How to: Reduce Your Mobile Data Costs, when Traveling Internationally (Part 2)

April 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Mobile Internet use can be 1,000X more expensive
when traveling internationally!

Internet access is extremely useful when traveling, especially to assist in your choice of activities while on the go, but the cost is exorbitantly high … so let’s discuss simple ways to dramatically reduce your data cost, when roaming internationally.

PROBLEM: Int’l Data can be Shockingly Expensive ($1,000 per week)

Using Mobile Internet services while traveling internationally can be a large, unexpected expense–exceeding the cost of your trip–unless you plan ahead. Most international travelers report receiving a shockingly high bill (“Bill Shock”), due to the unexpectedly high charges for using mobile data when traveling. How expensive? Easily in three or even four figures for a week of travel! Why? Because Operators are currently charging very high rates for the privilege of using data internationally (Mobile Operators are probably assuming that most of those travelers are business travelers, who will corporately accept this as a cost of doing business, with few of these business travelers ever being aware of the size of their mobile bill. This pricing model is so lucrative that, at present, there is little incentive to lower costs to encourage greater use–lowering prices reduces profit, as the increased traffic does not make up for the lost revenue from lowered price.). To protect consumers, many regulatory bodies are moving to limit the maximum roaming charge to $50, unless the subscriber authorizes further charges (led by the European Union).

Q: What can you do for $40,000?
A: Download a movie when traveling internationally!

To allow you to affordably maintain in contact with friends and colleagues, take advantage of location-based services, and more, you may wish to consider the options for using data when traveling internationally. To avoid breaking your budget, let’s plan ahead and avoid unpleasant surprises.

If your needs are modest, and limited to making and receiving a few calls and text messages, then the least costly solution for international travel is using a GSM phone and purchasing PrePaid service locally. I’ve written a basic article that goes into the process and options in more detail. However, many people seek more than making phone calls when traveling, and desire to take advantage of many Internet-based resources (just as they do during a typical day).

SOLUTION: Your Options to Reduce the Cost of Data

To maintain Internet connectivity during your travel, the least expensive way to go is Wi-Fi, which allows you to make free calls and messages from your phone, as well as all the regular benefits of Internet connectivity (such as searching for nearby locations to dine/visit). You can access Wi-Fi from your smartphone, and connect regularly at free Wi-Fi locations (hotels, cafes), but a more reliable solution is to purchase a brief subscription to use Wi-Fi for your trip, allowing you access to a large network of Wi-Fi access points.

Inexpensive Data plans (in order of increasing cost):

