. But if you’re traveling somewhere for a short time that has good connectivity (i.e. don’t bring this to Patagonia and expect a signal), this would be a good option if you need to stay connected, especially if you’ll be using the internet on your laptop.

Here are a couple of options to get started with international Wifi devices:

  • Skyroam: Skyroam’s device is called Solis. It works as a portable 4G LTE Global Wifi device AND a power charger at the same time. It costs about $9/day. Use promo code BMTWIFI to receive a discount!
  • Tep Wireless: Tep’s device is called Teppy, and you can rent it for a trip and return it by mail. It also costs about $9/day.
Outdoor work setup featuring a person sitting on the grass, using a smartphone with a laptop open nearby, and a Skyroam portable Wi-Fi hotspot device in the foreground, implying mobile connectivity in a park setting.
Skyroam Solis international Wifi device. © Skyroam

Conclusions

Tell me, have I forgotten anything?

To read more about using your iPhone abroad, check these out:

Also, now it’s your turn! I would love to hear about your experience taking your phones abroad. It helps others reading the comments if YOU share successes and failures with 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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111 replies on “A Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad: For Dummies”

Thank a lot for posting this. I am the Dumb phone Users: Buying a Cheap International Cell Phone”. I normally carry my basic cell phone purchased in Trinidad and Tobago, get a SIM card and phone card at the airport upon arrival. This way I can call locally and internationally.
Any tips on a workable camera for under $200-$25USD, would be helpful?
Thanks again for the detailed information, I learned a lot about my Iphone which I am not taking on this vacation.
🙂

Thanks for the great article! I was researching how to use a current phone and adding an international number. Have you had any experience with using your phone in Cuba? My plan was to unlock an old iPhone 4, buy a SIM card for it and use it as our Cuba phone so our friends could get in touch with us and we could use it to make and confirm appointments. After reading your article, I think just unlocking our current iPhone 5 and buying a SIM card there for it is the way to go. Your thoughts?

I’m sorry I don’t have experience with Cuba specifically. I imagine the best way to go would be to buy a SIM once you get there if you can. Just try to unlock and use your own phone. Good luck!

Great post—thanks for the rundown! I’d love to hear/see a post on cyber security while traveling. Using wifi at hotels and public places can compromise devices and data. My understanding is that it’s extremely easy to siphon off data sent over an unsecured network—passwords you might send while logging in to your bank account or checking your email, etc. I use a VPN (virtual private network), which is easy enough to plug in to my iPhone’s settings (General->VPN) and also have a credit freeze. I was considering trying a wireless travel router for an added layer. I’d love to know how people handle this. Unfortunately identity theft is the petty crime of our era. Thank you for the great travel inspiration!

I’d suggest that you all check with your US mobile providers first.
A coworker told me that her T Mobile account has free unlimited international service for everything but phone calls (.20/min).
We checked with Sprint and have the exact same thing! They just turn it on & we are good to go.
Apparently the competition between providers has made this very common. I hope you have the same experience. Good luck!

Going to europe for 2.5/3 months and based off your info, option B seems to be best. If I choose option B and take out my regular sim card will my iMessage and FaceTime be a different email/number when I talk to people or will it still be my same email/number I had with my regular sim in the phone? Wondering if there is a difference between using iMessage/Facetime versus texting/calling with a different sim card.

Yes, it you take out your SIM, you will not have that number associated with your iMessage and FaceTime anymore. Instead, it will be your apple ID that shows up, so be sure that in your settings, you choose to send and receive from your Apple ID instead of your phone number. That way it doesn’t matter which SIM card you have in your phone.

Niall… we’re going to Belize for ten days with iPhones 6. Is there any advantage to buying a SIM card for that period. We’re told we can just dial direct to US or buy a $40 plan. Thanks

Unless you really need to be on your phone, don’t worry about a SIM for just a 10-day trip. You will have plenty of access to WiFi and you can make calls for free using today’s technologies (Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook..) I only recommend a SIM if you’re going to be in one country long-term.

Yes because iMessage works with your Apple ID when it doesn’t go through your phone number. Just check your iMessage settings and make sure you can send and receive from your Apple ID, you might need to be on WiFi for this to work, as I’m not sure what your Argentinian SIM will include. I recommend getting WhatsApp and using that for messaging. Have fun!

so, i’m not that tech savvy, and i learned how to install the sim card to my iphone5s. I’m going to Spain and Portugal. if i understand correctly i can buy a sim card when i get to spain and install it. i have Verizon. so what does it mean to me? verizon has a plan that charges 10.00/day for use, another that is 80.00 flat rate. how does having a sim benefits me? thanks for your response.

