Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

Summary: Unless you feel like splurging and spending $600 to $700 on an unlocked iPhone, taking Apple's smartphone when traveling outside of the United States can be a bit tricky. Here's how my experience went in Europe.

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Unless you feel like splurging and spending $600 to $700 on an unlocked iPhone, taking Apple's smartphone when traveling outside of the United States can be a bit tricky. Here's how my experience went in Europe.

Before I reflect, I should point out that the tips in this story might not be applicable to everyone. Even I was a bit surprised by a few twists, which I'll explain below. However, certain constraints include the iPhone model, the carrier, which country you're going to and maybe just how nice the sales person you speak to is.

So here we go. Ahead of jetting off to live in France for a year, I decided I still wanted to hang on to my iPhone (the first generation) to use abroad. I had never upgraded at this point, and at the time of departure, this smartphone was approximately three years old. (Obviously, I was eligible for an upgrade with AT&T at that point, but I was holding out for what would eventually be the iPhone 4 I have now.)

I knew my iPhone was locked, but I heard from friends who had moved abroad before that they were able to break or put their contracts on hold for various reasons. When I called AT&T's customer service (Apple can't really help in this regard, so don't bother with them), I explained that I was moving for a work program, and I would be away from the U.S. for at least eight months. I asked what I could do, and the customer service rep informed me that I could only put it on hold in cases of extreme emergencies (i.e. health, death in the family, etc.) or if i was in the military. Neither exception applied to me. However, there was at least one thing I could do to save money:

Tip #1: If you're going abroad for at least one month or more, cancel the data plan - if possible.

This could be catchy for some users as contracts often stipulate that you have to have both a voice and data plan. However, since I was well beyond the end date of my contract, I could do whatever I wanted with the plan. So I dropped the data plan, which meant I only had to pay $40 each month I was gone. (You might be wondering why I didn't cancel altogether and just pay , but I still wanted to keep my U.S. number for personal and work-related reasons here.)

The next problem was figuring out how I would be able to use the iPhone abroad with another carrier's SIM card. I had already resolved to put my AT&T SIM card in a Motorola Razr (which can be unlocked by oneself by just going to the AT&T account page and obtaining a code specific to that model). Using the Razr allowed by to have my U.S. number accessible when needed and then I would put a French SIM card in the iPhone as I would be using that more often and I planned to get a data plan over there.

Tip #2: Go to a local brick-and-mortar AT&T and Verizon store and ask for advice in person.

This is where I might have just gotten lucky based on who I spoke with. When I explained my situation to the employee, he actually gave me a 10 percent off coupon for another private mobile phone shop that would unlock my iPhone for $35 (when you incorporate the discount). This could have been because that local (and truly official) AT&T store had some kind of deal with this shop, and/or because my iPhone was so old that AT&T didn't care about it anymore.

Tip #3: Have your iPhone unlocked by a professional.

Unless you are really good with rooting devices, you could really screw up your iPhone by just downloading the software to do this from some random website. I paid a bit more than one would online, but not only did I have the green light from AT&T to visit this store, but I was able to check it out in person and make sure the device worked properly before leaving the shop.

Tip #4: Don't get an Apple software upgrade until you are ready to have your iPhone locked up again.

This tip came directly from the store owner who unlocked my iPhone. Apple typically includes codes to re-lock iPhones that have been unlocked with each major software upgrade, so watch out for that. You wouldn't want to have to go through the whole unlocking process and pay again.

Thus, my iPhone was ready to leave America.

Tip #5: When getting to Europe, the easiest place to get a new phone contract or even a pre-paid phone is The Phone House (as it is referred to on the continent. It is also called the Carphone Warehouse in the United Kingdom and Ireland).

This retailer offers multiple plans from multiple carriers, so you can compare and choose all at once, saving a lot of grief from going store to store.

