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  • Writer's pictureRosanne Knorr

A Technophobe's Guide to Cutting Phone Costs Abroad

If you're an occasional traveler who wants to stay connected overseas without racking up massive phone charges—and, especially if you are a techniphobe like me—then here are some simplified solutions.

First, remember that a cell phone gets over jet lag faster than you do. The minute the plane lands, your phone wakes up to local cell towers which can result in high rates for texts or calls from the states.

Leave your phone in Airplane Mode throughout the trip. Yes, you could just turn it off, but Airplane Mode disconnects cell towers while letting you use the camera function. You can also check and send emails by connecting to wi-fi in your hotel, café, library, airports—even many trains—offer wi-fi.

Download an internet phone/text app before you leave home. The old standby is Skype but What’s App is popular in Europe; others include Google Voice, iMessage, and Facetime among many more. For texts, just make sure you are not sending an SMS; you must use the wi-fi service. Of course, wi-fi doesn’t cut it if on the road and want to check a hotel. So for full cell service you’ll need to get more techie.

Check if your phone is 'unlocked' and has GSM. Newer smartphones are based on GSM technology, the standard in Europe (if you want the tech description, click here), but the phone must be 'unlocked' so that it can use another network overseas via a SIM card. Most new phones are now unlocked, or you can request your local company to unlock it before you leave home to allow it to access overseas networks. As your U.S. network provider about international phone plans to see if they are available and what the cost would be at your destination. If this option works, then you can keep you usual phone and number.

Buy a SIM card for the GSM phone for a local destination provider. Switching out your current U.S. provider’s SIM card for on overseas will let your phone connect locally there, at local rates. The SIM card is inexpensive and usually comes with pre-paid credit which can be topped up as needed.

One comment: When I “tested” removing a SIM at home (using an old phone ready to be thrown out,) the SIM came out in pieces. I know people switch out SIMs but make sure you have an expert use an appropriate tool to change the SIM for you.

Rent or purchase a cheap mobile at the destination. Rental can be easy for a short trip. But if you travel out of the country often, buying a basic mobile phone to be used only for travel. Keep it and change out SIM cards (in which case you are not messing with your “good” U.S. phone) depending on destination. Prepaid mobiles sometimes offer worldwide calling, texting, and data or you can add a global option. Most major airports have kiosks but tend to be more expensive than in town.

For many trips, I simply used internet apps via wi-fi until I realized how many friends I’d be arranging to meet, so I invested in an inexpensive cell phone ($50) at a local supermarket, then purchased the SIM ($12 including prepaid minutes) from a news store down the corner. (Thankfully, the woman at the counter felt pity for my technophobia and installed it!) That mobile is now ready for a future trip overseas with a simple SIM change.

Before buying a SIM, ask about monthly plan fees and costs per minute for calls and texts (don’t assume that they are the same) and whether it depends on whether you make or receive the call; ask if any additional service charges apply on top of the minutes.

Finally, remember to take a universal power adapter that fits plugs of different countries to recharge whatever U.S. mobile or other electronics you take.

Put your phone in Airplane Mode to use the camera without connecting to a cell tower

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