Technology Tuesday: Tips on Using an iPhone Abroad

This post is suuuuuper long, so I won't be offended if you don't read it.  But it does have a lot of handy information if you ever need it, so if you want to you can just pin it to read later.

Just in case you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to use your iPhone outside the US, I thought I'd shed some light on the process we went through and answer some basic questions.

First of all, this will only apply to using the iPhone abroad.  I don't have any clue how the myriad of Android devices would work.

Okay.  Let me start by distinguishing between paying your carrier for an international plan and using a local SIM card.  Calling your carrier to change your plan to an international one is usually the easiest thing to do--you can choose plans ranging in price and features, but they tend to be pretty expensive.  And if you go over on minutes or data--ouch.

The cheaper way is to use a pay-as-you-go local SIM card, and that's mostly what we'll be talking about.  The only disadvantage is that since most people purchase their iPhone with a contract, most iPhones are locked to their carriers.  We'll talk about that at the end, but for now, let's talk about the carriers:

AT&T and T-Mobile run on a type of tower technology called GSM. GSM uses SIM cards to store your phone number on.  That's why you can take your SIM out and pop it into someone else's phone and voila! Your number is on their phone. If you have an iPhone from AT&T or T-Mobile, congratulations.  Your phone can technically work outside of the U.S., because the majority of other countries use that same technology.

Sprint and Verizon use a technology called CDMA, and it's pretty much only used here in the U.S. as well as Japan and (for some random reason) Puerto Rico.  Instead of using SIM cards, CDMA uses a number called an MEID to uniquely identify your iPhone as being linked with your phone number. Your phone number is actually stored on your phone, which means that if you want to switch devices around, you have to contact your carrier. If you have an iPhone 4S or 5, your Sprint/Verizon CDMA phone also comes with a SIM card tray, precisely for global travelers.

So, to recap: if you have an AT&T/T-Mobile phone, it's a GSM phone and most places in the world will use that technology.  If you have a Sprint/Verizon phone, you may also have a SIM card tray that will allow you to access the GSM technology abroad.  If you have a Verizon/Sprint iPhone 3G/3GS/4, you do not have a SIM card and you will have to pay international rates through your carrier if you want to use your phone.

Whether or not your phone is physically capable of receiving cellular connection abroad is the first half of it.  The second part to figure out is if your device is locked to your carrier or not.

Locking/unlocking the carrier is different than jailbreaking your device, and it's perfectly safe.  The reason your phone is locked to your carrier is because it is still under contract.  You pay less than your iPhone is worth at time of purchase ($450 less), and because of that, the carriers want to make sure they can make that money back, so they stick you in a two-year contract.

So, let's go through carrier by carrier and figure out what the requirements are.

AT&T: your phone is already a GSM phone (hooray!) but it's also 99% likely that it's locked to the carrier (boo!).  The only way it wouldn't be is if you paid full-price ($649 & up) for your iPhone at time of purchase. This means that if you took it abroad and tried to pop in a local SIM card, the phone would refuse to recognize it because it's already locked to AT&T's network.  How do you get your phone unlocked, you ask? If you are outside your two-year contract you can request to unlock it here. If not, you're stuck either paying officially through AT&T for international roaming, which is a lot more expensive than just buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card.

T-Mobile: If you are using an iPhone on T-Mobile, it's already unlocked.  If you got it recently from an official T-Mobile or Apple store (like in the last month), then the only way it wouldn't be unlocked is if you did the financing plan and still owe them money for the iPhone.  After it's paid off, call customer service and T-Mobile will unlock it for you. Since your phone is already unlocked, you can take it abroad and put in a local SIM card without any problems.

Sprint and Verizon: okay, here's the complicated thing (hang in there)...Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S's and 5's have both CDMA and GSM capabilities.  So even though the CDMA side is locked to the carrier here in the States, the SIM card tray (GSM side) is fully unlocked.  What that means is that you can put in a local SIM card and just use that without paying any roaming charges. Since there are virtually no CDMA towers abroad, even if you wanted to get service abroad (through CDMA), you couldn't.  But you can get it through your unlocked GSM SIM card tray.  You're welcome.

Let's say you have a phone that for some reason is still locked to the carrier and you can't/don't want to unlock it to use abroad.  How do you prevent roaming charges completely?

On an iPhone, it's very simple.  Open up Settings and turn Airplane Mode ON.  Do this before your international flight takes off, and don't turn it back on until you're back on U.S. soil.  Airplane mode will basically stop any and all wireless signals and will prevent any calls ringing through. Getting calls or text messages overseas can still lead to hefty roaming charges, even if you don't answer them.  Even though Airplane Mode turns off wifi as well, you can safely turn that back on. At that point, your iPhone will basically become a glorified iPod Touch.  It will work just fine, but you can't make or receive calls and you can only access the internet over wifi.

Last but not least...if you are going overseas for a long time but want to keep your lines so that you don't have to get new numbers when you get back (or if you are still under contract and don't want to pay the early termination fee), most carriers will let you suspend your account for up to 180 days for a reduced rate.  I can only speak to AT&T, since that's what I have, but they suspended our account so we will only pay $10/line while we're out.

Do you have a question? Put it in the comments below and I'll see if I can answer it!

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