  1. Free Wi-Fi (FREE, but can be hard to find in many markets)
    To find a hotspot that is nearby, or free, try JiWire or another global Wi-Fi finder, available as an app for your Android or iPhone smartphone, or online.
  2. Wi-Fi purchase for hour/day, where available for a fee
    ($5 for an Hour or more for a Day Pass)
  3. Wi-Fi Subscription for your trip (from mobile Operator that serves where you will be visiting, such as Orange, or from Boingo at $8/month for global smartphone use, or $59/month for up to four mobile devices, providing unlimited data use at over 500,000 hotspot locations)
  4. PrePaid data plan from local mobile Operator that serves where you will be visiting—either a single country or multiple countries—from $3/day for your smartphone, or $12/day for a high-capacity plan (with USB dongle) for your laptop. Prices are lowest for use within a single country. For your smartphone, the 3 (UK) “All in One 15” plan offers unlimited data, 300 minutes of talk and 3,000 texts for £15. For a laptop, the Vodafone (UK) 3G Internet dongle plan with 2 GB is £15. If you are traveling among multiple countries, try using a mobile operator that serves all of the countries that you will be visiting. Vodafone and Telefonica have excellent European coverage with a single, prepaid plan. For example, the Vodafone Data Traveller plan provides 25 MB per day for £2 (or 25 MB per day for a month for £10) across 38 countries in their Europe Zone. For a laptop, you can use 100 MB per day for £8 in their Europe Zone. Basically, you purchase pre-paid service in the country/countries you are visiting, at the lowest, local rates. Read my article for details.
  5. Bring a Hot Spot with you for $15/day, from XCom Global (as recommended by Tom Samiljan in “When in Roam.” and recommended in a recent review by PC Magazine). This is a great option for someone that plans to use a lot of data from laptop, smartphone, tablet or a combination of devices. A smaller USB stick for your laptop is also available. Even lower-cost solutions can be had when roaming into the U.S., from start-up services offering up to 500 MB of “free” data use from FreedomPop and NetZero Wireless, with modest charges for  increased monthly usage ($10 per GB). With these services, you carry a device that creates a personal Wi-Fi network (“MiFi”) that you and others can use (while the device connect to the Internet via a wide-area wireless network). The downside of the U.S. services (based on WiMAX) is that you can not use their service in as many locations as a mature, cellular network, that offers nearly ubiquitous service.
  6. PrePaid, Global Roaming data plan from your current mobile Operator ($2/MB, starting at $25 a month for 50MB in selected countries, otherwise default rate of up to $20/MB. You can revise these plans instantly if, for example, you wish to increase the amount of data you are purchasing at discount.  Warning: Charging based on usage can be hard to track and can result in unexpectedly high charges! This feature, alone, can reduce your roaming costs 90%, and will avoid a three- or four-figure roaming bill. With judicious use of Wi-Fi (see options 1, 2 and 3), you can trim down your data roaming charges into something reasonable.
  7. Active International Travel discount feature, to reduce the cost of Data/SMS/Voice for your postpaid mobile data plan from your current Operator. By planning ahead, you can activate a feature (for a small charge) that will significantly reduce your cost of data when roaming. When you return from your travels, remove this feature to eliminate the monthly charge.
  8. Current data plan, from your current Operator ($20/MB, Warning: This default option can result in bills over $1,000).

Free Calls & Texts from your (Wi-Fi or Cellular) Data connection

You can also make voice calls, text and IM from your low-cost data connection. From your smartphone (or laptop), you can use Skype (or other VoIP clients) to make free or nearly free international calls (Skype lets you call other Skype members Free, but charges you a very low fee for International calls) and texts. So that you are ready to go anywhere you find Wi-Fi: before you travel, install the Skype “App” (client) on your smartphone, and fund it with a few dollars.

If you are a T-Mobile customer, they have a great Wi-Fi solution that lets you make you make calls over Wi-Fi, using your existing mobile number, with calls to the U.S. using your plan minutes (no extra charge for international Long Distance). This option is fully described in my article, “Free Mobile Calls over Wi-Fi.”

Mobile Internet is useful when you travel, like having an expert!

When you travel, you are less likely to know how to get around, which are the best activities, and where is the best food. So it can be incredibly helpful to have a guide handy to tell you where you are, with recommendations for activities and meals. These services cleverly use your mobile phone’s location to map out the area, and attractions. These location-based services are useful at home, but can save you a lot of time (e.g., travel directions, including public transportation) and ensure that you get what you want out of your travel. You can use your smartphone to access all of these services when you need them … but these service require a mobile internet connection which can be very costly!

Read Part 1: Purchase service locally, at Lowest Rates

For a step by step review of the basics of reducing your mobile phone service, when traveling, please read my article “Reducing your Mobile Phone Bill when traveling.”


Reducing your Mobile Phone Bill when Travelling Abroad (Part 1 of 3)

December 1, 2009 at 2:10 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Q: How do you travel internationally and use your mobile phone … without running up a huge bill?

