Tips for Using Your Smartphone Abroad
Today’s typical smartphone is loaded with apps, those handy mobile programs that can act as guidebook, map, dictionary, laptop, and travel agent—sometimes all in one. They’re lifesavers when used domestically; overseas, it’s another story. Apps use loads of data, which costs about $20 per megabyte if you’re roaming without an international plan. Add to that SMS reminders, push notifications, and location-based services—all of which draw on data—and you can see why even the most experienced of travelers have come home to shockingly high phone bills. The FCC is proposing measures to protect cell phone customers. But until then, if you’re going to use your smartphone abroad (let’s face it: we’re addicted) do it wisely.
Before You Go: Know How Much Data You’ll Need
The easiest way to track your usage is by resetting the phone’s meter, usually found in the Settings menu, and checking back to see how much you use during the next few days and weeks. Once you’re on the road, continue to monitor your usage through the meter or apps such as AT&T’s myWireless or the Android-compatible NetCounter and Stats Free.
Before You Go: Sign up for an International Plan
AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge users who don’t have roaming packages significantly more for international calls and data usage, so make sure you enroll. If you’re a Sprint customer with a BlackBerry, the Worldwide plan gives you discounted calls from international destinations (data packages sold separately). T-Mobile doesn’t charge extra for roaming, but you will have to call customer service to turn on the capability.
Before You Go: Scope out Hot Spots
...so you can surf the Web, get e-mails, and use apps (for free!) via Wi-Fi whenever possible. JiWire (jiwire.com) has a directory of free and paid hot spots around the world, while Boingo Mobile (boingo.com) will give you unlimited access to more than 200,000 hot spots around the world for $7.95 per month.
Before You Go: Shut off Data Roaming
If you need to access the network outside of a Wi-Fi hot spot, you can always temporarily activate your roaming.
Before You Go: Turn off All Push Notifications
...via the Settings menu. Depending on how many apps you have, these automated text updates can drain your data allowance in a matter of hours.
Before You Go: Set Your E-Mail to Manual
...to avoid automatically downloading bandwidth-hogging attachments. Switch your settings to manual (or simply turn off the “Auto-Check” setting).
While You’re There: Download Over Wi-Fi
Try to check e-mail and download news, music, videos, and apps only while in a hot spot. The same goes for uploading images to Facebook or Flickr. And don’t even think of streaming YouTube videos while roaming.
While You’re There: Stay in Airplane Mode
...unless you need to make or receive a call. Otherwise, you’ll be charged anytime someone calls you or leaves a voice mail.
While You’re There: Use the Internet as Your Phone
An app like Skype mobile can save you over a dollar a minute on phone calls. See Top Web-Based Phone Services for more information.
While You’re There: Call Customer Service
...if you accidentally use up your entire roaming allowance. We can't guarantee clemency, but they might expand your monthly limit free of charge or for a reduced fee.
After You Get Home: Keep Your Roaming Package On
...through the end of the billing cycle. Your plan may be prorated and able to be canceled at any time but if you’ve used up your monthly data allowance during your week’s vacation, then you’ll have to keep the package on for a full month or face overage charges for anything over 5MB.
Skip the whole roaming issue entirely by buying an inexpensive, unlocked GSM phone and a local prepaid SIM card. You’ll pay local rates and—best of all—incoming calls are often free. Unlocked phones are available online for less than $50 at retailers such as compusa.com, tigerdirect.com, and cellhut.com.