For shorter visits, you can get a local pre-paid SIM card fairly cheaply. If you plan on staying for a long time (like say, a year), you could sign up for a subscription - provided you have all the required paperwork for the country. (For example, in France you need a bank account with an ATM card as well as proof of a permanent address, among other things.)

I ended up selecting Orange (versus SFR or Virgin Mobile) because I was most familiar with that brand, and it offered a few extra amenities like unlimited TV on my iPhone. (Seriously.)

Thus, I was set up with an Orange France 3G SIM card on my iPhone (which still only used Edge network, unfortunately) with a voice and data plan for that country, and then I had my AT&T SIM card in my Razr flip phone.

When it came time to leave and go back to the U.S., I had to tie up a few loose ends. Namely, I had to cancel my contract with Orange. With this carrier, as well as many others (even in the U.S.), it is possible by providing evidence that you are leaving the country and not coming back (at least permanently). This was fairly easy as I'm not a French citizen, so obviously to Orange I was leaving at some point. So I just had to mail in a copy of my work visa that showed an actual expiration date.

When I got back to the U.S., I got my data plan back when upgrading to a new iPhone finally.

Naturally, there are a other ways of going about this for short and long-term time frames. One is that if you're only going abroad for a short time and want to use your iPhone, remember the following items before departure:

  • Sign up for a short-term add-on plan with your mobile provider that will enable your iPhone to work abroad
  • AT&T has short-term plans specific to Canada and Mexico as well as the World Traveler Plan for a few extra bucks per month. (I had to implement the latter one to be able to use my Razr phone at all.)
  • Verizon also has its own Global Travel Program
  • Don't forget to turn off the Data Roaming and Cellular Data settings. You'll rack up charges beyond belief if you miss this.

Certainly my experience and approach might seem like a roundabout way of doing things, but maybe you'd be surprised how difficult American mobile providers have made using their locked smartphones when traveling internationally.

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Topics: Mobility, Hardware, iPhone, Smartphones

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18 comments
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  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    I have pretty much decided that I will not be doing any foreign travel any time soon, but this is excellent info. Thank you, Rachel. I have read all of your blog about the time that you spent in France. It was fascinating.
    charleyj98
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    Where is the rest of the Article?
    avid23
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    clicky page 2 Waves @ Between the Lines
    Larry Dignan, Andrew Nusca and Rachel King It's a well written article her usual A+ standard . My personal preference is the time spent in France would of been more interesting then my phone owns me .Did you take any bikini swimsuits pics to share ? ;)
    iguanaware
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    I am curious - when you "got your data plan back", did ATT reinstate your old all you can eat data plan or did you have to sign up to the new metered variety?
    THX
    FranzXA
  • SIM from Internet dongle?

    Would be intrigued to know if the following is possible:
    - get your iPhone unlocked
    - on arrival in new country, get a local Internet penstick/dongle, making sure to get a model that allows access to the SIM card inside the penstick; activate and top up to the use you're going to need
    - cut the SIM card from the dongle to the size of the iPhone micro-SIM and use in your iPhone
    neilcoffey
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    Sorry duplicated... :-(
    jessegxoxo@...
  • Other options

