Using your cellphone when overseas (2018 edition)

I just returned from a trip to Israel, and as the old joke goes, my arms are so tired. Actually, my fingers, because I have been spending the better part of two days on the phone with support techs from both AT&T and Apple to try to get my phone back to the state where it works on the AT&T network.

My SOP for travel is to use a foreign SIM card in my phone. This has several benefits. First, you don’t pay roaming charges for local in-country calls, although if you are calling back to the States, you might have to pay international long distance charges, depending on your plan. Second, if people in-country are trying to reach you, they don’t pay for any international calls either, since they are calling a local number. (Some of the networks overseas have the more enlightened method of calling party pays, but we won’t go there for now.) You also don’t use any minutes or data GB on your American cell account, which is nice if those are limited.

For the past several years, I had been using two different travel SIMs. First is one from FreedomPop, which was a very inexpensive card with monthly fees around $15 for a decent plan. I had some billing issues initially but these were resolved. It doesn’t work in Israel, so I ended up buying another SIM at the airport kiosk in Tel Aviv. My last trip in October had some major hiccups with that card, and so I decided to try a new supplier, Call Israel. They offered a plan for $50 that seemed reasonable. AT&T charges $60 a month with lower data usage for Israel. If you go elsewhere the fees could be less.

Call Israel mailed me a SIM a week before my trip, and right away I saw an issue: I was just renting my SIM card. At the end of my trip, I had to mail it back. Strike 1.

But strike 2 was a big one. I made the mistake of taking my Israel SIM out of my phone when I changed planes in Europe on the return trip, and put in my AT&T SIM card. That confused my phone and got me in trouble. When I landed in the States I spent an hour on the phone with a very nice AT&T person who verified that my phone was working properly on their network. Except it wasn’t: I could get voice service, but not broadband data service. Some parameter that the Call Israel SIM had needed was still set and messing up my phone, and there was no way that I could access that information to remove it.

I ended up speaking to Apple next, because I figured out that they could get rid of whatever it was that was blocking my data service. I had to find an older iTunes backup that I had made before I went abroad (lucky I had done so with Time Machine), and then wipe my phone clean and bring that backup to the phone. All told, several hours were wasted. I found out that there is a subtle but important difference in how iTunes and iCloud handle backups. I was fortunate to find a very nice woman from Apple who called me back as we tried various strategies, and eventually we figured out what to do. This took place over the course of a couple of days. Here is the bottom line: your phone has hundreds of parameters that determine whether it will communicate properly. Some of them aren’t accessible to you via the various on-screen controls and are hidden from your use. The only way to change them is to restore from a known working backup.

So if you are planning on being out of the country, think carefully about your options. Consider if you need a foreign SIM for a brief trip. If you can afford service from your American provider, do so. Or if you can find Wifi hotspots, you probably can do 90% of the work on your phone by setting it to airplane mode when you leave town and not turning it on until you return. Under this scenario, you would use Facetime, What’sApp and Skype for voice and texting. Does that additional 10% make the difference? If you have a terrible sense of direction and need Google Maps, for example, you will need that broadband data. Or if you are traveling with other Americans and need to meet up, you might need the cellular voice flexibility.

SIMs come in at least three different sizes, and most suppliers ship them with cardboard adapters so you can fit them in your phone’s compartment. It doesn’t hurt to check this though.

Next, don’t swap SIMs until you reach your destination. If you need to look at buying a local SIM, make sure you understand how you have to bring your phone back to its original state when you come home. Make backups of your phone to your computer, to the cloud, to as many places as possible before you leave town. If you have an iPhone, read this article on how to find the iTunes backups on your system.

Next, when you are looking for a mail-order SIM, make sure you are actually buying it and not just renting it. Check to see that it will work in all the countries on your itinerary. Or wait until you get to your destination, and buy a local SIM from a phone store or airport kiosk.

Finally, examine the calling plan for what it will entail and match it with your expected usage on texting, data, and voice volume. Examine whether your calls back to the States are included in the plan’s minutes or not. If you don’t use a lot of data, you probably can get by with a cheaper voice-only plan and finding WiFi connections.  Happy trails, and hope they don’t turn into travails.

8 thoughts on “Using your cellphone when overseas (2018 edition)

  1. Having gone through this exercise last summer (for a trip to Europe), some other options etc:
    1, Switch from AT&T. I forget whether it’s Verizon or T-Mobile (or both) that have non-usorious international roaming. (Note, we didn’t/don’t, because only AT&T service reaches down our street adequately.) (sub-note, last I checked — a year ago — neither short-term or pre-pay contractless approaches with non-AT&T were cost-effective.)
    2, IP apps like Skype for voice and WhatsApp for texting were good — when there was WiFi.
    3, Good ’nuff spare smartphones are affordable, even cheap. E.g., BLU, Moto 4 and 5, etc. ($75-$200). Using that for your foreign SIM avoids the configuration-munging. Yes, more hardware juggling. But simple.
    4, I found that researching “what SIMs/carriers would be best for to be an incredibly frustrating challenge. What we ended up doing was, once de-planed, looking in the airport for a store selling local SIMs. Asking at convenience stores (including the airport, train station, etc) proved remarkably productive.

