Using Your Smartphone Overseas
At Little or No Cost

© E. R. Martin1

CAVEAT: This dates to 2015. Most cellular providers now have International plans for ~ $10 a day
where the cost of use is more reasonable. But if you want to pay nothing, follow these directions.

Introduction. If you simply leave your cellphone on when you’re overseas, you’re likely to come back and face a cellular bill of hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars, even for minimal use. Here we tell you what you can do with your smartphone to stay in touch with the folks at home at little or no cost.

One Nerdy Point. The points below are devoid of technical jargon. Anyone can implement them. But there’s one easy tech thing you should understand to make everything clear: when you put your phone on Airplane Mode, it’s disconnected from the cellular networks. As long as you leave it there, you won’t owe a cent. Zero. Nada. Yet, because of smart apps and the proliferation of free wi-fi spots throughout the world, you can communicate free with your smartphone – including calling back home. Just leave your phone on Airplane Mode and turn wi-fi on.

1. Download Apps. Go to the App Store (e.g., Apple, Android) and download WhatsApp. Follow the simple instructions to install it on your smartphone. Ask those at home who you might call (e.g., kids, parents) to install WhatsApp on their smartphones if they don't already have it.

2. Consider Buying Cell Packages. After reading the points below, if being in contact only when near wi-fi spots is not enough (e.g., you fear that wi-fi may no be as prevalent in the areas of your visit or you want to be able to be contacted from home instantly at any time), go to your service provider (e.g, AT&T, Verizon) and buy a package of text messages and/or call minutes for the countries you will be visiting.

3. Set Your Phone Before Leaving. Disable data roaming on your phone2. Consider forwarding your phone to a friend or relative who will stay in the U.S. and can inform callers of your trip3. As soon as you get on the airplane leaving the U.S., put your phone in Airplane Mode.

4. Use Wi-Fi to Communicate for free. Free wi-fi spots exist virtually everywhere. When near one, turn on wi-fi on your phone (typically in Settings) but leave it in Airplane Mode. In a few seconds you should see an indicator that you are connected (it’s a checkmark on iPhones)4. Now you can use your phone to surf the Internet and send/receive emails. Also, you can make/receive calls, using Viber to contact other Viber users or using magicJack for all others, including land lines (home/office phones). Skype and Google Hangouts can also be used to make calls from wi-fi areas.

5. Texting on Wi-Fi. You can also send/receive text messages while on wi-fi, with the phone in Airplane Mode. iPhone users can simply text other iPhone users; those texts go as iMessages, and are shown in blue on your phone, rather than green. You can also use WhatsApp to text to other WhatsApp users.

6. On a Cruise Ship. While at sea, cell service is sometimes non-existent or very expensive. Calls from your cabin phone are even worse. It’s often best to buy 30-60 minutes of wi-fi for texting/emails and to call from free wi-fi spots at the shore stops.

1 Ernie Martin has Bachelor's and Master's of Science degrees in Engineering (the Master is from Caltech). He spent nearly 20 years in satellite communications and 10 years in the jet engine business and has consulted for GE and other companies and for several government agencies (see Résumé).

2 On iPhone go to Settings/Cellular, on Android go to Home/Menu/Settings/Wireless&Networks/Mobile Networks. This is unnecessary if, after reading all the points, you intend to leave the phone on Airplane Mode for the whole trip, but do it anyway in case you take Airplane Mode off either inadvertently or because a crisis at home in mid-trip requires you to have full-time phone contact.

3 Again, this is unnecessary if, after reading all the points, you intend to leave the phone on Airplane Mode for the whole trip. And you certainly should not do it if you think a crisis at home in mid-trip may require you to receive phone calls at any time.

4 Even if a wi-fi appears non-free (on iPhones it shows as a padlock), it may be free if you get the password for it. This is often the case at restaurants, so only patrons have access. Simply ask a waiter.