The days of unlocking cellphones when traveling abroad are now over making it easier than ever to travel with your cellphone and staying in contact with friends and family back home. I remember having to unlock my blackberry years ago so that I could buy a local provider SIM while I traveled. And even though it was a pain in the ass to do, it taught me enough about cell phone technology that I have a collection of SIM cards I’ve gathered over the years. Using your cell phone abroad is actually a lot easier than you think!
Having a phone while you travel is extremely important , aside from the Facebook-ing and instagrability it allows. You are able to make emergency calls and be in contact with places like your hotel if you are ever to get lost.
For Tim and I, it allowed us to keep everyone updated on our trip with pictures and videos while also being able to make calls to my family when we ventured on our own. Having done this before, I sometimes take for granted the things that I know as a traveler, but both Tim and my brother quickly pointed out that a teeny tiny SIM card purchase and how to navigate buying a local one is something I should write about. So, here we are!
Using Your Cellphone Abroad
First things first, call your cell phone provider and make sure that if you take your “home” SIM out, it will in fact operate with a different one. Remember when AT&T first got the iPhone and you could ONLY use it if you had AT&T? This is basically what you are asking your provider. You could easily have someone open the “bands” on your phone abroad, but I don’t recommend it unless you know someone who can do it. When I had my blackberry unlocked 7-8 years ago it just so happened that a good family friend knew how to do it. But sometimes it requires leaving your phone overnight which could mean you never see it again. So what do you do if your phone can’t use another providers SIM? You have a few options
1. Unlock your phone before you travel. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube and resources out there!
2. Buy an unlocked phone for relatively cheap that is intended for international travel. Even Best Buy sells them! And this post tells you ALL about how awesome they are
Once you get to your destination, find the closest cellphone store. I usually ask someone at the airport or the hotel/area you will be staying at who the best provider is so I know what to look for. You won’t be signing a contract with the provider while you are abroad but rather buying a prepaid SIM card that you can load as needed, something very easily done in South America.
Just to put it into perspective and give you some rough numbers here is what it cost Tim and I do buy Colombian SIM cards with Claro (local provider) which will obviously vary from country to country.
- SIM Cards: 3,000 Pesos each
- Data for 15 days: 20,000 pesos each
- About 15 mins of call time: 5,000 pesos each
TOTAL: 56,000 pesos
With the current exchange rate at about $1 USD to $3,000 Colombian Pesos, we spent less than $20 for both of us to have cellphone usage in Colombia.
And we can break this down a little further, too. In Colombia specifically, it costs differently per minute if you are calling a landline or cellphone from a landline or cellphone. It also costs differently per minute if you are calling someone who is on the same/different provider than you. That’s why I said we got about 15 mins of call time, because sometimes we were calling landlines and other times cell phones that were also Claro or a different provider, making it hard to really calculate.
The bonus in Colombia however is that minutes are only spent if you are the one making the outgoing call, meaning that the person receiving the call doesn’t loose any minutes. It also won’t cost you minutes if the person you are out-bounding a call to doesn’t answer. So, when I would need my mom to pick Tim and I up we would have a predesignated place and I would simply call her and she would decline the call so I wouldn’t loose minutes.
SIDENOTE: this only works if the person you are calling actually sees the call… There have been times where I waited and waited for someone to come get me only to realize that they probably missed the call. That’s why the meeting places are now usually coffee shops!
As far as our data goes, we actually chose a bigger package than the needed because we would be using data heavy social media platforms. We could have gotten a cheaper 7 day plan, but the data plans in Colombia are based around What’s App, Twitter, and Facebook. When I mentioned to the gentleman at the store that we would be using it more for uploading to IG he suggested doubling our data plan.
For us, language wasn’t a barrier since I speak Spanish fluently. If I had to do this in a non-Spanish or non-English speaking country I can’t tell you how successful I would be. So for those of you travel to an area where you don’t speak the language maybe have written down the translated questions you would have for the provider abroad.
- Can I buy a prepaid SIM?
- Can I buy a prepaid data plan?
- How many local minutes will X amount of money get me?
You can also ask about calling internationally with your prepaid SIM, though many times that is far more expensive than its really worth. With the age of the internets, there is no need to call home. Shoot your family and friends back home a quick email to let them know you are safe!
You can still use your phone abroad without a SIM card, so if this seems to be more local commerce than you wish to get into FEAR NOT! Make sure that you are only connecting to wifi and turn your settings to reflect that, if not you will have a hefty bill waiting for you when you get home! Most cellphone companies now have deals with each other so that as you travel your Verizon cellphone automatically connects to a local provider. While this is super awesome for quick calls from the airport, I don’t recommend you use it the whole trip as the murky waters of what your bill will look like when you get home aren’t so easily navigated in the moment. A quick call to your home provider though should be able to give you specifics though!
So traveling abroad doesn’t have to mean you are completely unplugged! You just have to do a little research before hand!