  2. Having experienced extremely high charges with AT&T (in London with my wife, I was charged high international rates on both phones when we called each other !) I decided I had to do something different.
    The first was to change to T-mobile, which has very inexpensive rates when roaming in Europe or the Caribbean.
    The second was to use a BLU phone with a locally bought pay as you go plan for all my data intensive tasks (I use Google Mail and Google Maps, so they all work just fine on any phone). But the other advantage is that the BLU phones are unlocked and have dual SIMs. So with that you can have the best of both worlds.

  3. The answer is to use T-Mobile if you’re going to travel overseas. With TMo all data is free. Voice calls are 20 cents per minute. If you need a local number, do what I do, which is to take a long a GSM phone (mind is an old Motorola RAZR) and buy a cheap SIM for that. I’ve used my TMo phone all over the world, and it works because the rest of the world is GSM and so is TMo. It works especially well in Germany and in other places where T-Mobile has a presence because there you usually get a good LTE connection. Lately I’ve been using an iPhone, but it worked just as well before I had one. Also, TMo supports WiFi calling, so if you’re in range of a WiFi signal, voice calls are also free. It works very well, and when I travel my wireless bills are hardly any different than when I don’t.

  4. My question is – how is any normal non-technical human being (like me) supposed to understand how to travel with a phone? As we used to say back in the day, technology is not consumer friendly until it’s as easy to use as your washing machine.

  5. I’m a frequent international traveler and this is what works well for me:
    1. I use T-Mobile as my cellular provider. It gives me (3G speed) free data and $0.20/minute calls in ~150 countries
    2. I Use RingCentral’s VoIP service, which allows me to make free calls to the US anywhere I have an internet connection (so in ~150 countries with my T-Mobile service). It also gives me local (virtual) numbers in countries where I need to be reachable on a local number, supports text messaging and congerence calls.
    3. I use a dual-sim phone, so if I’m in a country for an extended period and want a local sim, I can keep my T-mobile sim active at the same time.

  6. After traveling overseas extensively for many years and studying every US carrier’s international plans I’ve come to the conclusion that simpler is better.

    During my last long overseas trip I was gone for three weeks and visited five countries, all without a separate SIM, a different phone or number or making any changes to my personal usage habits. I used my Verizon Wireless phone with my U.S. SIM and simply paid $5 or $10/day to use the same plan as I have here. Everything unlimited – voice, text and data – for $10/day can’t be beat. No hassles, no SIM expenses, no changing of SIMs, phones, numbers or habits.

    In the end, when you are traveling overseas you are spending thousands, if not tens of thousands, on the trip. Does earmarking another few hundred dollars to give you unlimited use of your own phone and number seem like a lot of money in that perspetive? To me it was an easy call and after the trip the extra $200 that appeared on my bill was a no-brainer for the ease of use and convenience.

  7. Thanks to all of your comments and suggestions. Here are a few:
    Holidayphone is who I use if I want to buy a SIM ahead of time; they sell you the SIM and can load it up for data if you think you want to use more than your provider allows or need fast speeds. Both T-Mobile and Sprint limit speeds, with Sprint threatening to cut you off if you use too much international data.

    People who do a lot of travel should figure out a way to forward their voice calls. Either port their cell number to Google Voice (and then Google will deliver the calls anywhere), changing to a new “true” cell number or leave a VM telling people how to get ahold of them. That’s the major issue with changing SIMs.

    More and more countries have SIMs available at ROCK BOTTOM prices in the airport, compared to extremely expensive plans that you buy ahead of time or the “no roaming charge” SIMs such as the one you recommend.

    I maintain 3 SIMs: US, Italian, and Irish. I roam all over the world on Ireland’s SIM because they have rollover money (O2); I pay about $15/month, and the others I use in their home countries.

    You should look at Google Project Fi. With its one price data plans, you can use Google Voice, Skype and What’sApp for calls around the globe for less than a local SIM.

    I travel frequently, and have an Android phone, and use local SIMs all the time. Never had any issues.

    The company we use is, and rather than “renting” a sim card, they send you one, set up an account, and you simply keep the account “charged up” by adding $$ to it as necessary.

    TMobile has free overseas data and text roaming (and 20¢/minute call rates). The only downside is the lower data rates, which can be bypassed by a fee of $50 per country for the following month.

  8. I’ve traveled to most of Asia and Europe with my Project Fi based service and have never had any problem except in Gibraltar and Nepal, where there was no carrier agreement in place. For those countries, the visit was short enough that WiFi access was sufficient to cover the needs along with VoIP service using Xfinity Connect!

    Travel is getting easier than it used to be. Thanks

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