How to: travel the world with your smartphone | The Verge

How to: travel the world with your smartphone

Clear plans, full bars, can't lose

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You don’t need a smartphone to travel the globe, but having one can come in pretty handy in places and situations you aren’t familiar with. They can translate speech, signage, convert currencies, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, taking your smartphone with you on international trips can be tricky and expensive, but with the help of this guide, you should be crossing borders with full bars and minimal hassle.

There are a lot of variables that go into international telephony. Radio frequencies, incompatible cellular technology, and the raw availability of coverage. We’ll start by tackling which phones are compatible with international cell service, then move on to which plans are available from all four major carriers in the US.

Handset compatibility

The first thing you’ll want to do before embarking on your trip is to make sure your handset works where you’re going. This may sound like an obvious suggestion, but your phone’s ability to roam on international cellular frequencies is never guaranteed. All cellphones, smartphones included, use one of two universally accepted operating standards: GSM or CDMA. While you can find GSM coverage in many places worldwide, CDMA coverage tends to be less universally available. It’s true that countries like the US, Canada, and China have dense CDMA networks, but a quick trip to Verizon’s website makes the disparity in coverage all too clear: the company blankets "over 40 countries" with CDMA-only service, yet that number jumps to over 220 countries if you have a GSM-compatible handset.

CDMA coverage tends to be less universally available

Both Sprint and Verizon sell two types of handsets: CDMA-only, like in the case of the Galaxy S III and the Evo 4G LTE, and so-called "dual-mode" phones. The latter type includes a built-in GSM radio for use when traveling, and will be required to take advantage of both carriers’ expanded GSM service. While many of Verizon’s flagship phones are "dual-mode," including the iPhone 5 and 4S, some BlackBerry devices, a large quotient of the Droid range, and many lesser smartphones are not. Sprint’s selection of dual-mode phones is somewhat smaller, including the Galaxy Note II, the iPhone 5 and 4S, the Photon Q, the Evo Design 4G, and a few others. If you don’t have a phone with these additional GSM capabilities, be sure to check your destination for CDMA coverage before you take off.

AT&T and T-Mobile customers have a bit more flexibility when roaming

AT&T and T-Mobile customers, on the other hand, have a bit more flexibility with international roaming, but even they aren’t exempt from compatibility problems. Both carriers utilize the GSM operating standard, but handsets offered by either company have varying support for worldwide GSM radio frequencies (sometimes referred to as bands). Below is a chart of commonly used frequency bands for both international and domestic carriers:

Carrier 2G 3G
AT&T 850MHz, 1900MHz 850MHz, 1900MHz
T-Mobile 1900MHz 1700MHz, 1900MHz, 2100MHz
Europe / International 850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 1900MHz, 2100MHz 1900MHz, 2100MHz

As you can see, there are many bands in use around the world that don’t explicitly overlap with either carriers’ domestic service. In practice, this tends not to be as big a problem as it may seem, as many of the phones sold by either carrier do support varying international bands, at least in some capacity. Handsets from either company are very likely be able to place voice calls and send text messages abroad, but if you’re wanting to take advantage of speedier 3G service, you’ll want to double check that your device supports the 3G services at your destination.

International service plans

Now that you’ve confirmed that your phone can operate internationally, it’s time to take care of matters relating to your carrier. Before hopping on the plane, you’ll need to call your carrier and activate international service. All four carriers require this, and failure to do so will result in a phone that doesn’t work in any capacity once you’ve landed. This is free and shouldn’t result in a change to any of your existing contract terms, but it does enable your phone to operate abroad on a pay-per-use basis.

you’ll be charged differently depending on where you’re staying and the location of the person you’re calling

The US "big four" share one other common practice: variable rate calling. What this means is that you’ll be charged differently depending on where you’re staying and the location of the person you’re calling. These rates can fluctuate quite a bit, so we highly recommend taking the time to look them up on your carrier’s website.

