Tips for smartphone service when traveling

Features Marin Perez 06:04, Sep 24 2012

We give you tips for getting smartphone service when traveling outside the United States

I'm currently in London for work and a little bit of leisure and need my smartphone to operate correctly. There are a variety of ways to stay connected while abroad, so let's go through some tips for staying connected while you're aborad. 

You can also experience the thrills of being completely disconnected on your next vacation but I've found having a consistent data connection can be very helpful. Whether it's having a map at your fingertips, using one of the translating apps or having a connected camera in your pocket, I like having a smartphone when I travel. 

If you have an iPhone 5, Galaxy S3 or any other modern smartphone, you'll likely have the ability to roam on a different data network when you're traveling abroad. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile all have roaming agreements with carriers around the world so you can call, text or surf the web in a variety of other countries. 

Be prepared to pay a hefty price though, especially when it comes to your data. For example, AT&T offers data roaming in over 140 countries but you have to pay a $30 monthly fee and this gets you 120 MB of data (overages cost $30 for 120MB). The advantages of this is that it's easy to do and you don't have to change your phone number. Verizon and the other also offer similar plans. 

This is the most hassle-free way to stay connected while you're abroad but if you do this, be sure to adjust your settings to use less data. Make sure your phone isn't constantly checking for email, turn off background apps and be sure to utilize WiFi whenever you can so you won't be hit with a massive bill. 

Of course, if you have an unlocked phone, getting a local SIM is an easy and cost-effective way to stay online. The Galaxy Nexus can be purchased unlocked from Google for about $300 and it will be able to hop on most networks around the world with minimal fuss. The Verizon iPhone 5 is being sold with an unlocked SIM slot and most smartphones can be unlocked with a call to your carrier or through a third-party unlocking service. 

I popped into a local Carphone Warehouse store and purchased a prepaid Three SIM and this plan gives me 300 voice minutes, 3,000 texts and unlimited data for 30 days. I walked into the store, bought this SIM for about $24, popped it in and within minutes I was posting pictures of my food on Instagram. 

Time for a quick rant: Why don't we have these types of competitive plans in the United States? The British and European mobile markets have their own issues (4G LTE is stuck in red tape in the U.K.) but these networks have consistently been able to offer competitive plans for years.

Sure, users often pay the unsubsidized prices here but the monthly service is much more affordable and there's a ton of flexibility. For example, you can still get a free phone on contract here but you'll have to agree to pay more per month. In the United States, only T-Mobile is trying anything interesting with bring-your-own-phone plans. I know the contract model is more profitable for our carriers but consumers would really, really win if there were some more options (Rant over). 

I firmly believe in using a local SIM on an unlocked device if possible but this method also has its issues. You're going to have to get a new number with the local SIM, so it may not work for those who need to be contacted through voice or text. Sometimes, you'll also have to dig through APN settings to activate.

Additionally, some countries make it more difficult to buy a SIM than others (I had some issues in Germany, for example). It can also be tough to buy a local SIM in some countries if you don't speak the language. 

Another way to keep your smartphone connected while traveling is getting a multinational SIM from the likes of Maxroam. With this solution, you buy your SIM in advanced, set it up online with a payment option and you'll then be able to make calls, send text and get data in a variety of countries. 

Maxroam is good because it offers much cheaper rates than your carrier's roaming fees yet it still gives you a consistent contact number while you're traveling. You also don't have to worry about getting a different SIM if you're going through multiple countries. It's not quite as cheap as going with a local SIM, though. 

Another out-of-the-box solution is to rent a global MiFi and just use your smartphone on WiFi mode all the time. I've used the Xcom Global International WiFi devices before and been impressed with its level of service throughout Europe. It can be a bit costly at about $20 a day but this also gives you a rock-solid WiFi option for a variety of your devices. 

 

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