    When I travel abroad (although usually only for a few weeks at a time), I just use a Skype app and keep my phone in airplane mode. Skype on my iPhone works just as well as the regular phone, and I can use it anywhere there's wifi. In most westernized countries that's pretty much everywhere. If the person you are calling has Skype, then it's free, otherwise it's some incredibly nominal amount to call back to the US (even US cell phones), like 2 cents a minute or something. You can use it for texting as well, but that's not quite as cheap. My co-worker uses his Google voice to make calls when he's traveling.
    pinkcobra9
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    I was a loyal AT&T Customer for 15years. I had an iPhone that got run over by a car and needless to say went to iPhone heaven. I went on vacation to Mexico so I didn't get a new phone, I just borrowed a friends new Blackberry that was gifted to her. I hated it. I loved my iPhone (I could actually use iPhone key pad!). I tried to live without my iPhone as I knew that I would be moving to Holland in 7 months, but I couldn't. I got my replacement iPhone from AT&T not realizing that I was being locked into a NEW 2 year contract from the time I received my replacement iPhone. Turns out every time you get a new phone you get a new contract. I called AT&T but they wouldn't budge on letting me out of my contract, even after 15 years of loyal service. They charged me a cancellation fee of $150. I'll NEVER USE AT&T again! But on with the living abroad with an iPhone.
    I LOVE MY iPHONE! Indeed, you have to get it unlocked to have it work outside the USA with a foreign SIM card. I went to a local shop near the Train station in Holland to a place everyone I was meeting recommended. Shops even advertised "Phone Unlock". I got my iPhone unlocked for ?10 about $14 US. And it's true you can't update your iPhone, or iTunes! otherwise you're back to square one. You can't sync your phone either with your computer if you originally synced your iPhone on a US computer, you'll once again be with a locked phone. Oh, another important thing to know is that if you do happen to get your phone locked up again by not realizing that you've started to sync or update your iPhone or iTunes you HAVE TO HAVE the original SIM card that came with your iPhone otherwise you would have to buy a new sim card and wait a few days before it can be reprogrammed. This can cost a lot of money, unless the business you are relying on is generous enough to know that he's dealing with a stupid American... LOL, yes that would be me. It happened twice. I got it locked up once, had it re-unlocekd, I wasn't chaged by the guy. SO I threw away my original SIM card thinking I was never gonna use it again. But then I updated again. The guy took pitty on my and only charged me ?10. The good thing is that now I have my iPhone set up for being able to sync with my computer and I can update my new Dutch details everyday, but I still cannot update the software for iTunes or iPhone. Make sure that when you get the prompts for updating either software that you decline and check the box that reads "Do not ask again". This will keep you from being tempted by the evil that lurks in the dark recesses of the key pads... LOL. Anyway, iPhone plans are super cheap here in Europe. I got mine for only ?25 a month that includes UNLIMITED internet. You can get calling and text plans starting for as little as ?10 per month. It's WAY CHEAPER than anything in the US and it's not AT&T! Happy traveling. Sorry for the long reply, but Life is good in the Netherlands but the more information you have before traveling anywhere outside of your own back yard can save you a major headache, heartache, and some $? or Pesos...
    I LOVE MY iPHONE! Indeed, you have to get it unlocked to have it work outside the USA with a foreign SIM card. I went to a local shop near the Train station in Holland to a place everyone I was meeting recommended. Shops even advertised "Phone Unlock". I got my iPhone unlocked for ?10 about $14 US. And it's true you can't update your iPhone, or iTunes! otherwise you're back to square one. You can't sync your phone either with your computer if you originally synced your iPhone on a US computer, you'll once again be with a locked phone. Oh, another important thing to know is that if you do happen to get your phone locked up again by not realizing that you've started to sync or update your iPhone or iTunes you HAVE TO HAVE the original SIM card that came with your iPhone otherwise you would have to buy a new sim card and wait a few days before it can be reprogrammed. This can cost a lot of money, unless the business you are relying on is generous enough to know that he's dealing with a stupid American... LOL, yes that would be me. It happened twice. I got it locked up once, had it re-unlocekd, I wasn't chaged by the guy. SO I threw away my original SIM card thinking I was never gonna use it again. But then I updated again. The guy took pitty on my and only charged me ?10. The good thing is that now I have my iPhone set up for being able to sync with my computer and I can update my new Dutch details everyday, but I still cannot update the software for iTunes or iPhone. Make sure that when you get the prompts for updating either software that you decline and check the box that reads "Do not ask again". This will keep you from being tempted by the evil that lurks in the dark recesses of the key pads... LOL. Anyway, iPhone plans are super cheap here in Europe. I got mine for only ?25 a month that includes UNLIMITED internet. You can get calling and text plans starting for as little as ?10 per month. It's WAY CHEAPER than anything in the US and it's not AT&T! Happy traveling. Sorry for the long reply, but Life is good in the Netherlands but the more information you have before traveling anywhere outside of your own back yard can save you a major headache, heartache, and some $? or Pesos...
    jessegxoxo@...
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    Interestingly, verizon world phones have unlockable sim ports. Just call vzw and ask for the code if you have been a customer for 90 days. Then you can put in any foreign sim card.
    LarsDennert
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    Perhaps the article should have been run past Zack Whittaker, who lives in the UK.

