How to use an American iPhone abroad without going broke

How to: Use an American iPhone (or other gadgets) abroad without going broke

Angel iPhone

I am among many travelers that think smartphones are one of the greatest travel tools ever invented. Mainly because it allows us to multi-task, communicate and become a temporary local anywhere in the world. Becoming an effective traveler is now easier with the use of a smartphone. Unfortunately, many travelers have made some serious mistakes while using their gadgets abroad that have resulted in extremely costly phone bills. So how does one use their iPhone in Europe (or abroad) without going broke? Last year, after traveling to Europe three times, I was happy to avoid a nasty surprise on my phone bill by following these simple steps…

Please note: This article applies to GSM capable smart phones, particularly the iPhone or other iDevices such as iPad.

Turning on Airplane Mode is the “safest” method of traveling with your device. By turning on Airplane Mode your phone will not do the following:

  • Receive or send calls from/to your US Phone number
  • Receive or send SMS (text messages)
  • Download any data (unless connected to WiFi) like voicemail, email, GPS and other data based apps

If you do not want to do any of the above, then consider using your device on WiFi only. This will significantly reduce high data & voice charges that result in expensive bills. While inconvenient for some, Airplane Mode keeps your phone from becoming expensive while abroad.

Go to Settings—>Turn Airplane Mode ON Select Wifi—>Turn Wifi ON

Airplane Mode

Airplane Mode ON

Now, you can use your device (iPhone or iPad) as an internet (via WiFi) only device. Your device will no longer be able to accept phone calls, SMS (text messages), automatically download email and voicemail. To access your web browser, download email, or use any internet based apps, you must connect to a WiFi network.

Download Key Apps

There so many key apps that we can use as travelers to communicate effectively via WiFi. Downloading smart travel apps beforeyou leave, will help you make the most of your WiFi connection and possibly eliminate the need for Data and Cellular use (and expensive bills).

Skype. Skype is the grandaddy of them all. It allows free video, free voice calls and free instant messaging to other Skype accounts. Incredibly cheap rates for phone calls to land lines, mobile phones and SMS have allowed me to not use an international phone card in years.

Viber: Viber for iOS lets you use your iPhone to make free calls and send free text and photo messages to other Viber users, on any device, network and in country! With Viber, your contacts on your device are also your Viber contacts, because Viber automatically detects your contacts who already have Viber. All you need to do is click on a name and start talking. No invites. No hassle.

WhatsApp: (For text messaging only) WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. WhatsApp Messenger is available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone and Nokia and yes, those phones can all message each other! Because WhatsApp Messenger uses the same internet data plan that you use for email and web browsing, there is no cost to message and stay in touch with your friends.

For finding Free WiFi, I use Free Wi-Fi Finder

Apps for Communicating


Other Apps that make my life easier:

Travel Apps
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Business Travel Apps

Dont Forget about FaceTime & iMessage

Your device already comes with great communication apps already. iPhones & iPads are pre-loaded with FaceTime and iMessage. If you are trying to communicate with others who have iPhone or iPad, then you can simply use these apps to help you communicate when you are connected to WiFi. If you will be using iMessage as your main text messaging service, don’t forget that it sends messages over WiFi only. When your text bubble is blue instead of green, you’ll know you’re using iMessage instead of SMS (text messages where rates apply). For FaceTime, I always take the extra precaution to disable Cellular Data usage. 


Turn iMessage ON and Send as SMS OFF

Text Messaging Setting
iMessage Setting

Settings—>Facetime. Turn Facetime ON and Use Cellular Data OFF

FaceTime Setting
iMessage Example

Other options:

The only time an international plan (either voice or data) is preferable is if you *MUST* use your US number to make or receive phone calls or would like to use data when NOTconnected to Wifi. For example, if you insist on using your iPhone or tablet as a GPS anytime/anywhere wherever your are, pre-buying data may be the option for you.

If you need to make or receive phone calls from your US phone number, would like to receive SMS (text message rates apply) to your US phone number, possibly need to write an emergency email/text message or need to be on the cellular network of the foreign carrier at your destination for any reason, than you may want to consider the following:

  • Turn off Data Roaming
  • Change Push Notifications
  • Reset your cellular data count
  • Get a minimal data plan from your carrier as an insurance policy

Turn Data Roaming Off 

Settings—>General—>Cellular—>Switch Data Roaming Off (Leave Cellular Data ON to receive or make phone calls from your US phone number while traveling abroad. Leaving Cellular Data ON also helps with the GPS function on your Maps app is you’ve left your WiFi zone)

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Changing iPhone Settings

Change Email Settings 

Mail, Contacts, Calendars—>Fetch New Data: Turn Push to Off and the Fetch Schedule to Manually.

Email Setting
Turn Off Push

If any of the above seems too difficult, there is the option of purchasing an inexpensive phone abroad or using an international SIM card if your iPhone is unlocked. Those options have their limitations too so be careful. Usually phones purchased abroad become problematic if multi-country hopping is part of your itinerary.

I like having the ease, familiarity and advantages of using my own devices (Apple’s iPhone & iPad). By following the advice and steps listed above, you can travel well and travel often without breaking the bank. 

For more info please visit Apple’s website or check out this great article by TechCrunch. Contacting your cell phone provider with questions will likely leave you baffled.

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