Text and calls for an iPhone 5 in four countries
July 21, 2013 4:47 AM   Subscribe

I have an unlocked iPhone 5 with Verizon. (It is verifiably unlocked for foreign SIM card use -- and yes, even though it is Verizon it does have GSM as well as CDMA). I'm looking for advice on how to travel with it to four countries, with the ability to receive/send calls and texts. I'd like to buy and use one SIM card only. And I want to be sure that I don't use any data, which gets expensive. So the question boils down to: (1) Keep the iPhone or ditch it for my unlocked travel phone? (2) Use the Verizon international plan, or buy an offering from Telestial, Global, etc.? More inside.

I'll be traveling to Israel and Jordan, transiting through Switzerland and Germany, for a two week trip. I want the iPhone to work in all four countries for texting and calls, and it would be too complicated to get a new SIM for each country.

Verizon offers an international plan that seems ok. But is there any way to do this with data turned off, while still being able to receive/send texts and calls? I'm leary of having the data activated at all. I know from others' experiences that even allowing the iPhone to connect to a foreign cell tower can result in charges, and the thought of coming home to an unpredictably huge phone bill is unsettling.

Alternatively, I could get a nano Sim card from a company like Global or Telestial. The pre-paid option seems safer. My problem is that when I find reviews of these cards, there are inevitably a chorus of people who buy them, and find they don't work while overseas. I wouldn't want this to happen to me!

Does anyone have personal experience with either option?
posted by bchaplin to Technology (14 answers total)
I don't know about Israel or Jordan. But in Europe it is very straightforward just to walk into a network carriers retail store and grab a cheap prepaid sim which should include data, texts, and calls. You can usually get a generous amount of those for €10 - 20. This is much cheaper than using a foreign carrier and has no risk of getting a large bill at the end of your trip. The great thing about having data when you are in a new country is that you can use maps and search for things while walking around.
posted by aychedee at 5:01 AM on July 21, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, aychedee,

Just to be clear about my situation, I need one SIM that will work in all four countries. For instance, I am only in Switzerland for one day, and I need to be able to send and receive texts if anything goes wrong with my flight. And if I buy a plan in Israel, it won't work in Jordan. And vice versa. I have purchased a local SIM previously, and it works great if you are in one country for a long time, but it will not be the solution for this particular question.
posted by bchaplin at 5:07 AM on July 21, 2013

But is there any way to do this with data turned off, while still being able to receive/send texts and calls?

On my iphone 4 this is done under Settings->General->Cellular, switching 'Cellular Data' to 'off'. In fact, in your situation, I'd turn everything on that page to 'off'.
posted by pompomtom at 5:28 AM on July 21, 2013

The Verizon data plan is surprisingly decent (I've traveled on it before), and you should be able to turn data off on your phone somewhere under settings. (Its fairly easy to do on android phones, I assume its easier on an iphone)
posted by larthegreat at 5:54 AM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: I have the same phone you do and I found that buying local SIM cards was WAY cheaper than Verizon's international coverage. The cost to extend your US plan is something like $150 and has less minutes/SMS/data than any local sim which can be as cheap as 10€ and those often come with several gigabytes of data.

The only problem with local sims is each one will give you a different number (your iMessage texts will work if you have data turned on), so if you want people from any of the four countries to contact you, you'll want to stick with one major provider that works in all four countries. I don't know offhand which companies cover those places but if you check the various savvy travel wikis for sim info I bet they'd have it. My guess is a huge company like Vodafone probably covers all places.

Bottom line: local sims are 1/10th the cost of Verizon plus you get tons of data bandwidth you can easily replenish with text.
posted by mathowie at 7:07 AM on July 21, 2013

Response by poster: mathowis, thanks.

Yes, local SIMs are much cheaper, but may not be practical for me. Certainly not for my 12 hour layover in Switzerland, where I still want texting capabilities. The Verizon plan in question is actually $4.99/month, and then there are per-text or per-minute charges.

And I do know how to turn off the data on my phone. That's not the issue so much as, after I do turn it off, does international texting still work? At least in the U.S., the answer seems to be 'yes'.

I may go with the Verizon plan with the data turned off. It's really helpful to hear about others' experiences.

Thanks for the answers so far!
posted by bchaplin at 7:38 AM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: I used the 25$ data Verizon plan a few months back, and turned off data unless I was in a WiFi area/really needed to double check a map and I found it perfectly sufficient. (I mostly used it for phone calls, a handful of texts and to send a few emails... but I was on a tech diet anyways, if you are going to be texting a ton, I think the texting rates could really do you in).

It is really nice to be able to use your own phone number, and made getting in touch with people far easier.

However, if you are in a country for longer that 1 week, and use your phone a lot, it may be worth getting a sim card from that country, and float along on verizons global plan for the other ones.
posted by larthegreat at 8:02 AM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: This doesn't answer your question, since you're apparently set on a single SIM and you're travelling outside the EU, but previously.

I appreciate that buying multiple SIMs is a bit of a pain, but it really is the best (as in cheapest and most reliable service) way of doing this. I would get local SIMs in Israel and Jordan, and enable roaming (and hope nobody phones) for the layovers.
posted by caek at 9:41 AM on July 21, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks again, all! This has helped me make a plan.
I will turn on int'l roaming on my Verizon phone, for layovers, and if it works out, will get local SIM's in Israel and Jordan. The truth is, I shouldn't have to use my phone for much more than logistical details. I hope to have wifi in at least most of the hotels.
larthegreat, just to be sure I understand: Even when you had the data turned off, you were able to send and receive texts?
posted by bchaplin at 12:24 PM on July 21, 2013

Local SIMs are cheap and easy to find in Jordan (you could buy them at the old airport so I'm sure they've put in a place for them at the new airport, although I haven't been back since its opening). There's little shops for them all over the place to recharge, including at supermarkets (even cashiers should have recharge cards) or at malls. Recharging is not too expensive either, even for data plans.

I used a Jordanian SIM in Israel for a couple of quick calls and some texts but my funds were drained absurdly quickly, plus it wouldn't work again even when I recharged online (apparently Jordanian SIMs frequently lock up after running out of funds in Israel). I had Umniah but other carriers might work longer in Israel, I'm not sure. Beware that Israeli SIMs are more expensive than in Jordan.
posted by Papagayo at 1:31 PM on July 21, 2013

Have you tried something like this? The googleable phrase is "international sim card"
posted by blue_beetle at 1:45 PM on July 21, 2013

Response by poster: Hi, blue_beetle,

That was one of the options I was asking about. It all looks good on their web sites, but I'm interested in knowing someone who has used one in the Middle East and/or Europe and had it work out well.

Meanwhile the Verizon + local SIM options seems do-able.
posted by bchaplin at 1:52 PM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: Yea, i had data turned off on my android phone, and just used it like an old brick phone (calls and texts). Annoying occasionally since I am so used to casually browsing the internet all the time.
posted by larthegreat at 4:11 PM on July 21, 2013

You can use the new Roamer app to help make the local SIM thing more seamless.

I've been researching both that and those international SIM card services.
posted by reddot at 6:48 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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