Vital Tech Travel Tool: An Unlocked Smartphone

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Swiss Army Phone

Swiss Army Phone

Smart phones really are the Swiss Army knives of tech.  And as long as you’re either connected to wifi or your carrier’s data and voice network, they’re worth their weight in gold when it comes to keeping  you connected, informed, and out of trouble.

But when you’re roaming, especially internationally, your smart phone either becomes a useless brick or an extremely lucrative money machine…for your domestic service provider back in the US.  That’s because the cost of international texting, voice, and data is breathtaking.  If you’re not careful, you can rack up bills of $500 or more on just a 10-day trip to Europe.

If you haven’t learned this lesson the hard way, here’s an example:   AT&T charges their customers up to $1.00 per minute for making or receiving calls in some European countries,  $0.20 per text message, and $0.0195 per KB.  To give you some perspective, opening a Google search page usually requires about 20 KB, or $0.39 for one search.  And if you use a data-guzzling app like Google Maps, you’re phone will be guzzling data at a rate that could bankrupt your grandchildren.  So with a couple of hours of talk time, a few hundred texts, checking you’re emails, a few dozen searches, and a GPS app like maps, you can rack up some astonishing bills.

This can make you wish you’d left your smart phone at home, or at the very least that you’d turned off international data roaming.  This radically reduces the usefulness of your phone, naturally, but you’ll have a lot bigger bank account when you get home.

The very good news, though, is that the are some great solutions to this problem that weren’t available even a couple of years ago.

The solution that will work best for you depends on 1) the kind of phone you’re using and 2) your service provider.  If you’re phone is on the Verizon, Sprint, or US Cellular networks, the phones won’t be of much use outside of the US because they use CDMA technology which is more or less exclusive to the US.  If your phone is on the AT&T or TMobile networks, you’re in luck since they use the same GSM technology that most of the world uses.

If your phone is  CDMA-based, you don’t necessarily have to leave it at home since you can still connect to paid wifi networks that are becoming more common every day.  One example is the rapidly expanding Fon network, which has hotspots all over Europe, along with apps and maps to help you locate them.   Use them for your tablet or laptop, they offer 5 day passes which aren’t exactly cheap, but can be extremely helpful.  I’ll write more about them in a separate post.

On the other hand, if you’re using an iPhone i on the AT&T network, you’ve got a great solution: unlock your phone, and buy a pre-paid SIM card in the country or countries you’re traveling in.  The costs are much cheaper than international roaming rates, and usually include up to 30 days of unlimited local calling, texting, and one or two gigabytes of data.

If you’re wondering what it means to unlock your phone, AT&T and other carriers in the US have long required phone manufactures to include software that prevents the phone from using any other carrier, foreign or domestic.  There are a couple of reasons for this, but it’s sufficient to say that the reasons provide advantages to the carriers, and not to you.

Because I’m an iPhone user, and have been since the beginning, I’ve unlocked several of the phones over the years.  The best way of doing this currently is to have them factory unlocked, meaning that the software that locks them to their carrier’s network is disabled by AT&T or some third party.  The price for this service depends on the model, with  iPhone 4 and 4s costing $25 and up, and 5s and 5c models $39 up to $135 depending on how quickly you want the phone unlocked and whether it’s “blacklisted”.   Click here for more information at one of my favorite unlocking services.

Because of stifling US laws that are purportedly aimed at preventing terror attacks, it’s not easy to get a SIM card before you travel.  But you can always find them at your arrival airport.  I’ve done this in the UK, Germany, New Zealand, Austrailia, France, and even the Solomon Islands, although in the latter case the process was a little more difficult.  You can also purchase prepaid SIM cards with reasonably priced data packages in most western countries that will accommodate your 3g, 4g or LTE enabled tablet, so you may want to consider buying one of these for your iPad, with no worries since most of them aren’t locked.

Don’t despair if you’re stuck with a GSM phone.  There are other solutions, including buying a cheap pre-paid (and non-smart) phone at your overseas destination.  You’ll still  cheap local calls, and lots of local texting.  You can also buy a portable wifi hotspot from a carrier like Vodafone in New Zealand or Australia, or SFR or Orange in Europe.

A couple of things to consider:  If you’re expecting to receive calls or at least voice mails from the US, you may have to replace your original SIM in your phone periodically to check for messages.   It will almost always be cheaper to return calls to the US using your prepaid SIM.  You can eliminate this hassle by giving your new international number only to the people that may really need to contact or to the people that you may really want to hear from.  That way they get to pay for an international call, which is probably far less expensive for them, especially if they’re using a landline.  And it could limit interruptions to your otherwise tranquil foreign travel.

We’ll have more on this topic in future posts, but please add your comments and insights!

Update:  Since I’m a long time AT&T customer, I haven’t kept as current on international rate plans for other carriers, but the consensus is that they’ve come down considerably, making the use of unlocked phones and local prepaid SIM cards less of a clear choice.  I do know that Verizon’s international rates are competitive, but because many of their phones won’t work on GSM networks, it may not be an option for many of their customers.

I tend to use a lot of data, for navigation, researching local destinations, news, and bookkeeping, so the roaming plans that offer international data for $30 per 120MB aren’t very cost-effective.  I’d far rather have 3GB on a fast local prepaid network, knowing that I don’t have to worry about overage, and that I can use all of my data-draining apps without fear of running up an enormous wireless bill when I return to the states.

In the end, deciding whether to unlock your smart phone, buy an unlocked one, or leave your international roaming in the hands of your US carrier depends on where you’re going, how many calls you expect to make or receive, and how much data you expect to use.

Bon voyage!

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