As much as I don’t want to be tethered to my cell phone all the time, it provides me with a sense of security when traveling outside of the USA.
Not that I’ve traveled to scary places where I felt in danger (knocks on wood), but we all feel just a tad bit safer being able to access information 24/7 from just about anywhere imaginable. Plus you’re supposed to rip selfies at least once a day, right?
Anyways, one question I get asked a lot is how do you get your iPhone to work in random countries around the world? It’s pretty simple actually.
My Quick iPhone History
I have been using AT&T as my cell provider since April of 2009. Before them, I had Verizon, and the only reason I switched is because I just had to have an iPhone. At this point in time, AT&T was the only company offering service for the iPhone, unless you were a jailbreaker, which I wasn’t. So I went straight to a local AT&T store to buy the latest iPhone 3G (of course the 3GS was coming out the following month, but sometimes I like being a late-adopter, so they have time to get all the bugs worked out, so naturally the 3G fit the bill).
When I walked in, I had a Verizon LG VX10000 Voyager phone, and I thought I was the shit. I still remember right after I bought that phone, I went on vacation to Daytona Beach and I wanted everyone to know my phone could stream live TV shows, with it’s fancy pull-out antenna. How primitive by today’s standards.
Giving up one of the baddest phones out at that time was hard. Knowing me, I had to have been stressing over this decision, as that’s what I tend to do. Over-analyzing every detail and researching for days or weeks is pretty common in my life. I need to fully understand every single thing I’m giving up and every single thing I’m going to get. Without all of this information, I delay the transaction or abandon it all together.
The worst part of switching was I had just started using the LG phone, and if I was to switch carriers, I would have to pay a huge early-termination fee. I still can’t believe I paid that, as I know I probably wouldn’t do that today. I can’t quite remember all the details, but I’m thinking AT&T might have been offering some sort of promotion where they pay part of that fee to get you to switch. Either way, I hate unnecessary fees.
After making my decision to move forward with the iPhone, the sales associate rang me up and then set me up as a new AT&T user. Then he asked if I wanted to transfer everything from my old phone over to the iPhone. I said sure. I handed him my old phone and he seemed confused. He turned around and looked through all sorts of drawers filled with various cables, he went into the back to look through more cables I assume, and then he asked a manager cable questions.
When he returned, he said that no one has switched from the VX10000 to an iPhone and that they didn’t make a cable to transfer the data. As if I wasn’t nervous enough switching phones and carriers, now I felt a sense of buyer’s remorse. Was I really one of the only people to switch from that phone to this phone? Did that mean that my old phone was superior and that I had somehow miscalculated everything and actually downgraded?
In today’s iOS world, this isn’t even a problem. Mainly because you can back everything up to iCloud and simply download it to your new phone without any hassles. And even back then, it didn’t really pose any problems, because the only thing you’d really be transferring in 2009 were your contacts. So back to my truck I went, holding two of the latest cell phones, feeling like a boss.
I manually transferred all of my contacts over to the new device (which probably took five minutes, because how many friends does a 26 year old guy really have) and I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. Like anyone honestly cared.
Reasons to Need Cell Service While Traveling Abroad
Ok, back to 2019 and why I use my phone outside of the country. Here are the main reasons why I justify the extra costs to use my phone internationally:
- Full GPS capabilities
- Unlimited phone calls/talk time to basically anywhere
- Unlimited text messages to basically anyone
- Don’t have to search for WiFi connections or hotspots
I have the top AT&T plan (Unlimited & More Premium) so I have unlimited everything. It runs me about $95 a month, which is a lot, but my phone is crucial to my life and my business. Whether I’m always a fan of that or not, that’s the way the world works and the industries I’ve chosen to work in. Sometimes I get annoyed that I always have my phone with me, but I chose this life, and I enjoy it.
The biggest benefit is not having to search around for WiFi connections. I’ve always had unlimited data since the beginning, so I’ve never been someone who closely monitors their data usage or frantically asks everyone for WiFi passwords at every party they go to. I would hate to be lost in the middle of nowhere in a foreign land with no GPS, with no way to contact anyone, and with no way to read information online to answer the millions of questions I always have.
Sure, people 100 years ago, even 30 years ago carried a map with them. They never knew what their friends across the country were eating for lunch, or needed to keep track of how many miles they ran that morning, or read reviews about all the tourist spots. They just stayed disconnected, they got lost, and they tried new things without recommendations. I love that type of exploration, but I’m so glad I have full access to my phone as a backup.
Ok Cool, So How Do I Make it Work?
With AT&T, the easiest option is with something they call the International Day Pass. This allows you to keep using your phone just as you would at home, but in over 100 other countries.
All you have to do is call AT&T and ask them to add this feature to your account. I’ve also confirmed it was still on my account via the live chat on their website (from a computer but also from my phone). And once it’s added to your phone plan, it stays on there, and you don’t have to call them every time you’re out of the country.
It isn’t free, but to me it’s definitely worth it. It’s just $10 a day (for a 24-hour access period) and you can travel stress-free.