Getting a SIM means not using Verizon. It means getting a local phone number and paying locally for data and usage, etc. I recommend getting a local SIM if you plan to be traveling for a while, but for a short trip it’s probably not worth it if you don’t use your phone that much, you can just get by using WiFi in places. If you’re only going for a few days and you want service and don’t want to mess with SIM cards, it could be worth it to just pay Verizon the $10/day, but that gets very expensive if you’re going for a long trip.

Hi Kirk – Okay, this makes sense, I’m going to try to answer this the best I can, but you may consider asking someone at an Apple Store or calling Apple to get the full answer.
The reason your devices connect is because they are all associated to your Apple ID. SO, I think that as long as your phone number is still activated (you cannot freeze your account and expect this to work), it makes sense to me that even if you take your SIM out, the other devices should still work at least for texting because they are all still associated with your Apple ID. I am not certain this will work for phone calls.
Do you get ALL text messages to your other devices, or only iMessages? Because if it’s only iMessages, then I don’t think it has to do with your phone number at all, we’re only talking about your Apple ID here, which you technically will always have, regardless of which phone number you use. I think you should call Apple and ask them exactly what will happen. And when you find out, I would love to know! Please come back and tell us how it went. I hope that is helpful in some way! Good luck!

I’m going to call APPLE…..
BUT…just to test things, I went and purchased a Trac Phone Sim Card ($1)…and I bought a $19 plan just for fun. I plugged it in and as soon as I did….my computers and my iPad and all my devices LIT UP and asked me if I wanted to associate this “NEW NUMBER” with my apple ID….again….just for fun, I said NO!
As a result, my other number disappeared…..all text messages coming to the old number STOPPED….all phone calls STOPPED…..
Then I made a few calls with the new Sim Card and a few text messages….took it out and put in my OLD sim card…the REAL one….the one that is my regular number……and again all my devices LIT UP asking if I wanted to associate THIS number with my apple ID…I said YES…..and bingo……my voice mails started coming in….my text messages…etc.
Just as info…..

I always bring with me a cheap unlocked T-Mobile or AT&T phone and buy a sim card there when traveling to Europe. It’s inexpensive, there are no hidden charges and some cards are very generous when it comes to calls to the US (gotta check around when you get there). Moreover, you can always refill your card at a convenience store or a supermarket.

I went to England and purchased a local SIM card. Now I am back in the U.S. And have put my American SIM card back into my phone but I’m not receiving any of the texts I missed while out of the country.

I found this so helpful, thank you! I’m traveling to Peru for 11 days, and I was wondering whether it would be better to freeze my service and use the Wi-Fi or to leave it as is and just set it on Airplane Mode and use the Wi-Fi.. what would you recommend? I have an iPhone and a plan with Cricket Wireless.

Don’t worry about freezing your service, that’s only really helpful when you’ll be gone for an entire billing cycle (1 month) or more. Just use Wi-Fi and airplane mode! Have FUN!!

You can remove and insert SIM cards whenever you want to. It does no harm to the phone, it’s just a matter of whether the SIM card will work in your current location or not.

If I’m understanding your question correctly, then I’d say yes to buying an iPhone that uses a SIM card, because that means it can be unlocked (or it comes unlocked) and used overseas. You must have a slot for a SIM card to do this (obviously), but Verizon also is able to put a SIM card in your phone for use in the States. This is why purchasing from a third party vendor (like a cellular store or a kiosk at Target) is a better idea than purchasing through Verizon because they won’t automatically give you a phone that uses SIM cards. I hope that helps!

Why is that you have to wait until you reach your destination country before turning on airplane mode? Just curious. Thanks in advance.

Mobile phone is very useful when you travel to different places or in any other countries, just be sure that your phone is open to accept different sim card networks to work well or else it’s useless.

I am going to Mexico in 16 days. I called up Verizon and was able to add a Canada/Mexico plan that gives me 500 minutes, 500 sent texts, unlimited received texts, and 1GB of data for only $25 extra. That’s really good for when I’m out and about and I won’t have WiFi. When I do have WiFi I use WhatsApp to text and I don’t make phone calls much (but have 500 minutes if I do need to call). But the peace of mind of being able to have some data for google maps and what not is nice.