In the next section we’ll be picking apart the idiosyncrasies of each carrier’s international service offerings. You can, of course, rely on each carriers’ default pay-per-use model, but this can cost significantly more than opting for a dedicated international package over the duration of your trip. That said, there’s no reason to overspend on add-ons if your trip overseas only lasts a couple of days. In either case, you’ll have to make an assessment based on your expected usage and the needs of your particular trip.

Carrier Voice calling per minute Cost per text message (sent) Cost per text message (recieved) Cost per KB of data Cost per MB of data
Verizon Check here $.50 $.05 $.02 $20.48
AT&T Check here $.50 $.20 $.0195 $19.96
Sprint Check here $.50 $.05 $.019 $19.45
T-Mobile Check here $.50 $.20 $.015 $15.00

Verizon

Verizon may have the costliest per-use data price, but the company does offer a rather attractive international data package. Called simply "Global Data," the package costs $25 for 100MB of data, bringing the price-per-megabyte down to $0.25. This is considerably cheaper than opting for the per-use model, and is highly recommended if you’re planning on using a fair amount of data internationally.

In addition to Global Data, Verizon does its traveling customers a proverbial solid by letting them borrow a dual-mode phone for 21 days, completely free of charge, as part of its Global Traveler Program. This is likely an effort to smooth over the lack of CDMA-only coverage around the world, but one can hardly criticize the company for making a concerted effort to keep its customers connected. You can choose from a BlackBerry, a slim selection of Android phones, and Windows Mobile (not Windows Phone) devices.

AT&T

AT&T recently changed its international plans, splitting the cost between what it calls "European Travel Minutes" and "AT&T Rest of World Travel Minutes." This is actually a bit easier to understand than their old plans, which included an add-on that offered varying discounts depending on which country you'd be calling. The new plans have three tiers of minutes each (shown below), and fixed rates and overages each for bucket. Be wary when calling people that fall under the "Rest of World" plan, though, as $2.00 minute overages can add up very quickly.

AT&T Europe Travel Minutes AT&T Rest of World Travel Minutes
Monthly Charge $30, $60, $120 $30, $60, $120
Minutes 30, 80, 200 15, 40, 100
Per-minute overage $1.00 $2.00

The company also offers three "Global Messaging" plans, each including a predetermined number of outgoing text messages. Text messages received are subtracted from your domestic texting plan, so if you’ve got unlimited texting here in the States, you can receive an unlimited number of texts with the packages listed below:

Price per month Messages included Price per message Overage fee (per message)
Global Messaging 50 $10 50 $.20 $.40
Global Messaging 200 $30 200 $.15 $.35
Global Messaging 600 $60 600 $.10 $.25

As far as data is concerned, AT&T offers a similar three-tier model that includes a small allowance of data at a much cheaper rate than the per-use cost. These rates and packages only apply to AT&T’s hotlist of "over 140 countries," though, which are laid out here. If you purchase this add-on but use your phone in a country not included in AT&T’s list, you’ll be charged the regular rate of $0.0195 per KB regardless of your data allowance.

Price Data allowance Fees for other countries
$30 120 MB $.00195 per KB
$60 300 MB $.00195 per KB
$120 800 MB $.00195 per KB

Sprint

Although Sprint doesn't offer any text messaging packages, forcing customers to pay a hefty $0.50 per message sent, the company does make a modest attempt to lessen the damage to would-be travelers’ wallets by offering two international data packages. Even so, the price for each is steep, and the allowance paltry.

Price per month Data allowance Overage fees
Multi-country Data Package $40 40MB $10 per MB over
Multi-country Data Package $80 85MB $10 per MB over

It should be noted that each plan’s overage fee ($10 per megabyte after the initial allotment) is still just half the cost of operating strictly by pay-per-use.

T-Mobile

UpdateT-Mobile announces unlimited data and messaging in 100 countries as part of its Uncarrier initiative.

T-Mobile’s website hints at variable priced text messaging, but if this list of rates for various countries is to be believed, messages are fixed at $0.50 to send and $0.20 to receive (unless you have a text messaging plan to pull from). On the bright side, T-Mobile offers one of the cheapest per-use data prices around at $15 per megabyte, regardless of your destination.