A: Buy service locally, at the lowest rates. It is possible to save 80% on your cell phone bills when traveling abroad and to limit your expenditures. People often ask about this, so I thought that I’d post the best practices, while supporting a variety of choices, from using your own phone and service plan to purchasing a phone abroad, international dialing, electrical adaptors for charging, and more. All of which you’ll need to know. My primary recommendation is to purchase service when you are there using a “Prepaid SIM.” While the simplest choice is to take your existing phone, the least expensive is to purchase Prepaid service abroad (that works for many countries).

Benefits: 80% Savings and Limit Your Cell Phone Charges

In addition to major savings, another major benefit of using this recommendation is that you can budget and control the amount of money spent on cell phone use when traveling. I’ll describe this for a hypothetical student/traveller who is traveling abroad for the first time, but the recommendations apply to anyone traveling abroad and who is calling locally or back to the U.S.

  • Budget: The amount that you wish to allocate to spend calling home is entirely up to you.  With a prepaid account, you can not accidentally run up a large cell phone bill when traveling. You can deposit a budgeted amount into your Prepaid account, and add to it if you wish.
  • Savings: For example, if you send a text message a couple of times per day and makes a long phone call every other day or so, over a 3-week trip you’ll spend only $13 (and save $50 or more). To see the current rates, go to the PrePaid GSM web site for a summary of links to all of the Pre-Paid services, by country (sorry, no comparison table; you have to do some looking yourself to compare apples and apples).

Simplest Plan: Take your existing phone

If you already have a cell phone, they you may be able to take your existing phone with you, but be prepared to pay very high rates for voice and text—over $1/minute and $0.35/text—since you will be Internationally Roaming and making International calls/texts. This is a great option to use if you expect that your son/daughter will hardly ever use the phone. This option is possible if you already have a GSM phone (the world standard for mobile phones, provided by AT&T, T-Mobile and others); if you have service from a CDMA carrier (Alltel, Sprint, Verizon) then your existing phone will not work abroad and you will have to get a new phone (your existing carrier offers special, WorldMode phones that can work abroad, but these phones are very expensive). If you are unsure whether you have a GSM phone and can use your existing phone, then please check out this post (with clear illustrations).

iPhone update (5/2012): You can use your iPhone when traveling by unlocking your iPhone (contact your provider) or by purchasing an unlocked iPhone (as I have). If you have completed your initial contract obligation, your carrier will likely unlock your phone at no charge (as AT&T promised, in early 2012).

What to Do, Before You Depart

Just call your carrier’s Customer Care department (just dial 611 from your cell phone; it is a free call) and let them know that you want to use your phone when traveling internationally. Things to check on this call, before you depart:

  • Is my phone capable of making calls on international networks?
    (Your phone needs to support the international GSM frequencies, which are different from those used in the U.S.  Your phone should be a “Quad band” phone that works on 900 MHz and 1800 MHz frequencies)
  • Does my service plan allow me to roam internationally and make international calls?
    (To reduce fraud, most service plans have this option disabled, so you simply need to ask to turn it on. This will not incur a charge, but it allows you to make calls to the U.S. while roaming abroad)

Avoid Unwanted, Incoming Calls: To avoid unexpected charges from incoming calls while you are abroad, you may also wish to keep your phone turned off until you desire to use it to originate a call or text message. You would be surprised to find out, when you return, that you are charged international rates for calls that ring your phone—even those that you do not answer and that go to voice mail—for the amount of time that the caller is speaking.

Avoid Data Charges: To avoid exorbitant charges for mobile Internet (“data” charges, for web browsing, location-based services, email, etc.), you may wish to turn off data services on your phone or to simply avoid using the device for data services. International charges for data services are very costly and additional to your regular plan, and unwary travelers can incur bills of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Cheapest Plan: Take your existing phone and get Prepaid service there

The least expensive way to make calls abroad is to (a) take a phone that is compatible and (b) obtain prepaid service from a European mobile carrier. You will be able to call the U.S. for $0.07/minute and send text for $0.15—nearly as inexpensive as calling within the U.S.! Additionally, you can budget and control the amount spent on cell phone use (since the charges are quote different than those incurred at home, they can unexpectedly add up!).

