iPhone Traveler: International iPhone use Pt. 1

pdflagsizedTraveling internationally with your iPhone demands careful preparation. When you leave the country, you most likely will not be using the cellular data network that’s owned by your home carrier. Since you’re off your plan, you’ll possibly have to pay for each megabyte of data that your phone sends or receives individually. This can get extremely expensive very quickly. In fact, it’s very easy to generate a bill of hundreds or even thousands of dollars in a surprisingly short period of time. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid an outrageous bill.

I’ve gotten numerous requests for a post on using the iPhone internationally since I started this travel series. It’s a big topic that deserves special attention. So, I’m going to dedicate this entire week to using the iPhone internationally. I’ll share my own research, interviews with others who travel quite a bit and more. After a week, we’ll have a very nice resource on international iPhone use.

To get us started, here are a few paragraphs from my TUAW colleague and newspaper designer for The Patriot-News in near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Megan Lavey-Heaton. Megan shared some of her experiences and practices. Enjoy, and keep watching the site for hands-on information.

“I’ve taken my iPhone out of the country to Canada and the United Kingdom. Traveling to Canada is just like being in the U.S. – so much so that you really have to make sure you turn off your data at the border. There were some places of Ontario very close to the U.S. border that I was able to pick up an AT&T signal, but to make absolutely sure, I didn’t use my phone much until I was back on the U.S. side. If you are driving into Canada, make sure that you’ve downloaded any navigation maps needed before the service switches to international.

The United Kingdom was a different story. With the iPhone 4, it kept bouncing from service to service (usually O2 or Orange) and was spending a lot of time searching for the closest provider when I turned Airplane Mode off. That’s OK, because you want to stay away from using the local networks whenever possible. The moment I leave the country, the phone goes into Airplane Mode and for the most part stays there until I get back to the U.S.

The absolute biggest potential hit to your wallet will come from your data plan. When I was lost in Toronto a few years ago, I turned on data long enough to find where I needed to go from Maps, then turned the data back off. That 30 seconds of search and download added $18 to my bill. Stick to Wi-Fi, but it’s harder to find it for free than in the U.S. if you don’t live there. For free Wi-Fi in the UK, the best places to get it are actually American food chains: Starbucks, McDonald’s and Burger King. In Canada, I found more free Wi-Fi spots. AT&T and Verizon have international data plans that you can add to and then remove from your plan if you want a safety net, but I’ve never used them.

The second biggest financial hit, ironically, comes from text messages. My husband texted me a few times to pin down my location in a Liverpool museum, and that added on several dollars to the following month’s bill. Set up iMessages before you go, and make sure you have it so that does not send via text message if it fails. That way, if you do need to text someone with an iPhone running iOS 5, it’ll default to Wi-Fi and not hit your text or data plans.

Traveling with an iPhone out of the country is great as long as you keep a vigilant eye on the costs. Keep the phone in Airplane Mode whenever possible, make sure everything you need is pre-loaded. Skip the iOS and app updates until you get home, because you don’t want to risk accidentally doing something to your phone that can’t be fixed.”

Comments are open, so feel free to share your international travel experiences.

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


  1. When I was in corporate IT part of my job was to issue iPhones for international travelers. Here’s some tips I’ve learned:

    * Voice CALLS are part of the voice plan (minutes and roaming), but voice MAIL on the iPhone is considered part of the data plan. Your best bet might be to let people leave a message and then call back using a calling card (prepaid calling cards are usually cheaper than adding international roaming).

    * AT&T has an option where you can add international roaming to your existing plan, and you can take it off again and it doesn’t impact your account to add it for the month, then remove it. Last I checked it was tiered, like the regular data plans so see what works best for you. (A good way to do this is to disable wifi while you’re still home, then reset the data usage and track it for a week of regular use and see how much you need.)

    * Rates AND coverage vary greatly from country to country, so check to see if it’s even worth picking up international data before you spend any money. If it’s super necessary you have connectivity, there are places that will rent a personal hot-spot device to you specifically for your destination. It isn’t cheap, but if it’s a requirement this might be a good way to go since your iPhone can connect to that hotspot just like any other wifi.

  2. I travel internationally and have bought a international data plan every time i haveI traveled for the last year or so. If you only use it when needed and when wifi is not available, you should be able to get by with 120 mb, which is what AT&T offers for $30.

    A few things I do to be sure that I won’t go over the international data or use other features that would be charged:

    Forward my phone to google voice. Thus it won’t ring while I am in another country ( but I can still check voicemail). I was told you can be charged even if the phone just rings and then goes to voicemail.

    Turn off text messages being sent if iMessage doesn’t work. On AT&T you are not charged for incoming texts, so only have to worry about being charged for sending one if it defaults to a text after iMessage fails. You can also use google voice to text as well.

    Reset the data counter on the phone so you can keep track of data usage. You can also check on the AT&T app.

    You don’t have to start the international data plan unti you are in county, at least for AT&T. Just find wifi and use the AT&T app to add an international data plan. It should pro rate.

    When I am in a hotel or other place with wifi, I put the phone in airplane mode and then turn on wifi. This is to prevent the possibility that I drop the wifi but do not notice and heavily use the data roaming plan.

    You can manually select the cellphone provide instead of automatically and this is sometimes helpful.

    Last thing, don’t forget to allow international data roaming in your settings.

    It is great to have google maps, accurate geotagging of photos and use of iMessage on the go without looking for a wifi connection.

  3. What about unlocking your phone and picking up a SIM from the country you’re travelling to? Then you can pay to use text and voice for a lot less than when roaming. The extra wrinkles are a Canadian friend will have to get the SIM and you’ll have to use the Canadian phone number associated with it rather than your own. Unlocking is less of a big deal because even if your carrier won’t unlock your phone you can pay one of the companies that do it for you, and it’s legal as long as the unlocking company isn’t in the US.

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