Taking your Smartphone Abroad

Traveling with your smartphone inside the US is pretty painless these days, something you don't even think about -- but that wasn't always true. There was a time that simply driving up the highway to the next city with your old-school cell phone could result in unwelcome additional charges on your wireless phone bill due to roaming -- a term you don't even hear anymore. We're pretty spoiled these days since that's no longer the case.

Not so traveling internationally! Traveling and using your phone abroad is very much a risky business that can easily(!) incur hundreds or even thousands of dollars of expense in a single month. There are steps you can take to avoid such an expense but those steps can be tedious and requires a good understanding of how mobile providers work and how your phone uses data.

International Roaming Hurts

All the major wireless carriers in the US have default roaming agreements with pretty much all the foreign carriers at least to the extent that your phone should actually work, BUT at outrageously high prices. Costs can easily exceed $1 per minute of talk time and several hundred dollars per gigabyte of data. This is how the non-savvy traveler can receive a shocking four figure bill after returning from abroad.

The worst thing you can do is not plan at all regarding your foreign mobile communication needs. e.g. Arriving in a foreign country (or being on a cruise ship) and whipping out your phone as though you were still in the US. That's the kind of innocent, naive behavior that gets people in trouble.

Most of the carriers have special international plans that can reduce your costs but it can be a confusing, bewildering choice. Your wireless carrier may offer several plans each with their own pros and cons. Understanding which plan to use requires some knowledge about megabytes and gigabytes, how much data your apps suck down, how to adjust your phone's settings, and how to maximize the plans without doing something "wrong" that will result in a huge bill when you return home.

Airplane Mode

The best, simplest, most surefire way to save your hide while traveling internationally is to put your smartphone in airplane mode just before your plane takes off (which you should do anyway). Then leave it in airplane mode until you return to the US. There are ways to do most of what you need while keeping the cellular capability turned off.

This conversation will focus on the iPhone since that's what I recommend (Why iPhone?) but the general idea works equally well on Android models.

Switching your iPhone into Airplane Mode disables all the radios (wireless components) on your device including cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, NFC -- everything that can transmit and receive a signal is turned-off. Your phone is totally disconnected from the wireless world around it.

The only radio in your phone that uses wireless resources that can generate an expense on your mobile bill is the cellular radio. The other radios including Wi-Fi aren't associated with your mobile carrier and cannot affect your phone bill. That means once you land in a foreign country, you can reenable just the Wi-Fi and connect to any available Wi-Fi network (friends or relatives that you're visiting or your hotel) and use any/all features and apps of your phone that can operate via Wi-Fi. And it won't affect your wireless account.

The four big wireless carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile) and maybe some of the smaller ones offer Wi-Fi calling on iPhones with iOS 8 or later. Wi-Fi calling lets you originate and receive phone calls and text messages over a Wi-Fi connection pretty much anywhere in the world as though you were in the US. It's a very cool feature for keeping in touch with friends and clients back in the US while traveling.

If your phone doesn't offer Wi-Fi calling, then an app called Viber will do the same thing. Viber isn't free, but it is very cheap.

Not Getting Lost

Unfortunately, the GPS receiver in your phone will not operate in airplane mode (at least on the iPhone, I cannot comment on the many Android models) so you can't use your phone as a navigational aid. But it hardly matters because using mapping services requires a data connection to the internet in order to download maps of your current location. So even if the GPS receiver worked in airplane mode, you'd need expensive data for the maps to download -- and using expensive data is what we want to avoid.

If you are renting a car (in Europe, for example) then you should bring a GPS navigator that has European street maps loaded. Don't expect a GPS nav to be built into the rental car or for the agency to have them available. Bring your own! The advantage is the GPS nav doesn't require a data connection so it'll work anywhere, even where there is no cellular service. It receives positioning signals directly from the constellation of GPS satellites then uses the installed maps to show your location. Yes, a decent GPS nav can cost a few hundred bucks, but it's far more reliable than a phone and is really a small cost compared to the expense of traveling in the first place.

Be Like a Local

Wi-Fi-only has its practical limitations -- you gotta be near a Wi-Fi hotspot to use it. If your phone is carrier unlocked and it supports all the right frequencies (later phones should), then you can buy a local SIM card and install it in your phone. Then you'll have a local number, making your phone behave like a local's phone in whatever country you are visiting. Or just buy a cheap cell phone in-country and use that for real phone calls. Note, in some countries (Italy), you must present national ID or a passport to buy a SIM card or a device that contains a SIM card.

We were in Italy and Portugal recently (Christmas 2017) and when we landed in Lisbon, I bought a prepaid SIM card for my iPhone that included 30 GB of data at 4G speeds (approx 50 mbps) for €15. And that was at the airport no less where stuff usually isn't bargain priced. Plans in the rest of Europe are very similar. In Italy, we bought 45 GB of hotspot data for €15. That was more than enough data to feed an iPhone and two iPads for a month. Both of these solutions are limited to data-only. So to make a phone call, you'll need "wi-fi calling" enabled or you can use an app like Skype or Viber, both cost about 2 cents a minute for calls into the US -- very cheap.

Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot

Another possibility is to purchase (or rent) a portable hotspot device. You can rent one online before leaving the US or you can buy one locally when you reach the country you are visiting. If your itinerary includes multiple countries then renting one before the leaving the US is probably the better option.

Talking behind your back

Another gotcha with your phone is with all the apps you (probably) have downloaded. Many apps run in the background and can slurp cellular data without you knowing it. Even if you consciously avoid using apps while traveling, they may well still be communicating in the background, eating up data and costing you money.

iCloud is a good example. Configured a certain way, iCloud will automatically upload all the pictures and videos that you shoot to Apple's servers. In the US that's usually not a big deal but if you're traveling abroad that can hurt you badly. To avoid that, iCloud and/or your cellular data connection (if you leave it enabled) must be properly configured to prevent that from happening. Do you know how to do that?

Airplane mode prevents this from happening. Again, it shuts off the cellular radio, eliminating any billable data usage.


If I sound alarmist here it's because I'm trying to. Several of my clients have been gut punched with huge cellular bills after returning from abroad especially the first-timers. They simply weren't aware that traveling with a smartphone could be so costly. Most people are vaguely aware that traveling abroad with a phone is "different" somehow, but many have no idea how, why, or what to do about it.

It's beyond the scope of this article to tutor step-by-step on what to do. There are too many variables that make each case a bit different which means the best approach to take differs. You should contact a geek-savvy friend, call your wireless provider, or use Google to learn more. If you have an iPhone and live near an Apple store, the free in-store Genius Bar can help. You should make an appointment so you don't wait a long time.

Like most of my articles, this one is intended to boost awareness -- making folks aware they must make appropriate plans for how to use a phone while traveling abroad.

earth covered with flags of various countries