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Tuesday
Feb222011

Use Your iPhone Abroad - Keep your Arm and Leg

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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 SIM cards and can not switch out your SIM card to use your iphone with an international carrier. With this in mind you can still use your phone abroad, you just will likely not have good coverage on your home network.  The information on Skype, Google Voice and some of the New Options are available to you as options for using your iPhone while abroad.

Things that Haven't Changed

I still do things essentially the same as I did when I wrote the post last year. Though there are some minor tweaks to the below services, for the most part, they still hold true.

International Charges for GSM Users

The GSM network is large and has many international carriers on board including Orange, Vodafone, O2, Telefonica, T-Mobile and Movistar. If your home network lies in any of these carriers, you have an extensive international network. In order to avoid being charged astronomical fees for data usage, the first thing I recommend is to turn off all Data Roaming on your iPhone BEFORE YOU LEAVE. Even the 30 seconds of data download your phone does while you are turning this off in your destination airport can result in more than $50 in damage (as I learned the hard way).

  1. Turn off Data Roaming under Settings --> General --> Network
  2. You do NOT need to turn off location services as this uses GPS signal to update and not data

If you choose to use your phone unaltered, you will incur some roaming fees while you are using your iPhone internationally.  These rates are all quoted on the AT&T page listing international iPhone charges. All incoming text messages are $0.20. To send a text message is $0.50 and to send a picture MMS message is $1.30 per message sent. Data usage pay-per-use rate is $.0195/KB. To put this in perspective, the average e-mail size is 75 KB which would cost you $1.46 and the average website is 506KB which would cost you $9.87. That's just to open one page or receive one e-mail. If you receive, say, 50 e-mails in a day and allow them to download to your e-mail box, even if you don't open them, that could cost you around $73/day.

Calling rates are also pretty high, wish AT&T offering an International Calling Plan where you can pay an extra $3.99/month to gain access to DISCOUNTED international calling rates. They make it worth the $3.99 if you use more than 20 minutes of call time in the month. They also have a bucket international text messaging package for $10/month where you get 50 text messages plus a discounted overage rate. Finally for $24.99/month you can get 20MB of data in most countries with a discounted overage rate. They have plans for people who use more data than that as well. Just check your last cell phone bill to see where you fall on the data usage scale. Personally, I average about 7MB/day. So unless I cut back on my usage (or find a wi-fi signal in my tiny village) I would need to buy the biggest package with 200 MB/month and at $199/month, I'm not going to be buying it anytime soon.

Skype Still Rocks

Skype is still a great way to keep in touch with people. And with the easy iPhone app (iTunes link) for FREE you can call anyone who is also connected to Skype anytime you're connected to a wi-fi connection. With Skype's latest update they also added video chatting for everyone including 3G and 3GS users. If you don't want to have to wait until your friends/fam get online with Skype, you can purchase a Skype Unlimited Country Plan which will allow you to call any landline, cell phone or toll-free number in one country for a monthly fee ($5/month for the US). This way, you login to your Skype account while wi-fi connected and can call anyone in that country, no matter where you are, for free. If that's still not enough and you want to have a local number where people can call you, you can get a Skype Online Number which is a number in your local home country where people can call and it will forward to your Skype account. If you are logged into Skype, it will ring like a regular call. If you are not logged into Skype, it will forward to your Skype voicemail.

Google Voice Still Rocks

If you don't want to deal with Skype's crappy voicemail service, I take this a step further and forward all calls coming into my Skype account to my Google Voice account when I am not signed into Skype. Then, when people leave me a message, it turns it into a text transcript and e-mails me a copy of the message so I can check it on my slow-as-shit dial-up computer which doesn't support Skype's multimedia voice messages. Unfortunately, Google Voice is not available still in any country other than the US. I really thought this would change by now, but it hasn't.

New Options - Skype To-Go, Business Calls and Text Messaging

Thanks so much for all of your comments on my previous post. I've taken the best and included them here so you can see some other options for staying in touch while traveling abroad.

