The Idiot’s Guide To Using Your Smartphone Abroad

Traveling is one of the best times to take a break from technology, but sometimes you just have to get your fix. Those reservations won't make themselves, now will they?

While you can go to your cellular provider and ask them to turn on their overseas roaming rates, it's not the only way to fly. Before you hop on the plane, check out these essential tips and tricks for using your phone abroad. Bon Voyage!

1. Buy an international SIM card

Consider this a top priority. Of course, your phone number will change, but everything else remains intact. Some companies (Maxroam, Telestial, Truphone) will let you purchase a SIM card before departure. Nonetheless, pay-as-you-go services are generally cheaper than international plans from your local provider.

We recommend doing some research before boarding a plane. Learn about local carriers to find the best plan for your needs. Find a store located near your accommodated location—it could even be a corner store type of place. Lastly, determine what you’ll need to acquire the card as some countries will just ask to see your passport; others, like Germany, Italy, and India, will require proof of residence.

2. KnowRoaming Stickers

These are basically SIM cards in sticker form. The great thing about having them is they don’t require you to get a new phone, plus they work with your existing SIM and phone number. They connect travelers to local providers with a pay-as-you-go credit option or with the purchase of unlimited data for $7.99 a day.

3. Pack the right chargers

Can’t use your phone unless it’s powered, right? It’s common knowledge that different countries have different outlet sockets and voltage outputs. For most modern devices, voltage doesn't matter—they'll take 110 or 220 volts—but the shape sure does. Look over this guide to determine which plug you’ll need when traveling to foreign territories. We recommend stocking up on universal chargers, preferably ones with a USB cable. You can’t go wrong with portable battery packs either. Any one of Mophie’s offerings will suffice to keep you charged on-the-go.

4. Make sure you have an unlocked GSM phone

For those who don’t know, GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a type of radio system typically used by all mobile carriers except Sprint and Verizon. Phones using GSM technology work internationally, and if your phone's up to date, it probably has that capability—even if it's Verizon. To determine if yours will, look for the term “quad band,” or the specific bands—850, 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz—in the phone’s specifications. A GSM phone that supports all four of these bands will have no trouble sending texts, making calls, or browsing the Internet while abroad. And make sure your phone is unlocked! Here's how to do that.

5. Rent an international phone

Keep in mind that doing so will not carry over your existing contacts or data. Though if you don’t mind starting from scratch, this is an easy way to stay in contact overseas. Head to Cellular Abroad, a company that rents out GSM phones to meet the “quad band” requirements mentioned above. Or, you can rent a National Geographic Talk Abroad Travel Phone, which also works in most countries—200 countries, to be exact. Since most SIM cards only work in the country of purchase, rental phones remain a solid Plan B.

6. Share files using the Fasetto app

They say it’s dangerous to share files on foreign territory as cyber criminals are constantly hacking Wi-Fi connections. This is where Fasetto comes in handy by allowing users to share media files through QR codes. It uses speedy cloud storage, rather than Wi-Fi, so you can send messages and files on- or offline. Other notable features include: accessing scanned files on other synced devices, editing and deleting messages after they’ve been sent, and in-app troubleshooting. And since it works offline, staying in touch is a breeze even from the most obscure of destinations.

7. Access mobile-friendly sites to compress data

Most people fail to realize that browsing the web drains your data. That’s why we recommend visiting sites that are optimized for mobile use. Odds have it, your favorite websites have developed a mobile domain that operates similarly to the desktop version, but is optimized for easier readability and less data usage.

8. The Google Voice trick

Google Voice is another awesome way to make cheap voice calls while abroad. It’s been discovered that Google Hangouts for iPhone supports inbound and outbound calls using your Google Voice number, even recognizing your Voice account as the outbound Caller ID. This allows users to make calls from any network they’re on, be it mobile or Wi-Fi. The trick also works using a Skype account as it can take the inbound number and point it to the Google Voice number—routing the Skype inbound and delivering calls to a mobile client. Complicated, we know, but incredibly useful.

9. Buy a portable hotspot

No LTE or Wi-Fi? Bring your own. Companies like XCom Global cover hundreds of countries with its popular MiFi hotspot and charge a flat rate for unlimited Internet access. Of course, those rates are kind of steep: $17.95 a day with added shipping fees. But if you’re desperate for online communication, this will definitely do the trick.

10. Download maps offline

We're not printing out maps anymore, but we can't always rely on our data plan to give us Google's directions. Fortunately, Google Maps offers the ability to save them offline (settings>my places>offline maps). iOS users can also download the Skobbler’s ForeverMap app, which features hundreds of maps in Europe, online and offline. Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, DK Eyewitness, and Time Out guides provide offline maps too.

11. Utilize every messaging platform out there

The App Store has become inundated with free messaging services. And while the list grows longer every day, some are better than others. Consider downloading Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to send text messages, pictures, and other files. Then reserve Google + Hangouts, Skype, and Line for video chat. Finally, Viber is the way to go for voice calls. Just make sure your data plan is well equipped to manage all this communication. Then again, there’s always hotel Wi-Fi.

12. Become a T-Mobile subscriber

Between the no-contract policy and paying for ETFs (Early Termination Fees), T-Mobile’s made an incredibly convincing case to leave the carrier. The company’s Simply Global plan is just another reason—offering customers free international data, music streaming, and Wi-Fi calling. Subscribers can keep their existing phone and contacts, and barely pay anything more than their usual rates. Not to mention phone calls are jut $0.20 a minute. You just have to live with T-Mobile’s mediocre coverage.

Alex Bracetti is a contributor to Supercompressor, Complex, Ask Men, HOOP, and several other popular lifestyle outlets. Follow him on Twitter @AlexBracetti.

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