    The Car Phone Warehouse is nothing special - you can get a Pay As You Go SIM anywhere from phone shops to Supermarkets - they are 99p in Tesco.

    You can also get a short-term 30 days notice rolling contract SIM from ?5-15 from the likes of O2 (UK/Ireland), T-Mobile, Vodafone (part owner of Verizon, but on GSM everywhere here.

    --

    If you have a Verizon CDMA phone, you are screwed, as there is next to no CDMA coverage outside of North america - Dead technology. GSM is everywhere.
    neil.postlethwaite
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    Perhaps the article should have been run past Zack Whittaker, who lives in the UK.

    The Car Phone Warehouse is nothing special - you can get a Pay As You Go SIM anywhere from phone shops to Supermarkets - they are 99p in Tesco.

    You can also get a short-term 30 days notice rolling contract SIM from ?5-15 from the likes of O2 (UK/Ireland), T-Mobile, Vodafone (part owner of Verizon, but on GSM everywhere here.

    --

    If you have a Verizon CDMA iPhone, you are screwed, as there is next to no CDMA coverage outside of North america - Dead technology. GSM is everywhere.
    neil.postlethwaite
    • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

      @neil.postlethwaite@... Actually in some of my experiences with Carphone Warehouse, some of their staff can be downright dishonest. I'm with Orange in the UK. Last time I was due a phone upgrade, I had a call from "James from Orange" offering me a new phone. Didn't take him up in it, but out of curiosity, at around midnight I called the number he rang from to see if he actually was from Orange. The automated answering system said something along the lines of "Welcome to Carphone Warehouse ..." Haven't dealt with them since.
      DJL64
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    Step 1: Don't have a Verizon phone. haha. All you AT&T haters lose on this one.
    bigjuliefromchicago
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    Did I open US magazine instead of ZDNet? Is this an old article that got recycled or something? A few things that I think may be errors in the article.....
    You can't unlock just any iPhone (expert or not) and it depends on a number of different combinations of software and firmware that exists on the phone.
    I think AT&T now checks the IMEI number (the hardware number) when you join a network so you can't just put your old SIM card in your RAZR and expect calls from your US number.
    You overlooked a lot of settings that may be required to be put in the phone like APN settings, SMS and MMS settings that may be required when you put a foreign SIM.
    Altogether this is a rather ditzy article for a tech magazine.
    FWZHR
  • OMG! Really??

    This is the dumbest article I have ever read in a "technology" web site
    The iphone 2g is the easiest iphone to unlock and you dont run the risk of "upgrading it" because its firmaware it olny got to version 3.1.3
    "Tip #3: Have your iPhone unlocked by a professional." LOL
    Why, just why?, did daddy or husband got you this job?
    Next job, FOX News!
    eloscar_desmadre
  • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

    The best thing you can do when traveling abroad with the iPhone is cancel your data plan and talk to an experienced AT&T or Verizon rep in person to go over your options.
    - <a href="http://japantrip.blog132.fc2.com/">Japan Travel Guide</a>
    Andy 23
    • RE: Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

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      gates08
  • Renting an iPhone SIM Card works too

    I rented a UK IPhone SIM card from Cellhire (www.cellhire.com) . Came with 1GB of data which was enough for me to keep the likes of email and Twitter going whilst on a trip to the UK. Shipped to my house beforehand too. The best bit was that incoming calls were free so I just got my family to call me instead!
    kwell