Great post.
I kept my iPhone 4S when I upgraded to a 6. It is already unlocked. I plan to buy a Telcel Sim card and data when I am in Baja this winter. And the big hope, and I think it is completely possible, is to hook up the phone as a modem, like I do with Verizon in the US. Any knowledge on the subject?

One caveat–be sure to text back to Telcel with the code for the plan you bought when you add $$–or the $$ will be used by the minutes instead of the plan. (That detail that I learned after burning through my data in 2 days was a $60 Spanish lesson.) I learned my mistake from a call to Telcel requesting English speaker.

I recently went to Greece for two weeks and swapped out my iPhone 6
SIM card for a prepaid one and it was great! However, now that I’m home
and have my real SIM card in, my iPhone is weird. The name of my phone
is back to “iPhone,” iTunes thinks it’s a new phone, all of my saved
wifi passwords are gone, and even though Location services is on and
apps that use it are configured correctly, I can’t seem to use apps that
need locations. Is this a common side effect of swapping SIM cards? I’m
wondering if loading a backup from pre-Greece will solve the issue?

That is strange! I have not had that issue so I wouldn’t say it’s normal. It’s definitely good that you backed up your phone before swapping out the SIM, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to restore it to your backup. You can always take it into the Apple store if you have one to have them do it or ask questions to feel safer about it. Let us know how it goes!

My boyfriend and I have Verizon and he is in Korea right now! He got a Korean SIM card for his phone and I just wanted to make sure the SIM card would still work even if his services with Verizon are frozen.

This was very helpful – thank you. I am moving to New Zealand this winter. I owe Sprint $480 on my current Samsung Note 4 but have no contract with them otherwise. My phone just broke down on me after 6 months so I have an $800 gift card from my best buy warranty. I have 2 options and would love advice/input.
1. Pay off Sprint. Purchase an iPhone w my gift card and sign up with Verizon. Suspend service when we move and purchase a sim card in nz.
2. Keep my contract with Sprint. Use my gift card to buy an unlocked phone from Best Buy. They carry two brands – blu and some other that I can’t remember. I’d suspend my contract with Sprint upon move and purchase a sim card in nz.
I’m leaning towards option 1. Any thoughts?

Just keep in mind you can only suspend your account for a few months max, check into that before you sign up for Verizon. It may be worth looking into T-Mobile, I just made the switch and I’m loving the international data plan. You could always wait to cancel with Sprint, then just cancel when you leave instead of starting with Verizon before you go. Use a NZ SIM while you’re there, and then get a new contract (if you must) when you return.

Option 1, If you are moving to NZ permanently, then buy the unlocked GSM iPhone at full price, if you plan on moving back to the US in the next year, then purchase the Verizon version of the iPhone at full price, sign up with Verizon on a no contract plan until you move to NZ.

If I purchase and use the SIMS card after unlocking my phone would I still be able to use airplane mode and not use the SIMS card and use WIFI in certian situations?

If you insert a local prepaid SIM card with data in your phone when you get to your destination, you’ll be able to use your phone like you would at home with no fear of an expensive phone bill when you get home, no need to put your phone on airplane mode unless you are roaming outside of the country you bought the SIM from.

“Sorry Android”? Not hardly. Skype, Hangouts, Voxer, WhatsApp, Facebook, and others all offer free WiFi calling and video calling on Android. I prefer Hangouts because you can call landlines, and use it on your laptop.

Hangouts is an awesome wifi/data app that works across devices and acts as both facetime and iMessage. It can also show up on your laptop/PC when you have messages if you allow it. Overall a very good app.

Hi! This might be a silly question, but if you swap out your sim card and have a local number, what happens to any text messages or phone calls people send to your regular number while you are using the international sim card? I am traveling to Australia for 2 weeks and I am wondering if it is even worth it to try and use an international sim card. But I also want to make sure that I do not miss any important texts or calls while i am away. Thanks!

It’s a great question! You will NOT be able to receive any texts or calls to your regular number in real time if you switch out the SIM. Voicemails may still come through when you put your SIM back in, and you should still be able to check your voicemail (calling from another phone) even while your SIM is out (because your account is still active), but I wouldn’t count on catching everything that comes through. On an iPhone, you can change your iMessage settings to use your apple ID (your email address) instead of your regular phone number, that way you can still communicate with people via iMessage on your new SIM (just don’t forget to change it back when you put your normal SIM back in). This reply is getting long but I have another idea too – if you have one or two people that you really don’t want to miss anything from, text them from your new SIM as soon as you get it, that way they know you have a new number in case they need to get ahold of you. I hope this helps..

