I was talking to my friend the other day about keeping in touch with family and friends when traveling overseas and she made the following statement:
“I can still use text messaging while I’m traveling. I just have to use Wi-Fi.”
What do you think? Is she right? Is SMS or texting overseas a valid option as long as you have access to an Internet service?
The answer is technically yes. But you’d better be careful if you do!
To help you understand how to use your cell when traveling overseas (and what it means if you do), I’ve addressed some of my most frequently asked questions so you know exactly what to expect if you decide to keep in touch with family and friends via your mobile phone while on your next far-away adventure.
Can I Use SMS Or Text Messaging While Traveling Overseas At No Cost As Long As I Am Connected To Wi-Fi?
No! Not without cost. You will get charged data roaming charges if you step off your own land and into another country without turning off your cell phone carrier data.
In fact, my friend recently went to the Bahamas for the weekend and, because it was a short boat ride from Florida, she didn’t think to change anything on her phone, sending text messages as she would normally. Her AT&T bill wound up being over $200 – from just that weekend!
So, always, always make sure you turn off your cell phone provider data plan before traveling overseas. You can save literally hundreds or even thousands of dollars when you do.
How Do I Turn Off My Cell Phone Data So I Don’t Get Charged Roaming Fees While Overseas?
The simplest way to turn data off is to put your phone in Airplane Mode. Here’s how based on which smartphone you have:
- iPhone– Go to Settings and the very top option is Airplane Mode. Set this to ONand wait for the airplane icon to appear.Then go to the option below it for Wi-Fi. You can set this to ON so it picks up any network that is available; otherwise, just leave it off for now.
- Android– Click Menu and go to Settings. Under Wireless & Networks, select MORE. You will see that the top option is Airplane Mode. Check the box and wait for the ON button to turn blue.
(Note: If you do not have a smartphone (i.e. iPhone, Android, or Windows phone) or a phone that allows you to turn off your data and still access Wi-Fi, then you should turn your phone completely OFFwhile traveling.)
If My Data Is Turned Off, Will I Still Get Charged?
As long as your phone’s data is turned off, then you cannot be charged for any roaming charges, even with Wi-Fi enabled. Essentially, your phone switches from being a cell phone that uses cellular data into a computer via a wireless hotspot – again, without creating any carrier fees.
In other words, it’s safe to use Wi-Fi on your phone while you are in Airplane Mode. No carrier fees will apply.
What Is The Difference Between Cellular Data and Wi-Fi?
The difference between cellular data and Wi-Fi is that cellular data is transmitted over your cell phone network (think AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint), whereas Wi-Fi data is over a wireless Internet network, such as what you would have when using Starbucks Wi-Fi.
Can I Use My Phone As A Mobile Hotspot While Overseas?
You won’t be able to use your phone as a hotspot that you can connect to from other devices while overseas, as this requires that your phone become a wireless access point, leveraging cellular data.However, you will be able to use the phone itself to access the Internet.
(One option to consider is T-Mobilewho now offers a prepaid plan called “Simple Choice”. With it, you can buy 7gigabytes per month and turn on data with mobile hotspot enabled.)
Getting a Local SIM Card
If you want to get Internet while overseas and not roaming, you have to get a local SIM card with a data plan. Most SIM cards can be purchased at a local gas station, drug store, or, of course, your one of your cell phone carrier’s stores or kiosks.
You can also purchase an international SIM card from onesimcard.com.
What Is the Difference Between a Local SIM Card and a Regular SIM Card?
The difference between a local SIM card and your regular SIM on your phone is that, with a local SIM, you will have a local number. This means that friends and family trying to reach you will have to text you on your local number.
For example, let’s say you go to Berlin, Germany and you get a local Vodafone SIM card. Your phone number will begin with “49,” which is the country code. It’s a great option for texting within the city, but not such a great option for contacting mom.
You do have a few options when getting a local plan, though.
- Buy a phone with a SIM card that you can recharge. These usually start at around USD $20 and you can add credit as you go.
- Buy an unlocked cell phone and purchase a SIM card. I currently have an unlocked iPhone 6 Plus with a T-Mobile SIM cardon the US-based Simple Choice month-to-month plan which costs me $50 USD per month for 3 gigs of data. This means that I don’t have to change out to a new SIM card when I arrive in a new country and I get unlimited data and texting, Wi-Fi calling, and in-flight texting. Plus, if my plan goes over, data doesn’t shut off, it just slows down. This can come in very handy when you would have otherwise been stuck with zero Internet.Also, with the T-Mobile plan in the US, you can call other countries for only $.20 cents per minute, and international texting is free.
