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.