What to Do, Before You Depart

If you have a compatible mobile phone, then you can take it with you and use the phone with a Prepaid account that you will obtain from a European carrier. You can either (A) purchase an account before you travel or (B) purchase your SIM card when you arrive. The trick is that you will purchase your service from the European carrier when you arrive and that will provide you with the lowest possible rates. If you lack a compatible mobile phone (e.g., you have a CDMA phone or no phone), you can still use this option: you simply need to get a compatible phone when you land.

If you already have a GSM phone, then you just have a couple of things to check with your carrier’s Customer Care (just dial 611 from your cell phone; it is a free call) before you depart:

  • Is my phone capable of making calls on international networks?
    (Your phone needs to support the international GSM frequencies, which are different from those used in the U.S.  Your phone should be a “Quad band” phone that works on 900 MHz and 1800 MHz frequencies)
  • Is my phone “unlocked”?
    Phones are typically locked—for use only with a specific carrier—when they are purchased in the U.S. with a service plan. Just ask your carrier to unlock the phone to allow you to use it abroad with another carrier’s service plan.

Budget your Spend: You can budget the amount that you will place in your prepaid account and spend while traveling. Just give your ambassador the amount that you desire to spend, and they can deposit his amount (in their Prepaid SIM account) when they land in Europe. Like a debit card, they can recharge or “top up” their account if they use up all of their account.

Any unused funds will not go to waste, as you can always use the additional minutes after (s)he returns to the U.S.! Naturally, it would be most convenient if you provide those funds in the local currency (British Pounds if you arrive in the UK, or Euros elsewhere)—just call your bank and they will happily provide foreign currency before your trip.

Now that your phone is compatible and unlocked, you have a choice: you can either (A) purchase an account before you travel or (B) purchase your SIM card when you arrive. I prefer to purchase before I go, so I’ve now purchased a Tru SIM for my upcoming travel.

(A) Purchase and receive your SIM card before you travel: Contact Truphone and purchase a multi-country “Tru SIM” card that will be shipped to you before you depart. It arrives suitable for use with nearly all phones (SIM and micro SIM form factors). If you have an iPhone 5 or a device that requires the nano-SIM form factor, contact their Customer Services and they can provide that alternative at no additional cost. For more info, read up on rates and FAQs on the Truphone web site, and I also recommend reading the objective review and recommendation from PC World magazine. Tru SIM can deliver excellent rates (similar to those that you would receive when purchasing the service in-country, since they purchase service using a SIM subscription that appears to belong to a local carriers), can be manually or automatically topped up, and provides excellent phone support.

(B) Purchase your SIM card when you arrive at your destination: You have a single, simple transaction to complete, ideally in the airport after you get your luggage (Example: Vodafone retail store in London Heathrow Airport). In the airport, go to the Retail Store of a major mobile carrier (I recommend Vodafone since they provide the best coverage across Western Europe) and ask to purchase the combination of:

  • a basic, prepaid SIM card
    (allowing you to budget how much you wish to spend on calling and SMS, and you can add funds to it at any time, e.g. Vodafone’s “Pay As You Go” plan)
  • an international roaming option that provides the best roaming rates for mobile service outside of the country that you are buying your prepaid service
    (e.g., Vodafone’s “Passport” is free) For example, to activate Vodafone’s “Passport” feature:

    • Dial 5555, Press the Green “Call” button, then
    • Choose option 2 and then Option 1
  • an international calling plan that provides the best international calling/texting rates
  • (e.g., “Vodafone International”)For example, to activate the Vodafone International call plan:
    • Dial 36888, Press the Green “Call” button, then
    • Choose option 2 and then Option 1

You are ready to travel and call or text anywhere! Just remember to dial/text using International Dialing (see “Dialing an International Number”), which includes the country code, to avoid calling the wrong party.

