A Guide to Using Your Mobile Devices Abroad


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Paying more to use your cellphone abroad than you did for your flight and accommodations combined may seem impossible, but it happens to travelers every day. And while you may be able to get your bill lowered to a slightly more reasonable (but not reasonable at all) price when it arrives in the mail — long after you’ve returned to daily life — you’ll have to endure lengthy hold times and possibly an insensitive customer service representative who doesn’t care that you were lost in the heart of London and needed to locate your friends.

After you reserve your tickets and accommodations for your next trip abroad — before you start packing your bags and booking tours — you should decide what you’re going to do about cellphone use in the country you’ll be visiting. Maybe your cellphone carrier has an international plan that will save you big money on roaming fees, or maybe you’ll need to insert an international SIM card into your phone for more reasonable calling, texting and data rates. Whatever the solution may be, it’s important to have a plan in mind before you cross international borders and start racking up a crippling cellphone bill.

Contact Your Carrier

Despite how badly you don’t want to sit on hold or explain your query to an automated machine that thinks you said, “Harold and Maude,” instead of “Cellphone Abroad,” the first step to using your phone affordably in another country is to contact your cellphone carrier. For instance, Bell offers a limited plan with talk, text and data for only $100. The very same services if you didn’t opt for their plan would cost nearly $500.

Your cellphone carrier will tell you the options you have available in the country to which you’re headed, and even if they don’t offer a reasonable rate for cellphone (or any mobile device) usage abroad, you’ll be able to cross that step off the list and move on to more affordable options.

Turn Your Data Off

Turn your cellphone’s data off the minute you leave the Canadian border and don’t turn it on until you return. When your phone’s data is enabled, features like location services and a variety of others are racking up your data charges without you even opening an app.

Connect to WiFi When Possible

Want to upload that photo you just took of the Taj Mahal to Facebook? Think again — just a few minutes on an app (such as Facebook, Google Maps, Instagram, etc.) can cost hundreds of dollars because of the amount of data used to open the application when you’re not connected to WiFi. Connect to WiFi whenever possible, and If you know you’ll be staying somewhere with WiFi internet access, your best option may be to use applications (including WiFi texting applications like WhatsApp) to communicate with others and get all of the information you need.

Unlock Your Phone

Having your cellphone unlocked by your carrier or purchasing a previously unlocked phone has become a popular way to dodge data fees for travelers. Simply remove your Canadian SIM card and insert one for the country to which you’re traveling upon arrival. SIM cards can be found at a wide variety of convenience stores in nearly every country.

When you purchase a country’s SIM, you can also purchase local data, text and talk time (for a much cheaper rate than your carrier at home would charge), and recharge the SIM’s data whenever it’s needed. By using your personal unlocked cellphone, you can still have access to all of your favorite apps, contacts and other features, but your new SIM’s phone number will be a local one for the area in which you’re traveling.

Data can get eaten up quickly on foreign SIMs too, so monitor your apps in your phone’s settings to see which ones are more data-friendly and avoid excessively using apps that chew up data when you’re not connected to WiFi.

Buy a Spare Phone

Inserting another country’s SIM into your phone is useful for travelers who only need to talk or text with a limited number of people. Because the new SIM’s number is different than your everyday number, you won’t receive calls from anyone who is unaware of your new, foreign phone number. This is why leaving your original SIM in one phone (so you can receive calls and texts at your usual number) and using a separate unlocked phone with the foreign country’s SIM is an ideal situation. If you don’t have a spare unlocked phone at home that you can bring on your travels, most countries offer a basic phone for roughly $30. You can receive voicemails and texts at your usual number (for free), and return those calls or texts from your alternative phone for a much lower rate than your carrier at home would charge.

Monitor Your Bill

Never assume your cellphone carrier properly charged you for your cellphone usage abroad. If you pay your monthly cellphone bill via automatic draft from a credit card or bank account, you could unknowingly pay a bill five, 10 or even 20 times the price you’d normally pay and not know until it’s too late. If you received any data charges abroad, were charged for usage when you were connected to WiFi or any other number of mistakes that could have been made by your carrier, it’s important to get them on the phone and explain your situation immediately.

You don’t have to pay an outrageous cellphone bill whenever you travel abroad, so once you find out where you’re staying and whether or not WiFi access will be available, weigh all of your options and see which one is best for your personal travel needs. Who knows, you could save yourself a grueling phone call with customer service down the road.

About the Author: Courtney McCaffrey

Courtney McCaffrey is a travel writer and editor based in Wilmington, N.C, Mexico and around the world. In addition to writing, she lives for travel - seeing new places, experiencing new cultures and surfing new waves.

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