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The Latest Options for Traveling Overseas with Your iPhone

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Planning a trip abroad? Jason R. Rich explains the potential costs associated with making and receiving calls, sending and receiving text messages, and/or accessing the web using international roaming. He also discusses much less expensive options for using your iPhone and iPad while overseas.
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The majority of the major U.S. wireless service providers have made is very easy to travel to hundreds of countries abroad, and continue using your iPhone to make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, and access the Internet thanks to their international roaming agreements with overseas wireless service providers. While this is extremely convenient, it can also become very costly. You do, however, have a variety of less costly options.

International Roaming Versus Pre-Paid International Roaming

First, before leaving the United States, contact your wireless service provider and inquire about pre-paid international roaming plans or options, keeping in mind that these plans have three components – calling, texting, and data. For a non-refundable fee, you can pre-purchase calling minutes, text messages, and/or cellular data usage for use in the country you’ll be visiting. This will wind up costing a bit less than using international roaming without a pre-paid plan, but is still rather expensive, depending on the pre-paid option(s) you choose.

To take advantage of pre-paid international roaming options, it’s necessary to set this up with your regular wireless service provider before you leave the United States. Then, you typically only have one month to use the international pre-paid services before they expire. When signing up for these services, be sure you request them for only the time you’ll be overseas, and that you do not agree to ongoing monthly fees for an international roaming plan that you won’t ultimately use in the future.

The main benefit to international roaming or pre-paid international roaming plans is that your existing iPhone will work automatically in whatever country you visit. There are no phone settings to change, it’s not necessary to swap out your phone’s SIM chip, and you keep your existing phone number. In other words, if someone calls your regular iPhone number, or sends you a text message or email to your iPhone, you will receive it while abroad. Likewise, if you make a call, send a text message, or send an email from abroad, it will be as if you’re sending it from your regular iPhone from within the United States.

Without a pre-paid cellular roaming plan, making or receiving a call while overseas can cost anywhere from $0.99 to $5.00 (or more) per minute (or even more if you’re aboard a cruise ship). Sending a text message will cost between $0.50 and $1.00 each, and using any cellular data functions from your iPhone will cost at least $20.00 per megabyte (MB).

The cost of pre-paid international roaming plans very, based on what country you’ll be visiting, and what type of package you acquire for calling, texting, and/or using cellular data. To learn more about international roaming options from U.S. wireless service providers, visit:

Swap Out Your SIM Chip for an Even More Cost Effective Option

When you arrive in the country you’ll be visiting, visit any Apple Store or cellular phone store, and purchase a local pre-paid (pay-as-you-go) SIM chip for your iPhone or iPad (with Wi-Fi + Cellular data capabilities) from one of that country’s local wireless service providers. These SIM chips typically come with a pre-determined amount of calling, texting and data usage for a flat fee that must be used within a one-day, three-day, one-week, or 30-day period, depending on the SIM chip.

When choosing which pre-paid SIM chip to purchase while abroad, determine the cost per call both within that country and to call back to the United States (or another country). Also, try to find a SIM chip that offers unlimited texting during a specific time period, and that offers at least 1GB or 2GB or cellular data on a 4G (LTE) network.

Depending on the country you’re visiting, only 3G cellular data connectivity may be offered. Or, if 3G and 4G (LTE) is offered, you may wind up paying a few dollars extra for the much faster speed 4G (LTE) connectivity, but it’s worth it. Always ask if a 4G (LTE) wireless data option is available.

Using a pre-paid SIM chip acquired in the country you’re visiting will typically require you to manually remove your iPhone or iPad’s existing SIM chip, and replace it with the new one provided. Make sure you don’t lose your original SIM chip, however, as you’ll need to re-install it into your iPhone or iPad upon returning to the United States.

You can swap out the SIM chip yourself, in less than two minutes using the tiny tool that came with your iPhone or Wi-Fi + Cellular data iPad. However, it’s typically a better idea to have the Apple Store or cellular phone store where you purchase the pre-paid SIM chip do the swap for you, so they can insure the new SIM chip works in your device.

