iPhone Traveler: International iPhone use Pt. 2

This week I’m looking at international iPhone use. There are several ways to use or avoid your iPhone while traveling outside your home country. Our goal is to have fun, benefit from having a phone but avoid outrages charges.

Today, I’m talking about data roaming. Data roaming refers to using the Internet, email and other similar data connections outside your carrier’s coverage. Essentially, you’re “roaming” outside of your coverage zone.

Roaming costs can be quite very high. Even the simple act of checking email once a day can be costly. It’s a good practice to disable data roaming while traveling internationally. Fortunately, your iPhone has it switched off by default.

When you turn data roaming off, your iPhone will be unable to connect to a foreign data network. That means you won’t receive emails, browse the Internet, or use Internet-based services like Twitter or Facebook via a cellular network. Other functions will remain intact, like taking and browsing photos, recording video, creating notes, and using other apps that don’t depend on an Internet connection to function. Think of it as sitting in a car with no gas in the tank. You can still use the radio, A/C, and such, but you can’t drive anywhere. In other words, you can’t run up a data bill if you aren’t connected!

That doesn’t mean you must forego Internet access, as I’ll explain in a bit. For now, here’s how to disable data roaming.

To ensure that data roaming is disabled, follow these steps:

Use the sliders to disable cellular data and data roaming.
Use the sliders to disable cellular data and data roaming.
  1. Tap the Settings app
  2. Tap General
  3. Tap Cellular
  4. Move the Data Roaming slider to the Off position

That’s it. This really is the most important move to make if you want to avoid huge fees.
If you have an international plan with your carrier, contact that company before leaving to see what your options are. Those without an international carrier plan will absolutely want to disable data roaming when traveling abroad — even international plans can be expensive. Contact your carrier for specifics.

The next step you can take is to disable cellular data. This will restrict your iPhone to a Wi-Fi Internet connection only. To disable cellular data, follow these steps:

  1. Tap the Settings app
  2. Tap General
  3. Tap Cellular
  4. Move the Cellular Data slider to the Off position

You’ll know you’ve turned both off successfully when you do not see a cellular indicator in the upper left-hand corner of the status bar.

Disabling data roaming and cellular data doesn’t mean you’re completely disconnected. You can keep Wi-Fi enabled and make use of wireless Internet via Wi-Fi. While traveling internationally with your iOS device, enable Airplane Mode, flick Wi-Fi back on and video chat via FaceTime or Skype for significantly less money than an international calling plan.

The first step is to turn on Airplane Mode. Airplane Mode terminates all communication to and from your iPhone. Specifically, it switches off:

  1. Cellular (voice and data)
  2. Wi-Fi
  3. Bluetooth
  4. GPS
  5. Location services

To enable Airplane Mode, follow these steps:

Move the slider to enable Airplane Mode.
Move the slider to enable Airplane Mode.
  1. Tap Settings
  2. Move the Airplane Mode slider to the On position

You’ll know you’ve done it when an orange airplane icon appears in the upper left-hand corner of your iPhone’s screen (see above).Now enable Wi-Fi while keeping those other protocols shut down. Follow these steps while in Airplane Mode:

  1. Tap Settings
  2. Tap Wi-Fi
  3. Move the slider to the On position

Your iPhone will look for an available or known Wi-Fi network as it typically does. The Wi-Fi indicator appears next to the orange airplane icon.

Now you can make video calls to far-flung friends and loved ones with FaceTime or Skype for iOS via Wi-Fi without incurring huge data roaming costs. FaceTime requires both participants to have an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Mac, while Skype removes that restriction. FaceTime is free, but even Skype Premium and monthly subscriptions are nothing compared to international roaming fees. Imagine video chatting from Barcelona with family back home for free! My sister and I recently had a video chat between Amsterdam and Massachusetts and it didn’t cost either of us a thing.

What Can I Do With Data Roaming and Cellular Data Disabled?

You probably have questions about how useful your iPhone will be with data disabled (which essentially makes it an iPod touch). That’s a valid concern, as many of the apps are crippled or even useless without an Internet connection.

  1. What’s the difference between having data roaming turned off and cellular data turned off? Frankly, cellular data becomes less significant with data roaming turned off, as you likely won’t have a local SIM. Cellular data refers to data that passes to your phone, regardless of network (even your own carrier), so when it’s off, you don’t get get data services. Data Roaming means that, when the phone notices you’re on a network other than its original carrier network (w/ your regular carrier SIM card in the phone), it won’t pass data since you’re outside of your carrier’s limits. Or, more simply, disable cellular data to halt the Internet full stop. Home or abroad. Keep data roaming off to halt the Internet abroad. Still, it’s best to turn both off.
  2. Will I be able to send and receive text messages with roaming/cellular data turned off? The answer is yes and no. You will be able to use Apple’s iMessage service to send and receive text messages over Wi-Fi, provided that you and your recipient both have an iPhone 4, 4S or 5 and at least iOS 5.0 installed. Typical text messages (SMS) travel on your carrier’s network, so “regular” (read: carrier-based) text messages will not work.
  3. How do I access the Internet? Via Wi-Fi. Find a reliable and trustworthy Wi-Fi network and browse, email, etc. As usual. See my post on iPhone security for related security concerns.
    In short, your iPhone is essentially an iPod touch when it’s in this state. Which, for purposes of international travel, is a good thing.

This article is part of a series on traveling with your iPhone. You’ll find the other articles here.