What do I need to know about taking my iPhone to another country?
January 7, 2013 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I am going to Hawaii for a couple of weeks in February. I have recently moved from no cell phone to an iPhone 4s. I am Canadian. Basically, I have no idea what I should do about my phone when I go. Smart phones seem like they would be more useful than normal in another country/unfamiliar place, but I certainly don't want to come home to an insane cell phone bill.

Some details:

I won't need to do any phone calls or texting really, although if I could that would be nice.

Here is what I like to do with my phone: text, check Twitter, post tweets, post photos to Facebook and Instagram, email, email pictures.

I also think the phone would be useful for maps and Yelp and such while I'm in Hawaii.

I will have access to wifi at the condo where I am staying.

My cell carrier is MTS. I am on an unlimited text, 1gb/monthly data plan.

Should I even bring the phone? If I do, is there any way to use it without getting smashed with roaming charges and such? Is there a way to ensure my phone only uses wifi (if that is the only way to avoid extra charges)?

Sorry if some of the info is irrelevant, and please let me know if more details are needed to properly answer the question. Thanks!
posted by joelhunt to Technology (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Turn off roaming data. For Bell, unlimited texts w/in Canada means you can receive for free while in the US, but they charge 75c/text to send. (MTS appears to be the same, but you want to confirm this includes Hawaii.) You can always buy a text or voice or data package, but I'd just hold off on doing things online unless you have wifi because the packages are expensive and offer very little.
posted by jeather at 9:56 AM on January 7, 2013

Call your phone company and asked them. They really do have the procedures to prepare you before you leave. My provider told me exactly what to turn on and turn off to save hidden data and roaming charges. They also provided me a temporary international data plan that I could turn off the moment I got back. It was pretty good.
posted by usermac at 9:56 AM on January 7, 2013

Data plans are what can kill your bill. You want to be certain that your data usage is really under control. Smartphones can be very free with data, it's easy to use 10-20 MB in a single day if you are using maps/navigation.

The easiest thing may be to buy a US data plan from your provider. MTS has add-on plans for US usage, though you may want to be certain that includes Hawaii---some are continental only (no AK or HI).

The cheapest route is to use a US provider plan, but that means unlocking your phone (and jail-breaking an iPhone) and having a different number while in the US.
posted by bonehead at 9:58 AM on January 7, 2013

You can turn off your cellular connection to ensure that all data is wi-fi only - go to Settings - General - Cellular - and switch it to Off.
posted by something something at 9:59 AM on January 7, 2013

Note too that US texts are a separate add-on, in addition to a data plan.
posted by bonehead at 10:00 AM on January 7, 2013

Turn off data and voice. I recently did a trip to the States, and then Japan and just had Telus suspend my account for the duration of the trip. No sense risking roaming fees.

My phone was still pretty useful - as long as I had access to WiFi (we have a portable WiMax WiFi router when in Japan). On Android, at least, a local version of Google Maps is stored on the phone, so you can use Gmaps with GPS.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:07 AM on January 7, 2013

If you want to be extra sure your phone won't ring up expensive international fees, you can take the SIM card out of your phone. Just make sure you don't lose it as they're tiny and easy to misplace.

If you do want to use your phone while overseas, and not with your original carrier, first you'll need to unlock your phone so that it can use SIM cards from carriers other than MTS. Then you can get a prepaid plan from any carrier in the destination country.

If it doesn't cost you anything (and it doesn't say anything out it in MTS's page), I would recommend that you unlock your phone, since there are no downsides, even if you aren't going the prepaid route.
posted by meowzilla at 10:33 AM on January 7, 2013

Google Maps can pre-cache map data, at least on Android. I'd do that for most of the areas you'd expect to tour and visit before you leave.
posted by kcm at 10:50 AM on January 7, 2013

I recently did a trip to the States, and then Japan and just had Telus suspend my account for the duration of the trip.

I would advise against this. I generally have data roaming off all the time, but on more than one occasion it has been really useful to be able to just eat the exorbitant cost for a quick google and/or map check when I thought it was worth it. Just remember to turn it back off afterwards.
posted by juv3nal at 12:41 PM on January 7, 2013

You can put your iPhone in airplane mode and then turn wifi back on. That worked perfectly for me when I did the opposite of your trip (took my US-based iPhone to Canada).
posted by jessypie at 1:12 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Turn your phone on airplane mode when you get on the plane. Keep it that way until you return home to Canada. Done.

You won't be able to make calls or use your data plan in Hawaii, but you will be able to use any app that doesn't rely on the internet as well as any media stored on the phone. For example you can still use the Kindle app to read ebook travel guides, but you can't check in on Foursquare.

You will be able to use wifi networks as you find them, despite being on airplane mode. This is where you can take the opportunity to use your apps that need the internet -- when I travel overseas, I usually take advantage of free wifi pockets to upload photos to facebook, skype, and the like.

The only hitch is that you won't be able to use your phone as a telephone, and nor will you be able to have unlimited access to cellular data -- once you're out of range of the wifi, you're out of luck.
posted by Sara C. at 5:44 PM on January 7, 2013

If you were going to be gone for an extended period of time (like over a month) or absolutely needed phone service during your trip, I'd suggest unlocking the iPhone and getting a prepaid SIM card once you arrive. As it is, I'd second the suggestion above - just leave the phone in airplane mode then turn the WiFi back on. That's what I do when I travel overseas for work and it at least lets me check email, Facebook, etc when I'm at the hotel. I can't receive calls or SMS, but I can still use Skype and the like to talk to people back home, and Skype out works well if I need to call a number back in the States.

Google Maps can pre-cache map data, at least on Android. I'd do that for most of the areas you'd expect to tour and visit before you leave.

Android does let you do this, but as I recall there's no way to cache Google Maps on iOS (although I could be mistaken, I switched to Android and haven't owned an iPhone in quite a while).
posted by photo guy at 5:51 PM on January 7, 2013

There's an app that will let you pre-cache map data. I think it's called OffMaps?
posted by Sara C. at 5:56 PM on January 7, 2013

Thanks to everyone for the information. I really appreciate it. Aloha!
posted by joelhunt at 5:26 AM on January 8, 2013

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