Yes your phone will update timezones whenever it connects to WiFi as long as it is set to “set automatically” in your settings, which it probably is already. As long as your time is up to date, your alarms will work normally. If you can’t connect to WiFi, simply go into your settings: General > Date & Time > and turn off “set automatically” so you can choose your own timezone. Then your alarms will also work just fine. Hope that answers your question!

I have an iPhone on a Pay Monthly contract with O2. Annoyingly, I cannot ‘freeze’ my contract, despite the fact that I will be leaving the country and living in Spain for nine months. My only answer is essentially, to purchase their O2 Travel Bolt-Ons, which charge you a flat rate of £1.99 a day if using data overseas. Not bad, really. However, my best option is to — like you recommend — keep my phone firmly on Airplane Mode (if simply to conserve battery life!), and log in to any available Wi-Fi spots that I can. I’m also going to encourage my family and friends to install Skype onto their PCs for free video calls.

Interesting, I wish I knew more about O2 to help you. I’m actually about to leave for about 9 months or so myself, I use Verizon and I think I’m just going to cancel my contract, eat the fee, and figure it out from there. I’m considering T-Mobile since it has $50/month unlimited data worldwide, or something crazy like that.. Or I’ll just get SIMs as I go. Let us know how you end up!

Hey Jess- I’m not sure if you can suspend your plan for less than a month, you’ll have to check with your carrier. But if you can’t, don’t worry about it (just continue to pay for it), if you take your SIM out, you don’t have to worry about data charges to your US plan, at that point your phone simply becomes a vessel for WiFi, and then you can put any SIM in it that you want to get local phone service and data (in Europe) and you’ll put credit on that SIM, it will have nothing to do with your US account. I hope that helps!

I am curious that if you suspend the account that all the messages will
be lost of people who are trying to call you. I will be going abroad for
40 days. I was thinking of keeping my phone on airport mode and using
Viber in wifi for calls. The sims sounds much better but my concern that
I will not receive important calls. Any issues?

You are correct – when you suspend your account, your phone number is essentially deactivated for that period of time. It cannot accept calls, nor allow anyone to leave voicemails. If you need to accept phone calls, do not suspend your account. You can always use Skype or another service to call yourself to check your voicemail for important messages (make sure you have a passcode for your voicemail to do this). That’s what I do.

Hi Sarah- it depends on his plan. It may still charge him to accept texts, but if it’s the US phone number that he is still using, I would imagine it wouldn’t charge YOU to text him. I can’t promise though! It really is going to depend on the plan that he got and what number he is using. Here is an idea for both of you- just download Voxer and you can text and talk all you want for free! (And no, they don’t pay me to say that) 😉

A few
months ago I found out about Republic Wireless. It’s no contract and
allows you to pick one of four plans that are as little as $5/month.
That plan strictly uses WiFi for calls, data, and texts, so it can be
used internationally without additional fee. We chose to go for the $10
plan that uses WiFi and cell towers for calls and texts while still
relying on WiFi for data. They also let you switch plans mid-cycle so
you could drop down to the $5 plan while abroad without penalty. The
only downside is that you have to purchase one of their phones which are
all on the Android operating system. That being said, the phones are
very reasonably priced and we are very happy with the service.

I Jackie, I hope this question hasn’t been asked yet. I scrolled through the answers trying to find out & I don’t see the answer, so……If I buy an overseas SIM card & install it in my unlocked phone, will I be able to text and/or call back to the US on it? (affordably) Thanks.

Hi Cathie- Yes, you will be able to use it internationally to call/text whatever country you want, with international charges according to whoever the SIM is through (the local carrier). You will just have a new (local) phone number.

I’m sure you can order an international SIM through a company that specializes in that, but I’ve never done it. I always just get it on the ground. That being said, yes, you can always get WiFi on your smartphone and use it whether it’s unlocked or not. As long as there is free WiFi at the airport you will be fine to use any app on your phone that works on WiFi.

Very helpful, thank you so much for sharing! Traveller B is definitely going to be my option, since I will travel to Asia for almost three months. Really wish I had seen this sooner…Wasted a lot of time trying figure things out with Verizon customer service people—all of them were trying to put me on an international calling&texting bundle added to my existing domestic plan (very expensive after accounting for everything), instead of recommending a simple account suspension and purchasing local SIM card. Guess money always comes before customers’ real needs and convenience.

