Tech and travel: Tips on taking an iPhone abroad

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.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

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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