Skype To-Go

Skype To-Go was introduced to me by a high-school friend, Laura, who has a boyfriend who lives in Chile. They swear by Skype To-Go and I can see why. The basic premise is that if you have someone in another country that you want to call, you create a direct link between your phone and theirs and pay discounted rates to make calls to them. For example, Laura entered her boyfriend's Chilean cell # and it gave her a special local US number that she can call and every time she calls that number, incurring no additional charges from her cell phone company, she is connected directly to her BF's phone. I love Skype To-Go numbers. Problem for me, being, that they are not yet available in Spain. So My mom can set up a Skype To-Go number for me, living in Spain, but I cannot set one up to call her back. For now, this option for me, doesn't exist, but if you live in a country that is supported by Skype To-Go and only have a couple of people you keep in touch with on a regular basis, this is a GREAT option. It's also only $5/month to make unlimited calls to most countries.

Business Calls

Having solid connectivity is a big issue when you're making business calls. Skype connections can waver. However, I have done plenty of business using Skype on a good wi-fi connection and have had few issues. There are some more business based companies that offer VOIP including gotomeeting.com (the video conferencing and desktop sharing software) as well as companies like RingCentral.com, itelecenter, tollfreeforwarding.com and magicjack.com are great for calls within the US, Canada and in some cases, the UK. However, finding stable international solutions can be tricky. I still stand by Skype and where good internet connection can not be made, I suggest sticking to text based communication, using MSN messenger, Yahoo Messenger, GChat or just good old e-mail.

Text Messaging

There are so many free text messaging providers these days it's ridiculous. If all you're looking for is a good cheap (or free) text messaging client, here are some options. Google Voice has free text messaging to all cell phones in the US (at least through the end of 2011). Skype offers free text messaging to other Skype members as well as free text messaging to anyone in your home country if you have a unlimited country plan. HeyTell offers free voice messaging. Other companies like HeyWire also offer unlimited text messaging plans.

What I Use

I have two iPhones which have very different purposes in my traveling.

iPhone 1: is a 3G running iOS 4.0.1 jailbroken and unlocked with a Movistar pre-paid SIM card. I use this phone as my everyday phone for making calls locally in Spain as well as sending text messages and LIGHT data usage. This phone is also the recipient of a Skype To-Go service with connections to my mom, dad and sister back in the US who have a dedicated number they call which rings directly on my cell.

iPhone 2: is a 3GS running iOS 4.1 with an AT&T SIM card. I use this phone for making Skype calls when I am connected to wi-fi as well as when I traveling in countries other than Spain. All calls to this US # are forwarded to my Skype number which either rings when I am in coverage, or forwards to my Google Voicemail when I am not in coverage with text transcripts sent to my e-mail.

I Jailbroke My iPhone and Didn't Die (and Neither did It)

I know I took such an adamant stance against jailbreaking iPhones in my last post, but I finally broke down and did it. And I did die. And neither did my phone. What jailbreaking your phone will allow you to do is unlock it to be used with a SIM card from any carrier which operates on GSM, which there is a carrier in almost every country.

If you want to jailbreak your iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4G or iPad and unlock it, follow these steps.

  1. BACK UP YOUR iPHONE. Seriously… Back it up.
  2. Make sure your phone is running iOS 4.0.1 or a previous version (check this under Settings --> General --> About --> Version)
  3. If your phone is running a later version, visit geekword.net for a great step by step on how to restore it. There is also another more detailed version here on redmondpie.com, if you have issues with the simple geekword.net step by step.
  4. Visit jailbreakme.com from within Safari on your iPhone and follow the directions
  5. Don't be scared.
  6. Download the UltraSnow application from within Cydia
  7. Insert new SIM card
  8. Drink a beer and use your new phone.

Seriously, it's that easy. The jailbreakme.com site does most of the heavy lifting for you and the UltraSnow application makes it easy peasy to unlock your phone.

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