How do you get a data plan? Can you travel without one? How does texting work when I'm in a different country? How do I back up my photos, just in case?
If you’ll be traveling abroad with your phone, you need the answers to all of this (and more). We have the details you need, below.
Are you planning on bringing your phone on your next international trip or ILP semester? I'm guessing yes! It's probably something you wouldn't think about leaving home without, which means you probably have a few questions about how things all work with your phone in a different country.
I’ve taken a few international trips where I had a data plan, and other trips where I skipped out on the data plan — I have the ins and outs of all the info so you can make the best decision for you, along with so many tips and tricks about traveling with my phone I've compiled after a few international adventures. Things like how to cheaply back up your phone (and photos) just in case, my favorite battery pack so I never run out of juice, and other "I'm so glad I knew this" things.
Thinking of taking an international trip?
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All The Must Have Advice About Traveling With Your Phone
- Traveling With A Data Plan
- Traveling Without Data
- Prepping Your Phone Before You Go
- Things To Know About Texting (+ Keeping In Touch)
Traveling With A Data Plan
The pros and cons are pretty clear. You’ll be able to scroll and Google no matter where you are, which is a huge perk. I’m a big fan of traveling with data because I can always access Google Maps to see where I'm at in an unfamiliar city or look up when that one museum closes. It was also really nice to be able to iMessage or FaceTime anyone at home without relying on a non-existent or spotty WiFi connection.
It's strongly recommended that ILP volunteers have a data plan for their semester. For long-term adventures (like a semester abroad) it makes for a more seamless adjustment to life abroad when you have data. This also gives you a way to stay in touch with those at home, and be contacted in case of an emergency.
It’s not free, but the cost can be quite affordable‚ especially if you go with a local SIM card! If you’re wanting to travel with your phone and don’t want to just rely on WiFi, you have a couple of options:
Get A Local SIM
Getting a SIM card in-country is something I do if I'm going to be staying long term (not just visiting for a day or two, but definitely if I'm living there for a whole semester, like your ILP semester).
This is a very popular option for all of the ILP locations. In some countries, plans are just a few dollars a month (in the $7 - $13 range for some locations) so it can be a real steal of a deal. Some also report that the local SIM got even better service than someone using T-Mobile (who is known for their international plans).
Basically, when you arrive in-country, you'll bring your phone to one of the phone service providers (find kiosks in grocery stores, airports, convenience stores, and metro stops), and purchase a plan. Some include unlimited texting or calls, and with a few gigs of data.
If you're an ILP volunteer, we have info about what past volunteers have done for their local SIM in their City Page — you'll get info on prices, how to set things up, etc for your specific area. This is available for all volunteers who have already been accepted and assigned: just log into your my.ilp.org account and head to your City Page.
If you got this route, make sure your phone is unlocked! You will not be able to activate a local SIM card if your phone is not unlocked (having an unlocked phone means you can use it with different carriers, ie: a local SIM card). Best to double and even triple check to make sure you're good to go before planning on this option.
Or Maybe An eSIM?
If you have a newer phone like the iPhone 14 or later, you don't have that tiny slot on the side of your phone where you slip a SIM card in and out. You're using an eSIM instead. More on this below, but you'll just download an app and manage your plan right from your phone!
We have a post all about eSIMs that goes into more detail and has some recommendations to help you get set up with an eSIM plan.
Get An International Plan With Your Carrier
You may want to see if your carrier already has an international phone plan.
If you already have T-Mobile, then you’re probably in luck. It’s likely you already have international data on your current plan and don't have to do anything extra to get it. Just give them a call and see what you've got to be safe.
Sprint also has a pretty good International plan if you want to check in with them. If you have Verizon and want to have international data, they currently (*at the time this post was written) have the most expensive international plans with some options as much as $100 a month. Ouch.
Go With Google FI
This may be a good option for you — it works best with Fi compatible phones (iPhone users will have to make a few adjustments in their settings). They currently have a couple of plans where you can get unlimited data and texts in over 200 countries.
According to their FAQ page, “you must have active Fi service in U.S. (not including territories) before you go abroad. International coverage can then be turned on in the Fi app. Once it's turned on, you'll be covered at no extra charge when you travel abroad. International coverage will remain on until you turn it off, so there's no need to turn it on each time you travel” which sounds super handy.
They currently are offering two types of plans, their Fi Unlimited plan (which has international data included) and the Fi Flexible plan (which chargers you $10/GB whether you’re in the US or abroad). Get more info here.
Traveling Without Data
This is an option I’ve done more than once for some shorter trips. As far as the pros go, it's free which means more snack money and I love the idea of being less connected when I’m traveling.
Depending on your trip, what you want, and your budget, this could be the best option for you. Just remember, that it's strongly recommended that ILP volunteers to get a data plan during their semester, but it isn't required.