So I will be traveling with school for about a month and wanted to “freeze”, put my service on hold (essentially Traveler A). Do you recommend just doing the whole airplane mode process or calling AT&T and putting my account on hold for the time being- or am I suppose to do both? When I called AT&T to ask about putting my account on hold (they called it suspending it), they said it would just be $10 a month and I would not be able to take or make calls but could operate my applications on wifi (such as vibe, Facebook, etc…). I would do the airplane thing, but I’m just afraid it would accidentally turn on. Also if I suspend my account through AT&T, will I still be able to use IMessage or FaceTime when I’m connected to Wifi? Thank you for your help!

If you’re going to be gone for a month, I would do both! Freeze your account just before you leave the US, and then just don’t take your phone off of airplane mode while you’re gone. All airplane mode does is essentially allow WiFi only on your phone, so it’s like an extra security blanket. And yes, you will still be able to use iMessage and FaceTime, I suggest getting Voxer as well. There is SO much you can do with WiFi, who needs phone calls anymore 😉 Have a great trip!!

The SIM cards will work in all those countries, BUT you will be charged roaming fees so get a SIM from the country that you’ll spend the most time in, and prepare yourself with plenty of credit so you don’t have to worry about running out in a place where you can’t buy more credits. I would look for Vodafone, or do some research about which SIMs are available in all those countries and get the one that shows up in the most countries. Hope that helps!

Does this still work if you are using a Verizon iPhone 6? I read a post about having to call Verizon to have them unlock my phone before going overseas. Do I need to do that, or can I just switch out the Verizon SIM card with an international SIM card once I am in Europe?

You still need to make sure your phone is unlocked. It only takes a few minutes to make the phone call, so I would recommend calling to make sure. The worst would be to get overseas, switch your SIM, and find out your phone is locked. Also, make sure your Verizon iPhone has a SIM card, many don’t, which is why it’s also a good idea to get your phone through a 3rd party company.

The apps and music get stored to your phone (or the cloud), not your SIM card. Therefore when you switch it out, it shouldn’t matter, unless there is a strange glitch everything should be there. However, I would recommend making sure everything is backed up regardless. I do this before every trip anyway just in case anything were to happen to my phone.

Exactly what Jackie said, I perform the iCloud backup before I leave and backup every night when I get a new SIM card and connected to wifi at my destination, don’t wait a few weeks to backup your phone while traveling, especially if you take a lot of photos. Backup your photos to iCloud or dropbox when your phone is plugged in and connected to wifi for the night.

Thanks for sharing all of the options to suit different travelers. I usually opt to use Wi-Fi, but I’m considering other options for longer visits, so it’s nice to know what’s out there and what might best fit me!

This was EXACTLY the post I needed. I haven’t traveled internationally in a couple of years, and wasn’t sure what was now the suggested way to use cell phones overseas. I have a few school trips coming up (none exceeding a month at a time) and it seems like using WiFi exclusively is the way to go. Quick question though: instead of turning airplane mode ON, is there any difference with just turning off “Cellular Data” and “Data Roaming”?
Thanks!

Yay! Glad you found it helpful. I don’t think there is a difference between turning Airplane Mode on or those two things off. I guess just simplicity. It’s like a security blanket, seeing the Airplane is your ticket to FREEdom 😉 and you don’t have to double check your settings.

we go to Mexico twice a year for the past 3 years.,I have called verizon each time about the best way use the phone. I’ve gotten a totally different answer each time. I’ve paid for the “Mexican plan.” 3 times, it’s never worked and one time got an international bill from a Mexican provider, a lot of money. The last 2 times we turned everything off but wifi. We had no problems, it,s easy to use. We pay about $10 a week for the service from the resort, well worth it. Last trip a small family emergency came up and I needed to call home. Checked with the resort and it only cost 75 cents a call, what a deal. I highly recommend the wifi plan.

