How to Set Up Your Smartphone For An (Inexpensive) Trip Abroad


If you simply cannot do without your phone, you’re hardly alone: as devices have become more and more complex they’ve taken on the burden of more and more aspects of our lives. So when it comes to going abroad without your digital companion, the idea of a digital detox doesn’t always appeal. Nonetheless, despite the myriad issues surrounding mobile phone usage abroad – called “roaming” in certain situations – it’s possible to use your smartphone easily, if you do some preplanning.

Before You Go Basics

Knowing is half the battle kids, and there are a lot of things you should prepare well before you step aboard a plane – trust me, many of these things you definitely don’t want to be doing when you don’t have provider outlets you can walk into (don’t assume that multi-national phone companies can deal with your enquiries. Their relationship is frankly cannibalistic) or cheap customer service lines to call.

  • Check your phone supports local frequencies. Though this is a guide for smartphones and most smartphones are “Quad band” devices (supporting frequencies almost everywhere), there are still occasional devices that sacrifice international use for . The specification to look for (in your manual) are the GSM bands 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900, but much of the world is still accessible with just three of these;
  • Japan and South Korea are a frustrating exception, as they do not use the “GSM” standard. Read this FAQ for more details;
  • Decide if you’re going to use your network capability at all: smartphones can still be very useful in Wi-Fi mode (especially in countries where Wi-Fi coverage is extensive)
  • If you do intend to use your call capability, decide whether you’re going to use your current provider abroad, or use your phone abroad with a local provider (though these options aren’t mutually exclusive, so it’s best to follow both sets of guidelines!):

If you want to use your current provider abroad, be aware that roaming costs can be substantial. Data can be especially expensive. However, it’s easier for people to contact you – they pay no extra costs, though you will have to foot the bill for receiving calls and texts.

  • Speak to a network representative either in-store or over the phone to determine whether there are any discounts / packages on travelling abroad. Some providers offer packages with large discounts – but packages are often region specific, and may work out as a worse deal if you make short or extra-long calls, so make sure you get the best deal!
  • Much as you must tell your bank you’re going abroad, it’s worth informing your provider so that your account doesn’t get flagged for unusual usage;
  • People on business or monthly contracts also need to check whether their account is barred against usage abroad – this impediment can usually be removed from your account.

If you want to use your phone abroad with a local provider (and a local SIM card), you can benefit from reduced call and data costs. However, unless you’re staying for a short amount of time you’ll not be able to enjoy the inclusiveness of a contract, and you may have difficulty obtaining a contract even if you are staying for a while.

  • This is the best option if you have people in the country you’re visiting that you’re likely to be contacting. Calls between roaming customers can be very expensive indeed!
  • If you’re pursuing this option, you need to check that your phone is “unlocked” for use on any network. You can either do this by going to the network and requesting unlock instructions (you may have to pay if you’re still under contract), or by going to a high-street mobile phone shop and requesting the service;
  • One disadvantage of this method is that people phoning you will have to pay international charges, and know / remember your international number.

Using the Full Potential of your Smartphone

The above are the principles that have governed mobile phone usage for some time, but what of your apps and the other tricks and capabilities of the modern phone?

  • Remember that apps and most smartphone features are fuelled by data. Data coverage abroad can be patchy or even better than at home, but your main concern should be that it is expensive;
  • In fact, I would recommend that most people operate with their mobile network switched off, unless they have a good local data deal;
  • Wi-Fi is the method that most people use to access data abroad. It’s worth noting where at least one free to access (or at least, inexpensive) Wi-Fi point can be found before your even journey abroad;
  • However, if you’d rather not have to sit around drinking continental lattes every time you need a new app, researching and preloading what you will need before you go is a must;
  • Obvious app purchases / downloads include dictionaries and travel guides for certain languages you may need to speak and cities you’re planning to visit.
  • It may be worth turning off your wi-fi and network connection to test which apps work without a connection and find replacements for those that don’t;
  • One thing that (almost surprisingly) costs you nothing no matter where you are is use of your GPS receiver. Of course, without a map to plot this data on, this seems useless…
  • However, with Google Maps on Android, you can pre-cache a map at every level of zoom within a 10 kilometre area by pressing: Menu > Settings > Labs > Precache Map Area. Go to that area, switch on your GPS and you have everything you need. Well, unless you get lost 5km away from your central point;
  • Whilst the pre-caching feature doesn’t exist on iPhone and Windows Phone 7 as such, you can technically manually create the cache by loading each tile at every zoom-factor. This solution is rather inelegant and time consuming but still useful. Beware though, that you’re likely to lose this data as you use the app and your phone shunts round data – this is why there are alternative map apps on the Appstore.

Follow all these points and you’ll have a fantastic smartphone experience from the moment you step-off the plane, whether you’re using local networks, roaming or simply using your tech as a smart-device without a phone function at all. Well, assuming that you remember to bring the right adaptors for the local plugs!


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