Face it. We are all spoiled by the oceans of information that is now available in our palms. We don’t have to ask directions anymore. There’s an app for that. We can find places to eat and drink right around us instantaneously. We know what the weather will do before it does it. So why should you give all of that up when you are traveling with your smartphone?
Planning before you leave home
Well, the good news is, you don’t have to. It is just a question of what is it going to cost? The good news on that front is, probably not as much as it used to. We’ve all seen the stories (or myths?) of the parents who let their kid play with their phone only to come home to a roaming charge bill equal to their house payment. That’s a thing of the past, due to two changes. First, is that the wireless companies have dropped prices on international roaming, none more than T-Mobile in the US. Their Simple Choice plan includes free SMS and data in over 140 countries, and calls are only 20 cents/minute. But what if you aren’t with T-Mobile? Well, you need to answer three questions:
Is it a GSM phone?
Is it unlocked for international calling?
Does it work on the frequencies in the countries you will be visiting?
Let’s start with the blanket statements on #3 first. Data cards are not available to visitors in Cuba, North Korea, and parts of Moldova. The next list is sort of a “maybe” list. If you are traveling to Azerbaijan, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Palestine, Tajikistan, Turkey or Uzbekistan, please refer to the best possible resource — the Prepaid Data Card Wiki — for details on what and why along with possible workarounds.
Back to “is my phone a GSM phone”? If it is an AT&T or T-Mobile phone, it is. If it is a Verizon or Sprint phone, it depends. All iPhone 6s and Galaxy S6s are. For Verizon or Sprint customers with different phones, refer to this page.
Now, the “is it unlocked for international calling” question. Best bet is to call your provider and ask. We have Verizon iPhone 6s — they are unlocked as are all Verizon 4G LTE phones, of any make. So we were ready on departure.
As far as the final question, in the 136 countries not listed above, the answer is almost certainly yes. Should you want to check, look here to see what frequencies your phone operates on (or call your carrier, or just Google it). Then look here for a country by country listing of what frequencies are in use in the places you are visiting.
Satisfied that your phone will work in the countries you are visiting? Let’s stop right there. Take ten minutes, go to Amazon, and buy one of these SIM card holders. This one is for the nano size found in iPhones, MotoXs and Nexus as well as the S6s. They are also available in the larger Micro size used in almost every other phone today. The reason you need this is that once you pop out your US sim card, you will not find it when you return home if you don’t have a safe place like this to store it. Besides, it comes with a neat tool to pop the tray out on the iPhone. Best $7 you will ever spend.
Using our phones in Southeast Asia
The details on what plans are available in each country — carriers, cost, coverage, etc, are all listed here. Armed with that information, we arrived in Singapore recently. While waiting for the bags to come up, I walked over to the RHB Bank Currency Exchange Counter and bought a S$ 28 SingTel hi!card, which gave me 2GB of data per day for the four days we’d be there. The woman at the counter knew exactly what she was doing with my iPhone and soon I had a fully functioning data device, plus a Singapore phone and text number. Pulled up the Uber app, found a UberXL vehicle nearby, and fifteen minutes later we were headed to the hotel. Easy peasy. Next day, made our way to the nearest 7 Eleven and bought Susan a card at an even better price than what was available at Changi airport. Now we were the connected couple, with all of our normal thought patterns enabled.
When we got to Malaysia three days later, swapped the SingTel cards for two DiGi 3GB cards each. Had some problems connecting, which were fixed by visiting a DiGi cell store (vice the vendor we bought the cards from). After that, worked great. It also allowed us to tether our laptops and tablets when we got back to the ship, vice using their expensive satellite based service onboard.
We didn’t buy cards in Myanmar (spotty network, especially in Bagan where we were headed) or in Thailand (only there for a day, spent snorkeling). When we got back to Malaysia, we found out about the well known limitations of the DiGi network in the outlying islands. No coverage in Langkawi! But once we got to Lumut, visited the DiGi store in the mall, topped both up, and we were online again there and in our next city of Malacca. Back in Singapore, we topped Susan’s up (mine still had credit).
Absolutely painless, and comforting to know that we had the same security and connectivity that we enjoy when we are at home, for a fraction the cost of any international roaming data plan.
So, what if your phone doesn’t work, or isn’t unlocked? There are still ways to save money over roaming data. First is use only WiFi, which is abundant in Singapore. In Kuala Lumpur and Lumut, we used Starbucks for big downloads despite having data plans. And of course, in Singapore, we had the hotel WiFi. We used that to call home using the Ooma app that comes with our VoIP phone in our house. Crystal clear connection, and the best part is that the calls showed up with our home phone on the Caller ID! Had to call Delta about our return tickets, and they said “Welcome back, Scott” like I was calling from the house. Google Voice will work the same if you don’t have Ooma. You could also buy an inexpensive hotspot on eBay (like the Huawei E5330 for as little as $40), then get a data card at your destination. Again, use Google Voice for your calls because the data side of your phone will now work fine on the WiFi from the hotspot.
By investing some time and money before you leave, you will know what the options are and will be prepared. Certainly worth it to have the information you need at your fingertips during your trip.
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I will answer the best I can.