Tips for Travelers: International Data and Voice Options

Rocket Yard Contributor Steve Sande is out of the country on a great adventure, so he’ll be providing readers with a lot of helpful tips over the next month that can help them use their tech gear confidently and safely anywhere.

Near Macapa, Brazil

Near Macapa, Brazil

Current location: At the mouth of the Amazon River…

We are great consumers of bandwidth, and it’s easy to forget just how ubiquitous data and voice service is in most countries. Travel away from your zone of comfort and local mobile carrier, and you’re likely to find that unless you wish to spend a lot of money, those precious megabytes of data are best used at a hotel or Wi-Fi hotspot where you can check email, send photos, and use other services freely. However, if you want data and voice on the go, there are alternatives that we’ll cover today.

Wi-Fi
img_0470Your least-cost option while traveling is to wait until you’re near Wi-Fi to make your connection. I’m always surprised at just how many places offer free Wi-Fi to customers — coffee shops, restaurants, tourist attractions, and of course hotels will all offer fairly fast Wi-Fi for free as an enticement for customers.

If you’re on a fast Wi-Fi connection, you can use Skype to make low-cost voice calls to literally any phone number. The connection to land line and cellular numbers isn’t free, but it’s certainly much less expensive than using roaming services with many carriers.

There’s only one issue with using those Wi-Fi connections; unless you’re at a reputable location, there’s a possibility of having credit card numbers or other personal information stolen. We’ll talk about staying safe on public Wi-Fi systems in a future post.

Roaming Voice and SMS Service
Perhaps you just need to make or receive the occasional phone call and send/receive SMS (not iMessages) text messages. In a case like this, checking into the roaming services provided by your carrier might work the best for you.

AT&T offers international roaming packages that vary from $40 (Passport) to $120 (Passport Gold) that offer unlimited text messages, voice calls at $1 (Passport) to $0.35 (Passport Gold) per minute, and various amounts of data (all less than 1GB) for a 30-day period.

If you have a T-Mobile ONE or Simple Choice plan, guess what? You’re going to get unlimited 4G LTE data roaming and texting in 140+ “countries and destinations” primarily in Europe and South America.

Verizon’s Travel Pass gives you talk, text and data that are limited to your present plan, but for $10 per day in “over 100 countries”. Sprint began a plan in 2015 that provides unlimited international roaming, unlimited texting, and voice calls at $0.20 per minute in Latin America, Europe and Japan.

These plans are just the tip of the iceberg; you’ll want to go to the support pages for your cell carrier and do a much more thorough search, as international plans can differ a lot depending on your needs, your existing US voice or data plan, and more.

Nano-SIM. Image via TheTechReviewer.com

Nano-SIM. Image via TheTechReviewer.comSKype

SIM Swaps on Unlocked iPhones
When I refer to an “unlocked iPhone”, I mean one that is not tied to a particular carrier. For the most part, iPhones that are specifically designated as “unlocked” and those that are sold by Apple through the iPhone Upgrade Program are carrier unlocked. It’s also possible to have your carrier unlock your iPhone when certain criteria are met — note that this varies depending on carrier, as some require you to complete your current contract obligations prior to unlocking while others will do it with no questions asked.

What’s the benefit of an unlocked iPhone? You can purchase subscriber information modules (SIMs) that give you a lower cost for data and/or voice service, and swap out the new SIM with the one from your carrier. For example, prior to this trip I’m on I looked at my options and decided to purchase a GigSky SIM. GigSky is a partner with Apple for Apple SIM services (see next section), so I figured that it was probably a safe choice.

One of the best places to purchase a SIM for a local carrier in the country you’re visiting is at the airport when you arrive. Once again, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research prior to your arrival to find out which carriers offer the best coverage and rates while you’re in the country. You can get a number of plans from those covering just text and voice to full unlimited plans.

Apple SIM
An even better idea — and one I hope becomes more ubiquitous in Apple devices — is the Apple SIM. It’s a data-only SIM that works on most of the new iPad Air and Pro models. With an Apple SIM, you can sign up for a recurring monthly data plan or just a short-term plan on a variety of carriers.

To see what carriers are locally available, launch System Preferences > Cellular Data, enable cellular data, and then use Select A Data Plan to see a list of available carriers and plans.

In a perfect world, this would be the way that every iPhone or iPad would work in my opinion — without a carrier plan and on an a la carte basis. Turn on your phone in any country, see a menu of plans and pricing, and select a carrier for a day or a week.

The Fringe Case: Data and Voice Services at Sea
Unless you have the ability to carry your own satellite phone with you everywhere you go, data and voice services onboard cruise ships are a commodity subject to high prices, slow connections, and frustration.

Most cruise lines use one company for these services — MTN Satellite Communications. MTN provides the connection to satellites when away at sea and to terrestrial radio systems near shore. Depending on the number of satellite dishes on your ship, the weather, and a host of other variables, your internet service can range from dreadfully slow or nonexistent to somewhat tolerable.

Some ships now provide free unlimited internet as an enticement to would-be cruisers at a certain level of cabin; in many cases that’s going to save you the $15 to $30 daily charge for the package. You can also purchase plans that provide a certain number of gigabytes of data for a fee less than what you’d pay for an unlimited package, but people who use a lot of data are going to find they’re renewing the plan quite often.

You might find it fascinating to know that the passenger capacity of the ship appears to have a bearing on how good the data service is; I’m currently on a 700-passenger vessel (considered “small” by today’s standards) and the internet service is horrible. Yet a few years ago I spent the Christmas holiday on board one of the three largest ships at sea — Royal Caribbean’s 6000+ passenger Oasis of the Seas — and was pleased to see that service was fast and inexpensive.

Your iPhone can also be used to send and receive voice calls and texts through your “local carrier” with a service called Cellular@Sea. This operates on board ships as your carrier, and all charges are either made to your shipboard account or to your home carrier account.

The Future
Several companies (Google, SpaceX, etc…) are looking into launching thousands of small communications satellites into low Earth orbit to provide global broadband. While these won’t be available for at least 5 – 6 years at the earliest, they’ll be able to provide worldwide Voice over IP and data services at a lower rate than we’re used to for roaming data. It’s a bright future and cannot come soon enough.


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