Avoiding Data Charges
I'm guessing you don't want to be one of the horror stories of coming back from a semester abroad in Thailand or your study abroad with a $600 cell phone bill. To help make sure that doesn’t happen, follow these steps, you can just keep your phone on Airplane Mode and turn off your roaming which has worked great for me. While you’re on Airplane Mode you can still connect to WiFi, so once you connect to a network, you can scroll social media, FaceTime, or Google to your heart’s content.
First, suspend your current plan (which can save you money, not being charged your monthly cellphone bill). Just call your provider and see if they can make that happen for you, or it's often something you can select while you're logged in on your provider's website.
Now you’re set to turn off your roaming data, and just leave your phone on Airplane Mode.
You’ll also want to disable notifications — While abroad, turn off the “Auto-Synch” for Android and turn off all apps in the “Notification Center” for iPhones to avoid this charge.
Getting Around Without Data
The thing I miss the most when I’m traveling without data is Google Maps … until I learned this life saving trick. Google Maps allows you to download the map of any city/cities you’re visiting for offline access. The downloaded map gives you crazy amounts of detail including street names, restaurants, popular spots, etc. You can even see your live location, so you can see exactly where you are at any time as you walk along the street towards your destination. It's amazing.
Get more info on how to download Google Maps here. Knowing this, I’m way more confident traveling without data.
Prep Your Phone Before You Leave
Whether you’re traveling with or without data, there are always things I do before leaving to make sure my phone’s ready for that long flight and that really long layover. Here are a few must-do things to check off your to do list before hopping for your international adventure.
Just so you know, this section has affiliate links for your convenience (which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link, we earn a small commission). Just know that we only share products that we ourselves have used and loved, that other volunteers have recommended, or that we think just look like they'd be pretty useful!
Backing Up Your Photos
Every single semester we have volunteers who lose their phones or run into issues where photos get wiped, erased, or go missing which is a massive bummer … but doesn’t hurt as much if you have all of your photos backed up. Even if the worst happens, you'll be able to get a new phone but you can’t get those dreamy pictures of Bangkok back unless you’ve done just that.
Luckily for you, there are tons and tons of ways to protect your pics, with many options that won’t cost you a thing. This post gets into the details about all of your options to back up your phone's photos.
Charge Your Battery Pack
You can't get very far if your phone runs out of battery: avoid the hunt for an outlet on-the-go by carrying around a (fully charged) battery pack. You can find a variety of prices, sizes and brands on Amazon (but I love this one). I love that this option has a built-in cord meaning all I need is my phone and battery pack and I'm good to go, even if I forget my cord charger.
Get This Waterproof Pouch
I love traveling with this pouch when I'm doing anything near water — snorkeling, hiking waterfalls, swimming oceans or lakes, and just in the rainy weather of Europe in the springtime. It's really affordable and gives me tons of peace of mind knowing my phone is safe and sound. Get it on Amazon.
Download All The Things
Whether it's to get you through a long flight or just so you don’t have to rely on the WiFi or slow data in the airport, I always make sure I have my playlists downloaded on Spotify, have all my podcasts downloaded (here are a few of our favorite podcasts here) and have a full season’s worth of shows downloaded on my Netflix app.
I don't ever board a flight without enough to keep me busy — I’ve been on too many flights where there wasn’t a show being played on the flight, or one time where my screen was malfunctioning and I wasn’t able to watch anything unless it was already on my phone.
Have These Apps
Some apps you’ll need to authenticate while you’re in the US (with a text message) or they won’t work if you download them while abroad. Venmo is one of these — you’ll need to approve a few banking chargers to authenticate your account, and that works best when you’re home.
Here’s a big long list of the helpful travel apps you may need on your trip.
Things To Know About Texting (+Keeping In Touch)
If You're An iPhone User
One handy thing to know about iPhone to iPhone communication is that you can iMessage and FaceTime on the WiFi for free, anywhere in the world. You can also use these with data, but if you're traveling without a data plan, you can still iMessage or FaceTime when you have an Internet connection.
This is good to know even if you get a data plan (or local SIM): some data plans will limit the number of text messages in your plan, but anything sent over an iMessage doesn't count towards that, and FaceTime calls don't count towards international minutes.
Apps To Keep In Touch
There are tons of ways to stay in contact with friends and family back at home — all of them just need a data connection or WiFi connection, meaning you can keep up on all of your messaging, video chatting, and picture sending/posting when you're abroad. This blog post has a list of ways to keep in touch, which I use 100% of the time, no matter where I am in the world.
Now you're set for a semester of adventures
Make sure you're posting all of those pictures (whether you have a data plan or are waiting until you can find WiFi) and see if you can snag a spot on our Instagram feed!