Most people are traveling for a few days or maybe a week, and that’s definitely affordable when you compare it to the total cost of your trip. If you are traveling for 2-3 weeks, it starts to get expensive. If you’re gonna be gone for a month or longer, you should look into the other international plans they offer. But the International Day Pass is perfect for most AT&T users. And I’m sure the other big name carriers offer something similar.
When I mentioned that you don’t have to add it to your account every time you travel, it’s really a great feature. When you’re on the plane, your phone is in airplane mode. When you land in a new country, and they tell you it’s ok to turn your phones on, as soon as you turn airplane mode off, you’ll notice your phone is searching and it doesn’t work. All you have to do is go into your iPhone Settings, then Cellular / Cellular Data Options, then turn the Data Roaming feature on.
Once roaming is turned on, your phone will detect the local cell service provider, and you’re good to go. That’s it!
The cool thing about the Day Pass is that it starts only when you first connect to cell service outside of the US. Then it automatically starts the $10/day feature. You don’t have to do anything else except turn roaming on. And then when you land back in the US, just turn roaming off, and you’ll stop being charged the $10/day.
I think 7 days is the longest I’ve used it, but again, $70 is well worth it to me for the added comfort and flexibility. Plus if I’m using my laptop overseas, I’ll need WiFi to do most of my work. WiFi is pretty easy to find, but if I’m without it, my phone plan also has the hotspot feature. So if I get cell service on some secluded beach, I can turn the hotspot on and use my laptop, even though I wouldn’t want to risk getting sand in my laptop. (Something all those digital nomads don’t talk about, is that you look cool working on the beach, but is it really practical?) You can learn more about the AT&T international options here:
6 Alternative Options
Of course there are plenty of frugal people that read my articles, so don’t think that you have to pay a $10/day fee every time you travel. You have some budget options if you’re pinching your pennies (why does that sound terribly sexual).
- Leave your phone at home. I know, that’s like telling a pilot to fly blindfolded, it’s just not happening. But what if you did? You could print your boarding pass at the airport, read a book on the plane, take public transportation or walk to your hotel, grab a local map to find your way around, ask locals for cool things to do, take photos with a real camera, write notes down with pen/paper, etc. It’s totally doable. It would probably feel super weird the whole time, at least in the beginning, but you might just enjoy the trip even more.
- Bring it with you, but don’t use it at all outside of the US. Same thing as the previous option, except you’ve brought a Plan B, just in case. You just keep it tucked away in your bag and never bring it out, unless you run into a situation where you literally have to use it. Which might never happen.
- Only use it for the basic tools (minus phone calls and text messages). This would be pretty easy and I can see a lot of people doing this. Screenshot your boarding passes and just show the photos in the airports without needing cell service, use your camera for photo opportunities, jot down notes, listen to music stored on your phone, read eBooks or listen to podcasts that are downloaded to your device, use the calculator and alarm clock if needed, etc. You can take a week off from talking or texting people back home. They’ll be there when you get back.
- Use the basics all the time, and only use the other apps when you have WiFi. This is probably the most common option. You can use the basics in the previous option all the time, but you can use the majority of your smartphone when you find WiFi. Need to update social media? Want to find local vegan restaurants on Yelp? Have to check your email? All of these things might be important to you, but they likely aren’t critical. But if you still need to use them while traveling, you can find WiFi in a lot of public places all over the world. Places like hotels, coffee shops, bars, internet cafes, airports, etc. WiFi Calling is also a feature that I’ve never tried, but allows you to make calls back home without turning roaming on and without an international call plan. And if you’re messaging friends on iOS devices, you can use iMessage over WiFi, along with every other app like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and plenty more. You can also use Google Maps (and a few other similar apps) to download maps to use your GPS in offline mode if you want.
- Unlock your phone and buy a local SIM card to use in the new country you’re visiting. I think this would be more for long-term travel, but this would be way cheaper than paying $10/day to use everything on your phone. I’ve heard of people getting talk time and data options for $10-$50 a month. This probably isn’t for most people, but it’s perfect for the right traveler.
Do I Really Need Access to Everything?
After writing everything above, I’ve started to question if I actually need this iPhone luxury on my trips, that a lot of us probably take for granted.
A goal for the next time I travel internationally will be to see how long I can go without activating the International Day Pass. I should be able to last for an entire week-long trip, but if I run into a situation where I really need it, I could always switch the roaming on and know that I tried.
Most things can wait. Emergencies do come up, but they are pretty rare. We usually just want to check-in somewhere on Facebook, or scroll through Instagram while standing in line somewhere, or post a video on Snapchat of some ridiculous person yelling at a trashcan.
Sometimes we should remember how people traveled before smartphones. People really explored. They got lost. They walked into random restaurants. They learned how other cultures operate. They listened. They learned a lot about themselves. They lived in the moment. We can’t forget to be present in the short time we get here.
Photo taken in my 4-person dorm at the KEX Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland. April 2017. This was my first hostel experience, and nobody else showed up in my room, so it technically wasn’t a true hostel experience, but I still slept in a bunk bed (top bunk).