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Travel information and travel advice 

Phone Tips - Smart Phones, SIM cards, and Apps

Keeping in Touch While Traveling

With the introduction of smart phones, it is easier than ever to stay in touch while you are traveling.  Not only can you stay in touch by making calls, you can send texts and email, usually at no or minimal cost.  Let’s face it - a text or email can suffice for most communications.  If you’re traveling for several weeks or months, SIM cards are a great option to meet your needs.  And there are even a couple of popular Apps that let you stay in touch as long as you have Wifi:  WhatsApp and Viber.

Here are the most common scenarios:  A Short Trip/Vacation or an Extended Trip

Short trip/vacation:  I have found that I don’t need to have an international plan to make phone calls in most countries where I’ve traveled.  If I needed to make a call, the rate per minute is high (around $3.00), but I could text for a minimal amount ($0.05 - $0.50 cents depending on if sending or receiving; it is cheaper to receive).  Some companies will charge a low rate per month to have an “international” calling feature so that the rate per minute is lower if you do make a call.  This might be a better option if you know you will be making several calls.

Before you travel, there are a few things you need to do:
Call the phone company and let them know you will be traveling internationally.  On my first trip with my smart phone (iPhone 4S), they had to set up the phone so I could access the local carrier’s network once I landed.  You will need access to a local carrier if you do want to make a call. 
Make sure you turn OFF the cellular feature for data.  If you forget and your phone uses the local carrier to access your email, you will incur a horrendous phone bill.  Turning off cellular data will not disable the ability to use the phone to download email using Wifi.  Since so many hotels, restaurants and cafes have free Wifi, you will still be able to access email and the internet on a regular basis.  In fact, you can even use FaceTime and Skype as long as you have a Wifi signal.

Tip:  Turn your phone off before your plane takes off for your foreign destination.  Many times people place their phone in “airplane” mode when they fly.  If you do this and then turn off airplane mode when you land, you might find that your phone can’t find a local network.  You will need to turn off the phone and turn it back on so it can reset itself.

Extended trips:  If you will be traveling for a month or longer, check with your phone carrier to see if you can suspend your service.  I did this for my five month trip and it was a great way to save money on something that I couldn’t use while I was traveling.  But since I still wanted to have the use of my phone for email and internet access and I planned to purchase SIM cards in some countries, I needed to have my carrier “unlock” my phone.  Your phone MUST be unlocked to use a SIM card.  A SIM card allows you to have a local phone number which is great for making calls and also allows you to have access to the internet on the fly, just like at home. 

I purchased SIM cards in the countries where I planned to spend at least 3 weeks (except Burma) and especially if I was renting a car.  The only problem I had was with the initial set-up - even though Verizon assured me that my phone was unlocked when I talked to them before I left, when I inserted my first SIM card, it took me 2 days to get it to work because the phone had not been unlocked.  Verizon offered no way to contact them from outside the country (except an expensive overseas call) so I had to email a friend who called them and had someone contact me via email to fix the issue.  We sorted it out over email and once the phone was unlocked, I had no issues for the rest of my trip.

The benefit of a SIM card?  I could be walking down the street in Thailand and instantly access information.  When traveling alone with no guide book, it was very handy.  And it gave me access to Google Translate which was very important in unraveling some misunderstandings and when encountering certain road signs in Italy.
I would suggest buying your card from the carrier’s store (such as Vodafone), so if there is an issue, you can return and have someone help you.  I could always find someone who spoke enough English to answer questions about the transaction.  Make sure you find a card that offers minutes for within country calls, and enough data - 2G is pretty good for a few weeks.  Many also offer “top up” options so you can add data and minutes.  The concept is similar to a pre-paid phone as you don’t have a contract.

My SIM card costs:  
New Zealand:  $20, used for 2 weeks
Australia: $30, used for 2 weeks
Thailand: $17, used for 3 weeks
Italy: $30, used for 3 weeks

Final Word:  ALWAYS check with your phone carrier for the latest specifics as things constantly change.  The good news is that you probably don’t need to pay much to stay connected.