When planning our latest round the world trip, we spent a lot of time researching the best alternatives for a smartphone to use during our travels. There was a lot to consider, not just which phone, but the best plans and associated costs.
I am an Apple fan, love my Mac laptop and really wanted an iPhone. That was the easy decision for me. The tough part was trying to figure out the best way to get an unlocked iPhone so we could use it wherever we traveled. After reading many articles on unlocking/jailbreaking an iPhone I decided to pay a small fortune and buy a factory unlocked iPhone from Apple. It was much more expensive but I did not want to lose my warranty or open the phone up to the security issues identified when using jailbreak programs to unlock your iPhone. The good news was that as soon as I opened the box and put in the non-contracted SIM card I was saving almost $35 a month on my services and had unlimited calls/text/data.
Eleven countries and as many pre-paid SIM cards later, I am hooked on the convenience and cost savings of traveling with the unlocked iPhone. It really was as simple as landing in an airport, hunting down a local carrier, handing over a passport for ID, and popping in a new SIM card. Most SIM cards automatically created an iPhone profile so the phone could be used immediately. One or two SIM cards from more remote areas, and carriers I had never heard of before, did need a little more work and the carrier had to provide the profile information, but once you have the setting it is simple to get it set up.
Some things to consider when deciding what works best for you:
- Where will you be traveling? Many countries have easy wi-fi access and in many places it is free, especially in big cities. Do a quick search to see if the location you will be going has good, free coverage. Then just be sure to set your phones roaming settings to off and use the free wi-fi.
- Does your current carrier offer temporary unlocking or free data roaming? With all the competition out there many carriers are trying to offer their customers better service at cheaper prices. US based T-Mobile has started offering a Simple Choice International Plan which offers coverages in over 100 countries at no additional charge. I have heard from users that the access seems limited and there have been difficulties getting coverage at decent speeds, but it is a start and can only get better. If you are a customer of AT&T or Verizon they will offer unlocking services for your international travel. There are certain restrictions, and limits to how often you can request your phone to be unlocked. Certainly worth looking into if you already have a contract with one of these carriers.
- How long will you be traveling? Even though your carrier might unlock your phone for you, if you are traveling for a long period of time it can still be costly. This was another reason we went with the factory unlocked phone. Sure the other carrier might unlock it for you but the monthly charges for the service was pretty steep. Since we were on the road for over 2 years, it was a much better deal to get a local SIM for $10-$30 which would typically cover at least a month of service. The plans offered by the big carriers usually started at $50 a month.
- What do you plan to do with your phone? We use our smartphone for everything from GPS mapping, blogging, social media, calls, texts, etc. That meant we really needed a smartphone with all the capabilities. If you just need a local phone for calling and texting you might consider just buying a burner phone when you arrive at your destination. Usually pretty cheap and good enough to cover the basics.
We would love to hear your experiences with cellphones while traveling. Share your story with us in the comments below!