Search my site
Can't display this module in this section.Can't display this module in this section.

Entries in cell phones (3)


Use Your iPhone Abroad - Keep your Arm and Leg

Last February, I wrote a post detailing how to use your iPhone while traveling internationally. That post brought in over 50% of my traffic for 2010 and as such, I've decided it's a good idea to revisit such an important travel topic.A Note for Verizon Wireless iPhone Users: Unfortunately, this beginning of this post is essentially irrelevant for you. Verizon uses CDMA technology and not GSM which means you do not have...

Click to read more ...


Dear Gabbey: What about cell phones abroad?

"Dear Gabbey, I am about to embark on a multi-country journey and I am confused what I should do about communicating with my friends and family back home.  I want to be able to call home for cheap (or free if possible) but am not sure what the best options are out there for me."

This week’s question comes to us from Bill.  Bill is not a real person. The reason Bill is asking this week’s question as a fictional character is because NO one submitted a question for Dear Gabbey this week (so sad).  So how about you help me out, and submit a question for next week by filling out this form.

So Bill, finding a cheap cell phone plan while you are traveling abroad can be a pain in the you know what.  We get so used to our own country’s dialing system that it is difficult to adjust to not only new country and dialing codes, but also how cell phone plans work in other countries.  This is also a different question to answer considering you are not from the US (Bill is from Iceland) and the answer to this question is somewhat dependent on how cell phone plans work back home.  However, the following is my general advice for anyone traveling in a country not their own.

Option 1: Buy an international plan on your existing phone

Option 1 is not a good option, in my opinion, but I put it out there because some people are rich.  I know, it’s not fair, but it’s true.  So for those of you who are rich, this is your option.  International plans are expensive and can be unreliable as you are assuming the contracts your cell company has worked out with it’s international affiliates will work how it should, which isn’t always the case. As an example, my current iPhone plan in the US would break down like this:


iPhone (US) through AT&T

iPhone (US + International) through AT&T

450 Anytime Minutes (w/ Rollover)


$31.99 plus $1.29/minute (for a one minute call from Ireland to the US) or add $5.99/month and get discounted call rates ($0.99/minute for the same one minute call from Ireland to the US – a good deal if you plan on making more than $20 minutes of phone calls)

iPhone 3GS Data Add-on


$32.00 plus $0.0195/KB or approx $0.30/e-mail, $19.50/website visited, $2.93/foursquare check-in. Or $199.99/month for 200 MB of data with standard rates to apply after 200 MB.

Text messages


Incoming included, $0.75/message for outgoing or $9.99 for 100 Intl Outgoing messages


According to a study done by Validas on, the average iPhone user uses 273 MB data/month, Blackberry 54 MB/month and 150 MB/month for all other smart phones. That equates to data add ons of $5,323.50 extra for an iPhone, $1053 for BB and $2,925 for all other Smart Phones.  That’s a slippery slope and not something I want to fall into accidentally.  If you are a short term traveler, or are not going to be in one specific area of the world for more than a month, this may be a viable option, but in my opinion, it’s not that great.  When I traveled with my Treo 650 about 2 years ago, I came home from a 2 month stint in Europe with a $350 cell phone bill. Contrastly, I’ve been in Ireland for 2 months and have spent $0 in addition to my normal iPhone plan and have shelled out about $50 for a local Irish cell phone #.

Option 2: Bring a cheapo SIM unlocked phone and use on any GSM network abroad

This, in my opinion is the best option for most users.  Basically how this works is you bring along a cheap SIM enabled (ask your carrier if your phone is SIM – I believe only Sprint and T-Mobile in the US still do not use SIM cards) phone and when you arrive in a specific country, you buy a prepaid SIM card for that country.  For example.  I have a Samsung SGH-J700i slider that I bought for $25.  When I arrive in a country, I walk into the first mobile Carphone warehouse store (one that sells plans on multiple carriers) and I ask for the cheapest pre-paid SIM card.  They will usually let you start out with about $10-20 credit which will get you about  200 text messages or cell phone minutes.  Most of my minutes actually count mobile to mobile (as I’m calling people on my network, O2) and so most of the time you end up getting a lot more than that.