What If I Lack a (compatible) Cell Phone?

If you do not have a compatible mobile phone (e.g., you have a CDMA phone or no phone), you can still use the lowest-cost option. You simply need to get a compatible phone first: before you travel (at an AT&T or T-Mobile store) or when you land (at the Retail Store for a European mobile provider, such as Vodafone). If you are unsure whether you have a compatible phone, please read this post “Can I use my existing phone?“. After you get your phone, go back and complete the following section “Cheapest Plan: Take your existing phone and get Prepaid service there.”

I have no cell phone and want to start using one

To get a phone before you leave, you could go to the local wireless store and sign up for a GSM service plan: monthly or prepaid. But be clear about your intent to use the phone with a different carrier’s prepaid account while abroad and insist that they unlock the phone before you purchase anything. Also, be sure that the phone is compatible for use on International networks (you’ll want a “Quad-band GSM phone” that operates on the standard, international frequencies).

  • Prepaid Plan
    This can be an excellent way to start using cellular service if you do not yet have a cell phone plan. You can start cellular service that you can use when you return and get a phone that you can use abroad. Your initial costs will be slightly higher as you are paying for the mobile phone up front (instead of paying for is over many months of a service plan). I strongly recommend prepaid service for early cell phone users, as it allows you to budget your expenditures and can be far less costly than a monthly plan. You will get a GSM phone (which comes with a SIM card representing your U.S. prepaid plan). I recommend T-Mobile as they offer the lowest rates and best customer service, although you’ll want to be sure that the carrier provides good service where you’ll use it—check their online coverage map before purchasing.
  • Monthly Plan
    Your initial costs will be lower since you are paying for the cell phone in monthly installments as part of your monthly plan, which you are obligated to pay for many months.

I have no cell phone and do not want to start using one

You may avoid buying a phone for use internationally (avoiding a significant cost) and simply borrow a friend’s phone for a moment to make a call/text using her phone and your service plan—by placing your SIM card in her phone before you call/text and removing it after you are done. Simply follow the section “Cheapest Plan: Take your existing phone and get Prepaid service there” and purchase a Prepaid Service plan from a European mobile provider when you arrive and periodically use a friend’s phone (see “SIM card?” section, below, for details).

Unlimited, Free Talk (using Wi-Fi)

An advanced option (that requires a bit more work, but well worth it if you want unlimited, free international calls) is to get a UMA-capable phone and use any Wi-Fi hotspot to make free calls as if you were at home. Check out T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi Calling service, free

T-Mobile Wi-Fi Calling summary

with your existing, monthly T-Mobile account. T-Mobile lets you make/receive all of the calls that you want when you are connected to them via a W-Fi network. This includes international locations. So you could, for example, talk for an hour from a coffee shop in Rome to friends at home … for free. Or, if you are a business traveller, you could return all of your calls on your mobile for free when travelling abroad, avoiding thousands of dollars in roaming fees.

NEXT: Part 2, How to Reduce your Mobile Data Costs, when roaming internationally.

Purchasing “Prepaid SIM” service at the Airport

December 1, 2009 at 2:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 41 Comments
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Purchasing “Prepaid SIM” service at the Airport
Example: London Heathrow

An easy way to obtain inexpensive cell phone service in a country is to obtain a prepaid card at your port of entry, such as the airport. At London Heathrow airport, Vodafone has an excellent retail shop in Terminal 5. Unfortunately, Heathrow is a sprawling airport and Terminal 5 can be a (short) train ride away from your arrival terminal. For example, if you arrive from the US in Terminal 1, you can take a free train to Terminal 5 by following the signs to the Heathrow Express and taking the free leg to Terminal 5.

Vodafone Shop at London Heathrow: Terminal 5

Location: Terminal 5, Before Security
Opening Hours: 07:00 – 22:00
Telephone: +44 (0)7826 952 062

The store is situated between the UK side of departures and customs and is therefore open to both air-side passengers and land-side airport staff and visitors. The Terminal 5 Vodafone store at Heathrow airport replaces the Vodafone store in Terminal 1 with an even more comprehensive line up of products and services.