I fall under Traveler B, I have an unlocked GSM iPhone 5 that was originally locked to T-Mobile. Two months after I got it, I paid off the full balance of the iPhone and was quickly approved for the unlock, once I got the confirmation from T-Mobile, I connected my iPhone 5 to iTunes via my laptop and performed a backup and restore and got the “Congratulations, your iPhone is now unlocked” message and restored my iPhone from iCloud.
I have a Telcel Mexico SIM card that I used in my old unlocked iPhone 3GS and had it cut down to fit the nano SIM and installed it in my newly unlocked iPhone 5 and it recognized it as a Telcel carrier.
A few weeks later I was in Spain, during a layover in Madrid I went to an electronics store in the terminal and bought a Orange SIM card with 1GB of data for €15 and added an extra €15 for voice and text credit. I was in Spain for over a month and was able to use my iPhone like I would at home without the fear of outrageous charges on my phone bill.
I traveled to the Philippines earlier this year for a month and bought a SMART SIM for P45 ($1) and month of unlimited data (hotspot too) for P1000 ($21) and added P500 ($11) for voice and text credit.
After I got back, I travelled to Mexico and used my Telcel Mexico SIM card and bought 1GB of data good for a week for $169.00MXN ($11 US) and extra credit for voice and texts.
After too many dead spots in coverage from T-Mobile I switched to AT&T on a non contract month to month plan.
That’s five different SIM cards on one iPhone with no special settings needed, I get to my destination and buy and install a new SIM card and off I go. From my experience, every foreign SIM card I have used has had free incoming calls and texts even if there is no credit on the phone.
The only special items I needed to bring are the travel adapters from the Apple world travel kit that I paid half price on Ebay and a paper clip to change SIM cards.
I have tested several of my friends Verizon 4G LTE iPhone 5, 5C, and 5S with my Telcel Mexico SIM card when I was in Mexico and all of them connected with no problems at all, I even helped them get their own Telcel SIM cards for their iPhones.
http://www.verizonwireless.com/aboutus/commitment/safety-security/device-unlocking-policy.html
I’m not a fan of buying a dumb phone when I travel, most of those phones get tossed out and added the e-waste pile that gets bigger and bigger each year. A SIM is cheaper than buying a whole dumb phone.
Has anybody tried to text from one? Not fun at all.
This is why I like to travel with my unlocked iPhone, I’m familiar with my device and able to use it like I would at home much cheaper than any “international plan” through a US carrier.

What your forgetting is ” what’s app” and “bbm” will ask you to associate all contacts with this new number then reverting back to your primary card will be an issue..

Hi Cleo,
Using Voxer is my absolute favorite (or in your case Viber or Skype), and you can find WiFi in so many places in Europe that this really becomes a personal preference, and you could easily get by without a SIM. It does limit your interactions to finding WiFi, but it’s free…
I think if you really want to have access to phone calls and data on your phone (without WiFi or Skype, etc.) then choose the country you will spend the most time in and get a SIM card there, but make sure it’s Vodafone or another carrier that exist in multiple European countries. This way you can top up minutes and data when you need to, no matter what country you are in. You will essentially be getting a phone number for one country and then you’ll be charged the international rates as you travel through other countries. If you are sharing it could definitely be worth it because it’ll be cheap for you. Do a bit of research to find out which carriers are present in all or most of the countries you’ll be visiting and be sure to get one of their SIMs over a local carrier. Hope this helps!

I also have verizon and think that the best decision is to suspend my account, like you mentioned when you went to Mexico. If I do this, will I still be able to imessage and use all of the same wifi functions?

I have not done this personally, but my sources say yes- this is when your iCloud stuff kicks in and rather than sending from your phone number, it will come across as your email address in iMessages (and this is iMessage only, so iPhones only, sorry Droids). And Wi-Fi is a for sure yes for any smartphone (just no data obviously).

So if I suspend my account and just use iMessage from the iCloud, will I still be able to receive iMessages from someone sending a text to my phone number? Or only my email address?

Check out this website to see just how iMessage works: http://www.apple.com/ios/messages/
You can activate your phone number as well as your email address (or multiple email addresses), so when one isn’t available (like if you suspend your account) the other one will kick in. Then what happens (I’m pretty sure) is that when someone tries to send a text to your phone number, the number isn’t available but your email account is, so it just sends “via” your email account instead. It even shows up on your phone as your email account rather than your phone number, but it all still works the same as far as the user experience is concerned. I know this is a confusing subject, I really hope that helps!!

I have the iPhone 4s on Verizon and spent half a year in Ireland recently. Most of the carriers there (I used Vodafone) give away the standard size SIM cards for free. You can take a pair of scissors and cut this down to the micro SIM card size. I lined up my Verizon card over the full size SIM making sure the metal contact points had the same distance to the side of the card. Use a pencil to draw the outline of the smaller card onto the larger card and cut on the line. Hope this helps!
My wife and I are really enjoying your podcast. Keep it up!

This was so incredibly helpful. My husband and I are heading to France and I’ve had “phone stuff” on my list to research. I just got off the phone with verizon after reading this and they essentially repeated your instructions and have more specific pricing info. Thanks!!

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