- Buy a phone with dual SIM, like the Sony Xperia E1 Dual.
Here are some examples of local SIM card providers:
- Mexico – TelCel (wider coverage) and Movistar (cheaper)
- Germany – Vodafone, E-Plus, and Telekom
- USA – T-Mobile, AT&T, and Boost
What Services or Apps Can I Use While Traveling Overseas To Send Text Messages?
Technically you aren’t sending SMS messages or “text” messages when you have Wi-Fi on and data off, but you can still send text-like messages to your family and friends using services like these.
(Note: If you have AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or a regular T-Mobile cellular plan and you set your phone to Airplane Mode, you will not be able to send text (SMS) messages.)
To text with a family member or friend while abroad, make sure your Wi-Fi is turned ON and that you both have one of the following services on your phones:
- iMessage. This option causes the most confusion and the reason is that if you and five of your friends all have iPhones, you can “text” each other as if nothing ever changed. However, you aren’t actually texting; you’re just using Apple’s messaging service to send correspondence back and forth over a Wi-Fi connection. Therefore, you can only converse with others who have Apple products.
With iMessage, you can still receive messages abroad while data is turned off.Andif you’re in Airplane Mode but have Wi-Fi set to “on,” then you can receive iMessages which appear like text messages but they will be in blue versus green, like this:
Ultimately, you will not receive the green message when you are abroad and your cell phone data is turned off. So, if you have data turned on and you see green messages – look out!You are getting charged insane rates.Remember, Airplane mode – on; Wi-Fi– on.
- Google Voice. This one has been around for awhile and is still quite functional, but not the most popular option. To use it, simply download the Google Voice app, sign up for a Google Voice phone number (free in U.S.), and you can send messages back and forth from that number. They will appear on your phone via the app, allowing you to send SMS messages overseas as much as you’d like!
Google Hangouts may start to soon replace Google Voice, but for now, it’s still a great option and I use it all the time. At the very least, it’s like having a second number on the same phone so you have two options. Give friends and clients your Google Voice number so you’ll always have a local US number for people to text you.
- WhatsApp. WhatsApp became very popular recently when it was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. To utilize it, just download Whats App, find your friends, and send messages back and forth. It’s not the first of its kind, but it is fairly popular and growing in popularity. If your friends are tech or travel savvy, or if they/you are European, you’ll most likelyfind them here. It’s a must-have app for travelers or for communicating and texting your friends overseas.
To use WhatsApp(and all the other apps), you must be connected to Wi-Fi.
A kind of fun feature of WhatsApp is that you can send MMS, or picture messages, for free as well – all over Wi-Fi.The images will also automatically be added to your photo album on your phone (at least on iPhone).No more asking your friend to share an album with you and no more having to ‘save image’; it just shows up.
- Viber. Not dissimilar to Google Voice and WhatsApp, Viber takes the best of the two and combines them. Once you download the app, you find your friends who are also using Viber, and you can connect immediately. The nice thing about this particular messaging app is that, not only can you send free messages back and forth inside of the app, but you can also make free calls. Viber even uses your cell phone number as your identifier.
There are a growing number of options for sending messages to family and friends, and these are just a few. For instance, GroupMe is another popular group messaging app that allows you communicate with a number of people at once (and you can still use emoji!).
For more messaging options while traveling overseas, I suggest you read: Top 7 Communication Apps to Use While Travelling.
Summary Of Texting Overseas:
Just to hammer the main points home –
DO NOT send SMS messages or text messages while traveling overseas unless you want to pay out the nose for them.(Also remember that it’s not possible to send SMS over Wi-Fi.)
You CAN receive SMS messages/texts, but you will pay for them. A lot! So turn off your cell phone data by putting your phone in Airplane Mode and turning on Wi-Fi.
You CAN receive messages (non-SMS) over Wi-Fi, for free.
You CANNOT send or receive SMS messages (“texts”) via your cell phone carrier when you are in airplane mode.
Eventually, we may not even need cellphone carriers to keep in touch but, until then and until you get rid of your cell phone plan, be careful of extra charges when traveling overseas. They’re simply not worth it when you have so many free options available.
Again, just remember that SMS is always associated with your carrier (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.) and a message can be eithera text message synonymous with SMS or a non-SMS text message image, or other form of communication.