Within Heathrow airport, the location of Terminal 5 is shown in the following diagram:

GSM Phone? SIM Card?? Can I use my existing phone abroad???

December 1, 2009 at 1:59 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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GSM phones are the dominant world standard and allow you to roam and make calls nearly anywhere on the globe (desert islands excluded). In the U.S., GSM is used by AT&T and T-Mobile (as well as many other, smaller companies), so if you are served by those companies, you are virtually certain to have a phone that can be used abroad.

Can I use my existing phone when traveling internationally?

You can tell that you have a GSM phone by removing the battery cover of your phone and looking for a SIM card that is about the size as your fingernail (see example). It is often in a slot under the battery of the cell phone and needs to be removed carefully. The SIM card contains your service subscription; the mobile phone is just a radio. By separating the subscription information and the phone, you can easily change service plans and devices: just select the SIM card and install it in the desired device!

You can change service subscriptions as easily as removing one SIM and replacing it with another SIM. The SIM card contains your service subscription information, including your telephone number and service information (a more detailed explanation is available in the Wiki article). So, when traveling internationally, you can remove your SIM card (representing your service plan with your U.S. carrier) and replace it with a low-cost, Prepaid SIM card from the country that you are visiting.

Traveling without a Cell Phone

If you wish, you can even travel without a cell phone of your own and simply borrow a friend’s phone for a moment to make a call using her phone and your service plan—by placing your SIM card in her phone before you call/text and removing it after you are done.

Note: Safely store your original SIM card, as you’ll need to reinstall it when you return to the U.S.!!GSM Phone? SIM Card??

Dialing an International Number (when travelling)

December 1, 2009 at 1:59 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Q: How do you dial local, international numbers as well as call back home?

Unlike dialing at home, as a world traveler you need to learn to indicate the country as well as the number that you wish to reach. Just dialing a 7- or 10-digit number like you do at home (e.g., 5025551212) will not work; you need to explicitly indicate the country or else you may end up communicating with someone new and unintended.

Recommended: Universal, Cell Phone method

From a mobile phone, you can unambiguously dial any phone number by using the “+” character before the destination Country Code. Since the Country Code for the U.S. is “1”, dialing U.S. numbers from your cell phone simply requires that you first dial “+1” and then the 10-digit U.S. number (e.g., +1 5025551212). From a cell phone, the most difficult part is finding the “+” symbol on your cell phone keypad. This usually involves pressing or holding the “*”, “0” or “#” key multiple times.

Cell Phone Example: to dial the USA number +1 (502) 555-1212, from a Nokia cell phone, press the “*” key twice to get the “+” symbol, enter the rest of the number to get 15025551212, and then hit “Send”.

This universal method is simpler than the following method since you do not have to remember or use any country-specific access codes to indicate that you are dialing an international number.

International Direct Dialing (uses country-specific International Access Codes)

Alternatively, you can also dial an international number from any phone (fixed or mobile) using that country’s International Access Code. Unfortunately—since the access codes vary by country—the number that you dial depends on the country that you are in! From Western Europe, you can dial U.S. numbers from any phone by first dial “00 1” and then the 10-digit U.S. number (e.g., +00 1 5025551212).

Example: Example: Dialing the U.S. from a phone in Europe
Using this method to dial a U.S. number from the UK,
you would dial 00 1 5025551212:

How the number is composed:

Number Comments
00 00 is the International Access Code used to dial outside of the UK.
1 1 is the international Country Code used to dial to U.S.A..
502 502 is the local area or city code used to dial to Louisville.
5551212 555-1212 is the local number you desire to reach.

To practice this method of dialing, try this site that clearly explains international dialing and provides the dialing instructions from anywhere to anywhere.

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