Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Keeping in touch abroad; traveling with an iPhone

Prior to leaving on our one year trip I called my current Canadian cellular provider to explore options for cheap data roaming acces while traveling. Essentially there was nothing to match my needs and since I am on a contract I still needed to maintain my contract. The staff person helped me bring my plan down to the lowest level possible, essentially keeping my cell number, but no services, which got my charges to about $15.00/month.

It has been my experience that it is easier to get "pay as you go" contract-less iPhone plans everywhere else in the world, than it is in North America. I also find we have some of the worst rates as well! Knowing these issues, we invested in an unlocked iPhone 4s. "The unlocked iPhone includes all the features of iPhone but without a contract commitment. You can activate and use it on the supported GSM wireless network of your choice. The unlocked iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S will not work with CDMA-based carriers. If you don’t want a multiyear service contract or if you prefer to use a local carrier when traveling abroad, the unlocked iPhone is the best choice. It arrives without a micro-SIM card, so you’ll need an active micro-SIM card from any supported GSM carrier worldwide. To start using it, simply insert the micro-SIM card into the slot on your iPhone and turn it on by pressing and holding the On/Off button for a few seconds. Then follow the onscreen instructions to set up your iPhone." (source; The iPhone 4s also has an amazing camera, which has been my only camera on the entire trip.

Prior to leaving on your trip make sure you also have you iPhone sim removal tool (the little metal stick), as it is remarkably difficult to remove the sim with out it (I can vouch from experience that a paper clip or a pin did not work). Once you are in your destination you need to find a distributor with iPhone micro-sims and "pay as you go plans". We didn't bother seeking out a micro-sim card in Japan as we were not there long. As well in Bali we didn't bother either as we were in one spot with free wifi. (You can always turn your data roaming off, or switch to airplane mode and turn on wifi, and just use wifi when traveling. However there is more flexibility with having cellular access).

Once we arrived in Nepal we sought out a micro-sim and plan as we knew we would be there for a while and the wifi at our accommodations was often unreliable. We purchased a Ncell sim card, and cut it down to make it a micro-sim, as iPhones are rather uncommon there. In Nepal you must provide a passport size photo, government identification, finger prints, and fill out a form to purchase a sim card. (In fact nearly every country we travelled to required identification but no where else require fingerprints). We then just purchased top up cards when needed and were able to use cellular data.

I generally just get data plans, with basic calling, when traveling. My main uses for the phone when travelling are; GPS maps, Internet, Happycow vegetarian food finder app, language translation and currency exchange. Of course you can get plans with different talk and text packages. In France we used Orange Mobile, in Italy; Vodafone, Spain; Orange Mobile, and in Denmark; Lebara. All worked well and made traveling much easier and were quite affordable (I estimate under $10/week). Having a cell phone was very helpful in Venice when we needed to call our B and B operator to be let in the door!

But what about keeping touch with people back at home? I found the easiest and most cost effective answer was Skype. With a $3.00/month Skype subscription, I can call any cell or land line in Canada and USA, even while I was overseas . Generally most of our accommodations had free wifi, but it is also possible to use the Skype service over a cellular data plan if the signal is strong. The first step is to download the free Skype iPhone app, and set up a free Skype account. You can also use Skype for free to make calls from your computer, lap top or iPhone to a other similar device, but the plan I purchased allowed me to call regular phones. This is very handy when trying to keep in touch with folks like grandma, who do not have a computer or folks who mostly use a cell phone (no more waiting by your computer for a Skype call!)

Just before arriving back in Canada, at the end of July, I called my Canadian cellular provider and had my old plan reinstated, so when we landed I had full cell/data access. Now what about the USA? When we first arrived in the USA last month there was no "pay as you go" contract-less micro-sims and plans for unlocked iPhones. (Some telecom providers had options but only if you had one of their phones). So for the first month I got an expensive 30 day data roaming plan from my Canadian provider, for $100.00 that provided 500gigs of data. After a few weeks Straighttalk, came out with "pay as you go" plans and micro-sims. They are available exclusively via Walmart. However, no Walmart we visited had the micro-sims! So we ordered one online and it arrived in few days. I opted for the $60.00, thirty day Unlimited International Plan, which provides unlimited long distance, unlimited text, unlimited local calls, unlimited web/data. I was also able to choose which city my cell number would be from, so I picked NYC as we will be there the longest. The quirky thing about buying it online is I could not figure out how to use a Canadian credit card, so I used PayPal instead. The other issue was I was ubale to manually change my APN settings, which is needed for straight talk (I never needed to do this for all the other micro-sims I used ). I researched it online and found others had used this free app; Unlockit, so I followed the instructions and used it too! I just need to purchase a new plan every 30 days. So far the plan has worked well. I will hang on to the micro-sim and use it on future trips to the USA!

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