With a SIM unlocked phone, you can switch out your SIM card every time you go to a new country and, although you have to get a new number each time, you can remain relatively free of the traditional contractual charges from your home-based cell plans.  It’s also pre-pay, so there’s no real chance of you going way OVER your allotted usage.  Save all of your phone calls to back home for Skype (a free internet based service that allows you to call other computers for free, or unlimited calls to landlines and cell phones in a certain country for $5/month.

If you have an iPhone, your ability to make even more cheap phone calls increases with a combination of Google Voice and Skype for iPhone.  If you’re interested in learning more about that, take a look at the post I wrote on setting up an iPhone for international usage. HOWEVER, the iPhone (although SIM enabled) is NOT unlocked and can only be unlocked by Jailbreaking it (a process I do not necessarily recommend) so do NOT think you can switch out your iPhone SIM card for a local version.

In Summary

Buy an unlocked SIM enabled cell phone at home (if you don’t already have one) and when you arrive in your first destination, pop into the first Carphone Warehouse you see (or equivalent) and buy a prepaid SIM card. Use this phone for making travel arrangements and contacting any friends you meet locally. Save the long boring phone calls to Aunt Milly back home for Skype.


5 Steps to Use your iPhone Abroad for Less than $7/Month


Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to my blog with all of my travel tips and stories from the road.

by CarbonNYCFor those of us lucky enough to have an iPhone, the thought of leaving our comfy local service contracts and venturing off into the distance can leave us somewhat, confused. Unlike most sim card carrying cell phones, the iPhone makes it downright difficult to switch service providers without signing on to a new contract, breaking existing contracts or jailbreaking our precious pieces of metal.  For me, the thought of jailbreaking my $500 iPhones 3GS left me shuddering in fear, even with my decently techy brain. 

So as I embarked on my first RTW trip accompanied by my new fangled travel companion, I reckoned I should do a bit of research on how and what I would be charged abroad and if there is a way to make the iPhone work for me while I’m abroad, and not the other way around.  I have it set up so that my friends and family can call a LOCAL US number, and reach my iPhone as long as I’m in wifi range.  I also have it set up so that I can call ANY US number for free as long as I am in wifi range. 

The following are my findings.  Please feel free to contribute your opinions or personal findings as I am constantly changing how I use my iPhone and hope that I can learn as much by writing this post as I did from the hours of research I did on Google before I left.  This information applies mostly to American iPhones going abroad, but is not exclusive.  Most of the prices are about American iPhones, but most of the advice can be used no matter what country you call home.

How to make sure you do not get charged the big bucks

If you decide to cancel your iPhone service, your iPhone essentially becomes a glorified iPod Touch.  I, however, am lucky enough to have a fully reimbursed iPhone plan in the states, so I get to keep my number and my “emergency” service.  The first thing you should do is turn off Data Roaming BEFORE you leave your home country.  I make the mistake of not doing this until my plane landed in Tokyo and I paid about $10 for the blunder. This option can be found under Settings -> General -> Network.  On this same page, you should turn the “Enable 3G” to Off.  Also, if you're into saving battery, only enable Wifi and Bluetooth when you are actually using them.  Being off network will save you heeps of battery life as well.

Location Services may be left on, as it uses GPS signal (no data charge) and only loads map data when you are within wifi range. All incoming text messages are free.  Outgoing text messages are either an additional $9.99/month for 100 messages or $0.75 a piece once you’re international.  If you choose to leave your phone option enabled, all calls are charged based on local rates.  If you choose to pay a $5.99/month fee, you can get discounted rates, and these are generally good enough to pay back the $5.99 fee after the first 20 minutes of usage. 

How to pay $0 extra on your regular iPhone bill but make unlimited calls back home

So here is where my plethora of research can practice can actually do you good.  Having an iPhone is all well and good, but with the thousands of applications out there, it can be difficult to figure out how to make the iPhone work the best for you. In addition to turning off the services mentioned above, here are 5 steps to use your iPhone to the best of it's ability while abroad.

