Travel Logistics: Phones & Internet
Continuing our recent series of posts about travel logistics…how do we stay connected when traveling?
This is something that’s evolved a lot for us – when I first went overseas after graduating college in 2000, I didn’t own a cell phone (like many folks back then) and managed to navigate cities like Paris and Amsterdam that people have enjoyed for hundreds of years without phones.
That said, a phone can make your trip more efficient – having Google Maps is quite handy to avoid getting lost, as can be public transit directions and Uber. It can also be handy to be able to stay in touch with your family and friends while traveling. And for that matter, we like the ability to back up our curated photos to the cloud as well.
In a nutshell, your main choices for having internet on your phone when abroad look roughly like the following:
- Just use hotel/restaurant/etc. wifi. No mobile data when you’re around town.
- Use a local SIM card, e.g. from the airport. Phone must be unlocked.
- Roam with your home carrier, if you have a reasonable plan. Maybe switch carriers at home if necessary.
We’ll dive briefly into these options below.
But first, to clarify- most phones default with “data roaming” set to off. For the sake of your budget, check this setting and make sure it stays off unless you have something reasonable set up.
(As an example: according to AT&T’s website in 12/2018, they charge $2.05/MB, or about $2,000/GB, if you roam without a plan set up. Maybe it’s possible to call them to plead them to retroactively set up the plan, but it’s good to be prepared).
1) Just using hotel/restaurant/etc. wifi.
Wifi only is not an entirely bad option. Hotel wifi is fairly pervasive and seems to be usually included in the room rate these days. It’s not uncommon for restaurants / cafes / museums / attractions to have hotspots as well. And honestly, having a break from 24/7 connectivity when around town can be a good thing.
One of the bigger mobile uses for data is maps, but Google Maps has an offline mode that can mitigate this need – you can download the maps over wifi and use around town. In some cases, they even support driving directions offline. Be careful though, since Google doesn’t have offline maps in some countries (e.g. Japan).
One helpful (but uncommon) refinement on this is if your accommodations provide you a portable MiFi hotspot, effectively allowing you to take your hotel wifi with you. We’ve seen this in some AirBnbs, though it’s admittedly not that often.
2) Local SIM Card (Phone must be unlocked)
Getting a local SIM card is frequently not too tricky, particularly at an airport, where the clerks are more likely to speak English. For instance, when I went to Thailand, I bought a 7-day Tourist SIM card at the airport for $7. There were several vendors there, and it only took a few minutes for the clerk to set up the card on my phone. The price tag can vary somewhat by country, e.g. a similar short-term SIM in Japan is more like $30.
I’ve had many other mobile SIMs – in Russia, UK, Switzerland, Ireland… and typically vendors in the airport or train station handle enough customers that it’s very straightforward. As a plus in Europe, recent rules seem to indicate that a SIM card you bought in one EU country may be used in other EU countries, without additional fees.
Caveat – phone must be unlocked: One hard requirement for this is that your phone isn’t locked. If you’ve accepted carrier financing for your phone, it may be locked, which means that you won’t be able to put in another carrier’s SIM. It may be possible to get your provider to unlock your phone, but possibly not until after your phone is paid off.
Also, be aware: while the foreign SIM card is in your phone (unless you have a dual SIM phone, which are uncommon in the US), calls to your regular home number will just go to voicemail. So, if you’re trying to stay in touch at home, you may want to periodically check voicemail (if you carrier offers free wifi calling, just switch to the home SIM when you’re back at the hotel).
With our phones (iPhone and Samsung Galaxy), we carry a paperclip, which when bent, can be made into a hacked up SIM card changing tool. YMMV.
3) Roaming options with your current carrier.
Investigate the options at your current carrier. Our informal survey of US-based carriers as of late 2018 is that:
- TMobile seems to have the best inexpensive option – if you have their flagship ONE plans, you get 2G-throttled data access in most countries for free when you travel abroad, and calls home aren’t too expensive (25 cents/minute). That said, the throttled data is relatively slow – better for email than web browsing, though there are apparently ways to pay for a higher-speed “international data pass.”
- AT&T and Verizon have day/month-based plans that you can sign up for. For example, AT&T has a $10/day/user plan where your usage counts roughly as at home, or a $60/month for 1GB plan. You can add such a plan on a one-off basis for a single trip. Verizon also has a similar $10/day plan and a $70/month plan for 0.5GB. You must actually set these up on your account, though.
- Sprint seems to have plans based on a number of megabytes, which IMO are harder to keep track of.
- The smaller MVNO resellers and prepaid plans largely tend to not offer data roaming – at least beyond Canada and Mexico, as far as we can tell. Please let us know if we’re wrong!
- Google Fi is a relatively new option that charges by the GB, and has good international roaming support. They resell use of other telcos’ towers like other MVNOs, and have very enthusiastic users. Until 11/2018, they only supported a few very specific Android phones, but they recently broadened this. As of writing, they charge $10/GB in any of their supported countries.
Compared with a local SIM card, one nice thing about roaming with your regular carrier is that folks at home can straightforwardly ring you if there’s an emergency. (That said, you may want to turn the ringer off at night due to the time difference, especially for robocalls). If you need to call your bank to reactivate your ATM card, it’s nice when they can see you’re calling from your normal cell phone number, rather than from a prepaid Ukrainian SIM card.
For us – we’re currently using TMobile, since their service fit our needs well for our various trips this past year. One nice aspect is that things largely just worked, without additional cost – we landed in a new country, and the phones worked on the network, albeit at 2G speeds. We didn’t need to concern too much about data overages either. The data speed is relatively slow, but we got around that by relying of hotel wifi for the majority of the traffic.
Be aware that if you’re planning on a longer (2+ month) trip, there are anecdotes online about TMobile contacting the users about excessive roaming. However, we were gone for about 4+ months and didn’t have issues in this regard. Maybe our use wasn’t heavy enough to annoy them?
If you have a good deal with a carrier like AT&T, their $60/month plan might be reasonable for a couple week trip, especially if your data needs aren’t too heavy (note that each extra GB is $50). This has the plus too that you can still be reached with your regular home number.
If we were planning another 4+ month long trip, we’d look much more closely at Google Fi. When we went on our trips in April, they didn’t support iPhones (though there were unofficial workarounds), which is why we dismissed it. But this just changed in late 2018. The other caveat is that Fi hasn’t been around that long, and hence there’s a bigger chance that Google might yet fiddle with the plan details. Plus, recent articles like this which indicate that the offering still has rough edges.
Hotspotting the Phone
Usually, the hotel wifi works well enough these days, but we’ve definitely had cases where it was broken or extremely slow.
We like to back up the day’s curated photos to Google Photos, so that if we don’t risk losing them. When the hotel wifi won’t work, we will sometimes turn one of our phones to hotspot mode to back up or post a few photos. That said, we don’t do this too much, to avoid blowing through our cellular quotas.
Using the phone’s on hotspot mode is also helpful when the hotel’s wifi needs a specific login code to use the internet, and we only have one of them, and many more devices. In this case, the single login may be shared with many devices.