Using Your iPhone Abroad with WiFi and Airplane Mode

This post is a quick tutorial and explanation of what it means to put your phone on airplane mode and use WiFi to connect when you are overseas. If you want a detailed, comprehensive solution to using your iPhone abroad, click here for a Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad.

How to Use Your iPhone Abroad with WiFi and Airplane mode

When taking your US smartphone abroad, you can do one of two things to stay connected:

1. Unlock your iPhone and use it for full cell service with an international SIM card. If you do this, I recommend freezing your account at home so you won’t be paying for it while you’re away (assuming you’ll be gone for long enough to make it worth it).

2. Put it in airplane mode and use it strictly for access to WiFi. Airplane mode turns off data to your phone, which means you won’t pay exorbitant amounts for international data that you shouldn’t be using. With WiFi, you can do almost everything except make regular phone calls and texts (unless they are iMessages). See this post for clarification.

Easily pre-order an international SIM card before your trip!

wifi and airplane mode
You can use your phone for WAY more than just photos when you travel.

I own an iPhone, and now I have T-Mobile, which works almost everywhere in the world, but unless you have Sprint or T-Mobile, chances are your international data is NOT included.

Click here to read more about cell phone plans for travelers.

If you don’t have international data coverage, here’s what you do:

1. Turn on airplane mode.

Find the airplane icon and click it so it’s highlighted.

Turning on airplane mode will cut off your data and guarantee that you won’t use any of your data accidentally. If you don’t place your phone in airplane mode, you may find that your phone picks up service abroad through foreign carriers. This is dangerous simply because any calls you to make, texts you send, or data you use will skyrocket the charges on your phone bill. If you do pick up service, you could potentially use your phone for emergencies and that could be very helpful, just be aware that you will probably be paying over a dollar per minute.

Airplane mode is basically a “safe mode.” Although airplane mode shuts off access to your data and calling service, what you can use with airplane mode is WiFi.

2. After putting your phone in airplane mode, turn on WiFi.

You need to manually turn it on after switching to airplane mode because it usually turns off automatically. Once it’s back on, you can connect anywhere that has WiFi and use any app or service on your phone that functions through WiFi.

While many apps do require WiFi to function, like communication apps, there are many apps that download their information to your phone and therefore are still useful even when you cannot connect to WiFi.

Some examples include the XE Currency app, Podcast or Music apps,, and more.

Jonas Lee | Unsplash

Some of my favorite apps to use with WiFi.

1. One of my favorite communication apps is called Voxer. It’s a walkie-talkie app, sort of like texting with voice messages, and you can also send photos through Voxer. This is a genius app for communicating with friends across the world. I use it at home too, but I especially love it for travel, because it’s almost like talking to the person over the phone, but it’s free, and it’s more personal than texting since you actually talk to each other. When connected to WiFi, you can talk on Voxer to anyone else who has Voxer.

2. WhatsApp, the world’s most popular texting app, is another great example. Any of your apps that can be accessed with WiFi, whether they are informational, games, websites, etc., can all be available to you abroad with your smartphone.

Related: 7 Travel Apps I Can’t Live Without

Would you like to keep your cell phone number and have calls and texts forwarded to an international phone number/SIM card? Use Tossable Digits, which can keep your number safe for you while you cancel your service at home, and you can have calls and texts forwarded to your new number abroad. You only pay for what you use, and you can cancel anytime.

Travel Planning Tip: Order a prepaid SIM card before you travel!

For iPhone users, you can send iMessages from abroad over WiFi. Even in the States, if you don’t have service but you do have WiFi, you can use iMessage. This is similar to what your situation would be abroad.

Using your iPhone abroad will save you time and money, you’ll be glad you have it with you!

Still have questions? Check out my comprehensive guide to figuring out how to use your iPhone (or another smartphone) overseas: A Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad, for Dummies

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Need an international SIM card? We suggest pre-ordering from SimOptions.

22 replies on “Using Your iPhone Abroad with WiFi and Airplane Mode”

So if I have a foreign SIM card installed, but keep my phone on airplane mode when I have wifi, iMessages are still free to send and receive? Meaning, my loved ones in the US won’t be charged as long as I’m on wifi and airplane mode is on?

As long as you are sending iMessages on a foreign SIM, they don’t use your phone number, they use your Apple ID. So they have nothing to do with your data. So it shouldn’t matter for your friends and family at home to freely text your Apple ID, whether or not you have the phone on airplane mode on your end. To make sure you are using your Apple ID and not a phone number, check your iMessage settings in your phone and make sure your email is selected instead of a phone number. Hope that helps!

You can also use navigation to get around in a rental car, assuming you get the directions using the map application on your iPhone *before* departing from the connection (before leaving the WiFi connection). While still at your starting point using the WiFi connection, search in the Maps application for your destination, download the directions, and then just before departing, click to start the turn-by-turn navigation.
Because the iPhone uses GPS wherever in the world you happen to be, it uses GPS to navigate using the directions you just downloaded while you were connected to WiFi. The maps display may “go blank” for certain areas (unless you download the map for that area), but the turn-by-turn voice navigation instructions still works! I used this one night to navigate from a small town in the back country of eastern Austria all the way back to my hotel in Bratislava, Slovakia. I was actually surprised this worked at first, but it did.
My wife used the WiFi on the bus we later took up to Prague. We had WiFi all the way (and the bus included a free electrical plug to charge our devices on the trip). I’ve also successfully used Skype while overseas for calls to U.S. telephones. I load $10 Skype credit and it lasts for a very long time. I put $10 on last year and it’s still got some credit left on it, despite several calls to the States from around Europe. Free WiFi is everywhere now in Europe. Running in airplane mode is just too easy.

you mentioned that whatsapp isn’t free but I got it for free and I’m using it while on airplane mode and making calls through it. Should I be worried about any roaming charges or other charges?

Hey Paul- There was a time I tried to get WhatsApp and it was 99 cents, but they changed it back to free, and now I think they are going to try to charge 99 cents per year or something. They seem a little confused about how they want to do it. I wouldn’t be worried!

Thank you. Got a little confused b/c turning on airplane mode turns off wi-fi. Now i see that i can just go back into settings and turn the wifi back on. Can i transmit iphone text messages with wifi only?

You can only send iPhone text messages between iPhones on WiFi. So if the phone you are sending to is a Droid or other, it won’t work, but iPhones can talk to each other through WiFi via iMessage. (How to tell? Anyone you send texts to that normally show up with blue text bubbles use iPhones, anytime the text bubbles are green means they don’t have an iPhone and it won’t work with WiFi).

Thank You. Nice extra bit of info re the blue & green bubbles. We both have iPhones so it’s been easy when b/c wifi is available.

Apologies, i don’t understand. When I put my phone on airplane mode the wifi setting switches to ‘off’. I’m going to the UK for a week and only want to use it at wifi spots. Can you help me understand?

my daughter has been doing this for 3 months. She has 1 month left and now it is not working. Has anyone had this issue/

I’m so glad I found this post! Verizon told me that I “might” be able to use wifi when on airplane mode, and of course, I didn’t believe them, so I Googled it, read this, and then tried it on my phone. WOW! I had no idea!! At least there’s always wifi!

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