Perhaps more interesting are the T-Mobile prepaid international options available to Monthly 4G customers. These packages require Monthly 4G costing $50 per month or more, and the cost of text message while abroad is reduced to $0.10 instead of $0.20. For frequent travelers on Monthly 4G plans, T-Mobile also offers an International Unlimited Talk and Text add-on for customers for an additional $10 per month, though no data is provided. Unfortunately, the rates from aforementioned add-on only apply to these select countries, so be sure to check before leaving for your destination.

Leave your carrier at home

Unlocking

Savvier travelers often forgo their carriers altogether

While you take a moment to recover from the sticker shock of the last section, keep in mind that not everyone pays such exorbitant fees for international smartphone service. Savvier travelers often forgo their carriers altogether when traveling abroad, opting instead to use an unlocked smartphone with a prepaid SIM purchased locally at their destination.

Doing so will require a little bit of work on your end, but the savings can be worth effort: the UK’s 3 carrier offers a prepaid 300 minute plan with 3,000 text messages and unlimited data for around $25 per month -- that’s less than the cost of a single phone 30 minute phone call to many countries with one of the US carriers! Such prepaid SIMs are available in many countries throughout Europe, South America, Asia, and countless other locations.

The tricky part is getting your carrier to unlock your phone so that you can use a SIM from a different company. T-Mobile will unlock your SIM under the conditions listed here, the most important being:

"...T-Mobile will provide the SIM Unlock Code upon request to eligible customers, provided the requesting customer has a minimum of 40 days of active service with T-Mobile and did not request a Subsidy unlock code in the last 90 days."

AT&T, on the other hand, is required to provide unlock codes for any of its phones, excluding the iPhone, based on the settlement of this class action lawsuit. However, the company is not required to unlock any phones that it sells exclusively for a maximum of 10 months. Naturally, AT&T exercises this exception to its fullest extent, making your chances getting it to make an exception for your phone quite low. Supposing that you do meet your carrier’s requirements for unlocking, however, all you have to do is give them a call and request to have your phone unlocked. They may ask which country you intend on visiting, and if you haven’t asked them to enable international service this is as good an opportunity as any to do so.

can’t get your carrier to unlock your phone? you aren't out of luck just yet

If you don’t meet these requirements and can’t get your carrier to unlock your phone, you’re not out of luck just yet. You can purchase an unlock code online for approximately $10 to $50, depending on the phone. Despite being outside the realm of your carrier's control, buying an unlock code isn't illegal. In 2010 the U.S. Copyright Office made an exemption to the DMCA to allow unlocking via "hacking." You can also unlock your phone yourself by rooting or jailbreaking, but this isn’t recommended for a device you’re going to be depending on overseas.

You’ve also got one more option for sidestepping your carrier: buying an entirely separate prepaid handset at your destination country. Many places in Western Europe offer a wide variety of Android handsets at varying price points, and depending on how much you plan on using your phone, purchasing one at several hundred dollars may still fall under what your carrier would charge for service over the duration of your trip.

Other money saving methods

use Wi-Fi as religiously as possible

If you prefer to stick with your existing carrier rather than opt for a prepaid service, there are still several ways to minimize your expenses on international cell service. It almost goes without saying, but you’ll want to use Wi-Fi as religiously as possible. Carriers often provide free access to hotspots in more populated cities, but there are also plenty of apps on each smartphone platform that will help you seek out these open internet sources. You can also buy into the user-supported Wi-Fi network, Fon, which has dense coverage in Western Europe and Japan.

If you can find a reliable Wi-Fi connection, or have access to a reasonable data plan, taking advantage of digital messaging applications like iMessage, WhatsApp, and even the tried and trusted email can save you a bundle over the texting fees of US carriers. VOIP applications like Skype and Viber are also cost-saving alternatives to costly international voice rates, but aren't recommended for people with more anemic data plans.

Now that you know the ins-and-outs of your carrier’s international plans — as well as some handy ways to sidestep them — you should be ready to make your trip with the full gamut of connectivity that you enjoy domestically. What’s more, you can do so without the fear an extraordinarily large bill at the end of the month. So go ahead, send that picture message.

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