Keep in mind, depending on which iPhone or iPad model you have, the device will use a micro-SIM chip or a nan-SIM chip, which are different sizes. Thus, it’s essential that you insert the appropriate size pre-paid SIM chip into your iOS mobile device for it to function properly. The SIM chip slot that’s built into your iPhone and iPad is delicate, so never force the SIM chip into or out of the device, and make sure it’s facing in the correct direction when inserting it to avoid damaging the unit or the chip.

Depending on which country you’re visiting, and what calling, texting, and wireless data options the pre-paid (pay-as-you-go) SIM chip comes with, you’ll pay the equivalent of anywhere from $10.00 to $50.00 (U.S. dollars). If you use up the calling, texting, or wireless data allocation provided by the pre-paid plan, using a credit or debit card, it’s typically possible to purchase additional service right from your device.

Some international pre-paid (pay-as-you-go) SIM chip plans require you to sign up for recurring monthly service that is cancellable at any time (after paying for the first month, which begins when you activate the SIM chip within your iPhone or iPad). If this is the case, just prior to leaving the country you’re visiting, contact that wireless service provider and cancel the service. In most cases, however, non-recurring, one-time fee, pre-paid (pay-as-you-go) SIM chips are available.

Using a local pre-paid (pay-as-you-go) SIM chip is a much less costly option than international roaming or pre-paid international roaming from your home wireless service provider. The main drawback, however, is that as soon as you remove your original SIM chip from your iPhone, your cell phone number will not work until you return home and re-install your original SIM chip.

Any incoming calls to your regular cell phone number will go straight to voicemail, and any incoming text messages will not be received until you get home. The new SIM chip will come with its own local phone number, from which you can make or receive calls, plus send/receive text messages.

Relying on Wi-Fi is Your Least Expensive Option

Pretty much anywhere you travel these days, you’ll find Starbucks, McDonald’s and other coffee shops and fast food establishments that offer free Wi-Fi. You’ll also find Wi-Fi hotspots within airports, Internet cafes, at many tourist attractions, and within hotels. Thus, even with your iPhone or iPad in Airplane mode, you can turn on the Wi-Fi feature and still utilize the Internet from a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Once your iPhone or iPad is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, it’s possible to use FaceTime or Skype, for example, for audio or video calling. FaceTime works for free between any two Apple devices, while Skype works with any other Internet-enabled computers or mobile devices. For a very low fee (just pennies per minute), you can also make calls from Skype (running on your iPhone or iPad) to any cell phone or landline, located almost anywhere in the world. A unique Skype phone number can also be acquired, allowing you to receive calls from anywhere.

In addition, using Apple’s iMessage service (which works in conjunction with the Messages app), it’s possible to send/receive text messages using the Internet (as opposed to a cellular data service) and communicate with any other Apple mobile device or computer users. You can also use social media services, like Facebook Messenger, to communicate with other Facebook Messenger users for free, regardless of where you are in the world, as long as your mobile device has Wi-Fi Internet access.

The benefit to using just a Wi-Fi internet connection from your mobile device is that it’s free, unless you have to pay to access a specific Wi-Fi hotspot in a hotel or Internet café, for example. If you’re diligent, however, you can typically find free Wi-Fi hotspots during your travels.

The drawback to relying just on just Wi-Fi, is that your iPhone or iPad can only access the Internet while you’re within that Wi-Fi hotspot’s signal radius. Once you move out of the signal radius, the Internet connection will be dropped. This prevents you from using apps like Maps to navigate around a foreign city, for example.

Final Thoughts…

Anytime you’re traveling abroad (or sailing on a cruise ship), having the ability to easily stay in touch with friends, family or your job back home is always comforting. Using your existing iPhone (or iPad), this can be done in any of several ways, depending on which country you’ll be visiting and how much money you’re willing to spend.

If you want to avoid potentially hefty international roaming charges while overseas, keep your iPhone in Airplane mode, and rely only on a Wi-Fi Internet connection. Or, if you opt to use the phone so that you can make/receive calls, plus send/receive text messages, seriously consider turning off the cellular data international roaming option. This will prevent you from being charged upwards of $20.00 per megabyte (MB) if you don’t have a pre-paid international data plan. (With cellular data roaming turned off, your iPhone will only be able to access the Internet via a Wi-Fi hotspot while you’re overseas.)

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