Step 1: Setup a Skype account

If you’re not already using Skype, you’re stupid.  Skype is free, it’s painless, and most people are on it these days.  The only real problem with Skype is that you have to be in front of a computer to use it.  Fortunately, our little iPhone friends act as computers and with the Skype application for the iPhone, you can talk on your phone like normal, access your contacts and check your Skype voicemail all from within the Skype application.  Call quality is based on wifi connectivity but is generally pretty good.  And did I mention, free? You can stop here, or you can go on.

Step 2: Subscribe to a Skype Unlimited Country Plan

So maybe you’re family and friends aren’t all on Skype or don’t have awesome Skype applications on their stupid crackberries.  The next step is to buy an unlimited Country Plan on Skype.  This plan is about $5/month for the US and allows you to call ANY US landline or cell phone (and toll-free) for unlimited minutes.  Basically, what that means is that I can use my iPhone through the Skype app to call ANY person I want as long as I’m hooked up to wifi.  Awesome.  Here is another great place to stop, but you can take it even further.

Step 3: Buy a Skype Online Number

Buy a (now discounted because you just bought an Unlimited Country Plan) Online Number for $20/year which gives your friends and family an actual local number they can call and free voicemail on Skype’s service.  For instance.  I pay a once a year $20 for a local Oklahoma number that my mom can call anytime she wants and it goes to my voicemail if I’m not within wifi range or it rings right to my iPhone Skype application if I am.  If I miss her call, I pick up my iPhone and dial right back to her cell phone.  This is a GREAT place to stop if you choose to disconnect your service from AT&T and don’t mind telling all of your friends and family about your NEW number (as it will be the one that shows up when you call them). 

Step 4: Forward existing service to Skype Online #

At this point, if you have your AT&T service still active, just enable Call Forwarding by going to Settings -> Phone -> Call Forwarding and have your iPhone number forward to your Skype Online Number.  I wanted my friends and family to still be able to reach me on my regular AT&T phone number (which is still active because I’m still on a US plan) but I didn’t want to pay international rates.

Step 5: Activate Google Voice

But of course, I took it a step further.  This is where Google Voice comes in (and the trip stops for those of you not from countries where Google Voice is active yet).  I got a Google Voice number (for free) and have my Skype Online Number set up as my forwarding number.  I set up my iPhone AT&T service to forward to my Google Voice number so all phone traffic goes through my Google Voice.  I have been using Google Voice as my work number for a while, so all of my clients and co-workers also call through this number.  All people calling my Google Voice # direct are referred immediately to my work voicemail (they are the only people with this number).  All people calling via forwarded service from my AT&T number are either sent to Google Voicemail, or forwarded to my Skype Online Number if I am on Skype.  The reason I use this is because I like Google’s voicemail system 1000 times better than Skype’s, but it’s not really necessary.  If you're not on Google Voice, but want to me, e-mail me as I have about 10 invites left.

Here is a table of how my iPhone service is setup.  For simplicity sake, I refer to my 10 year old AT&T cell number as my Oklahoma #, my work Google Voice number as my Long Beach # and my Skype Online Number as my Skype #.


Behavior when I have Skype running on my iPhone within wifi range

Behavior when I am not in wifi range or when Skype is not running

Someone Calls my Oklahoma #

Call is first forwarded to Google Voice, then Skype where I pick it up on my iPhone

Call is forwarded to Google Voice which sends it to my personal voicemail greeting

Someone Calls my Long Beach #

Call is immediately answered by my work voicemail greeting


Someone Calls my Skype #

Call rings directly on my iPhone

Call is answered by my Skype personal Voicemai


In Summary

Set up Skype.  Buy an online number with Unlimited One Country Calling for $20/year plus $5/month.

Setup your iPhone to forward calls to your Skype # (or Google Voice #).

As long as you are within wifi range, make unlimited calls back home to anyone you like for as long as you like for less than $7/month.

Thank Jesus for Steve Jobs and for the iPhone - if you're into that sort of thing.

Post a comment below and let me know if you have any tips or tricks!