I’ve been asked many times about the best way to travel abroad with an iPhone without being hit at the end of the month with a jaw-dropping bill. Probably the best way to do this is to jailbreak your iPhone so it is no longer locked to AT&T. An unlock iPhone will let you use prepaid SIM cards you can purchase from local carriers – some even with data plans – giving you the full benefits of your iPhone wherever you travel.
The catch here is that you need to be willing to jailbreak your iPhone and deal with life outside the “safetynet” of the Apple ecosystem. Though the risk of problems with jailbreaking is low and the benefits are real, I made the personal decision a long time ago not to jailbreak my iPhone. I have enough technical complexity in my life, and just didn’t want to deal with another device requiring special attention. The entire iPhone ecosystem has worked really well for me, and I’ve never felt limited by the standard capabilities offered by Apple – except, of course, for the phone being carrier locked.
So can those of us with un-jailbroken iphones still make use of them abroad? Absolutely!
Here is a quick guide to maximizing your iPhone outside of the US:
- Unless you have money to burn, turn off data roaming on your iPhone. This will prevent it from connecting to data network of the local carriers in the country you are in – and save you potentially thousands of dollars in data roaming charges.
If you really want to be certain that you won’t be pulling data, you can also turn off the Cellular Data option above it.
- If you don’t already have an account, you now want to sign up for Skype. Go to www.skype.com and click on the Join Skype button:
Once you have your Skype account set up, just log in to the site and you’re ready for the next step.
- Next, you need to buy Skype credits. For pennies a minute, Skype will allow you to place calls to actual phone numbers – not just other Skype users. This ends up being a tiny fraction of what any carrier would normally charge.
For a recent week long business trip I took to Minsk, I ordered $20 worth of credits. I ended up making about 3 hours worth of calls but burned through less than $10 in credits. Skype absolutely is the most cost effective way to call people globally.
- If you would also like people to be able to call you via Skype from a regular phone, you can order what they call an Online Number. You can pick numbers local to any of 25 countries. I have a United States based Online Number from New York City, so anyone that has called me from there only needed to pay local toll charges – even when I was in Belarus.
It costs about $60 a year to have an Online Number. Go in to your account details on Skype, and you will see the option to sign up for it:
- The next step is making all of this available on your iPhone.
With that all set up, you now need to install the Skype application on your iPhone. Just go to the App Store on your iPhone, search for Skype. Select the Skype application and click FREE to get it:
The Skype application interface looks very similar to the standard phone interface on the iPhone and works in pretty much the same way:
So what’s the downside with this approach?
Skype requires that your iPhone be connected to the internet, and with Data Roaming disabled, that means you’ll need to be connected via a wireless hotspot. In most places you visit, there are many options available for this. Almost every hotel will have it available for guests, and many restaurants and coffee shops provide it for free. A useful resource for finding hotspots globally is a site called Hotspot Locations. You just need to choose a country and city, and it will give you a list of places there that offer wireless access. Make sure you pick several alternative locations in case certain ones are no longer available.
Another useful tip to keep in mind is that text messages can be sent and received even outside of hot spots. They will typically cost $.50-$1 per message, but can be a useful backup way of communicating when a hotspot isn’t available.
What I’ve outlined here is essentially what I use myself when traveling abroad. If any of you road warriors out there have other suggestions for world traveling iPhone users, just leave them in the comments.