We did a lot of research on the topic of traveling with our iPhone abroad before we set off on our 4 month, mutli-continent trek. It was important for us to be somewhat “connected” in these foreign countries, especially when doing a lot of driving. We found out that some strategies worked well for us, and others not so much. We went through a lot of trial and error. The good news is that as technology continues to evolve, traveling abroad with your iPhone is becoming easier and easier.
First thing we did was call our cell phone provider (Verizon) and ask if our iPhones were unlocked. Verizon let us know that most of their newer iPhones are unlocked, ours included, so we were ready to go! You must have an unlocked iPhone to use SIM cards abroad.
SIM cards, like the one pictured above, will give you talk/text/data capabilities (depending on the card you purchase) within the country you are visiting. You can easily swap them in-and-out of your iPhone with a dedicated SIM card tool.
Unfortunately, you cannot purchase foreign SIM cards ahead of time. You have to actually be in that country to purchase the SIM card. If you plan on buying a SIM card at your next destination, do your research so you know exactly where to buy one when you land.
Buying SIM Cards For Your iPhone Abroad
Many airports sell SIM cards which you can purchase upon arrival. If you bought a travel guide for your upcoming destination, check and see if they have a SIM card/phone section. Sometimes they will tell you exactly where to buy SIM cards when you arrive.
If they don’t sell SIM cards at the airport, you can find them at many other locations, including:
- Gas stations;
- Tobacco shops;
- Grocery stores; or
- Post office.
If you go to one place and they don’t have them, they can usually point you in the right direction. Or, if you get a ride from the airport consider asking your driver where you can pick one up.
SIM card prices can vary wildly from country-to-country. We’ve gotten them as cheap as $5 (in Jordan) and as expensive as $50 (in France). A general rule of thumb is the more developed the country, the more expensive the SIM cards.
SIM Card Alternatives
If you don’t want to deal with finding, buying, and swapping SIM cards while traveling, there are a few alternatives.
Wireless Provider International Plan
Check with your current cell provider on international travel options. We have used Verizon’s international plans before, and even on short trips they can be incredibly expensive (and you are very limited on data). However, these plans are always evolving and may make sense for your trip. This method may remove some of the hassle involved when traveling abroad with your iPhone (but it will usually be expensive).
Mobile Global Wifi Hotspot
Products such as the Skyroam are increasing in popularity lately. These devices are small (about the size of your phone). They work in countries around the world by connecting to mobile networks in the area. Think of them as global SIM cards (only there are no SIM cards necessary).
With the Skyroam, for example, you can turn it on in a foreign country and connect to wifi. It will then allow you to connect up to 5 of your devices to the wifi signal. You pay as you go ($8-$10 per 24 hour cycle), use unlimited data in a 24 hour period, and only turn it on when you need it. A very convenient solution for traveling abroad.
Texting Over Wifi
If you skip SIM cards, international plans, and global hotspots altogether, you can still get a lot of use from your iPhone over wifi. For example, iMessage (texting from iPhone to iPhone) works over wifi. You know you’re using iMessage when your texts are blue, and you’re using regular text messages when your texts are green. The downside with this is that you cannot text people who don’t use iPhones.
There are apps that you can download to text with your friends and family no matter what phone they have. WhatsApp and Viber are two great apps you can download through the App Store to text and call with. Both you and the person you want to communicate with will need the app. If you’re doing a lot of booking with AirBNB (or a similar site), you may find that sellers often like to communicate using WhatsApp.
Talking Over Wifi
Similar to texting, there are great solutions for making calls over wifi. If you’re calling someone who also uses an iPhone, you can use Facetime (if you don’t want to do a video call just turn your camera off).
You can call or video chat with someone using a non-iPhone with apps like Skype, or the aforementioned WhatsApp and Viber.
You can also use Google Hangouts to make free calls from your mobile phone or laptop to the US and Canada. The benefit of using Google Hangouts is that the person on the receiving end doesn’t have to have a special app to receive your call, as long as they’re in the US or Canada.
Google Maps Without Data
If you don’t have a SIM card for the country you’re currently in and you need directions, you can get them while your phone’s connected to wifi and then walk out the door. The directions will continue to guide you using your phones GPS.
There are inherent risks that come with this strategy. However, this is what we did for the majority of our 40-day European road trip. If you miss a turn, a road is closed, and you have to detour, your phone will not reroute you. You’re on your own until you can get back on the original route or find some place with wifi access to update your directions.
Very often during our road trip we weren’t in a country long enough to justify buying a SIM Card. Sometimes we just didn’t want to spend the money on one! So we simply used this method and it worked out. We did have to backtrack a few times when we missed a turn. So again, know that it will not reroute unless you can find wifi somewhere.
If you are planning to go this route, avoid driving at night. Not having an operable cell phone while driving at night, sometimes in pitch black conditions (looking at you Bosnia & Herzegovina), is not a wise move. We were lucky that nothing serious ever happened! Just be aware of the risks associated with this type of travel and plan accordingly.
Technology is evolving to the point where you don’t need international travel plans or even to buy SIM cards when you travel with your iPhone abroad anymore. You can usually find wifi if you really need it. Also, with apps like iMessage, Facetime, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts, all your bases are pretty much covered. If you’ll be in one country for awhile, SIM cards may make sense. Or, if you’re taking a road trip in a foreign country, SIM cards or a device like the Skyroam would be good to keep on hand. But just know that when traveling abroad with your iPhone, you have options!
Sign up for our newsletter to receive regular travel tips!