When it comes to staying in touch with family, friends and business back home, a little planning before you leave can save you lots of money and frustration.
All these suggestions will work whether you’re traveling short-term or living long-term.
Your cell phone may not work outside your home country. Before you travel, make sure you have an unlocked phone that uses a SIM card and works on the same network(s) in use where you’ll be traveling. A quad band phone will work most everywhere.
If your phone doesn’t use a SIM card — if you’re on the Sprint network for example — it won’t work abroad. Don’t be fooled by the fact they offer international roaming.
It’s pretty easy to find out what network you’ll need to access. Just google “cellular phone network in panama” or whatever country you’re going to.
If your phone doesn’t use a SIM card, you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth it to change providers and phones before you leave home, or whether it makes more sense to buy a cheap phone or rent a phone when you arrive in the country. Lots of times you can pick up an inexpensive phone that comes with enough minutes to offset its initial cost.
If you already have an unlocked phone with a SIM card, you’re good to go. (Some phones have two SIM card slots for switching effortlessly between one country’s service and another’s.)
What Will it Cost to use Roaming Services?
Depending on your provider and your plan, and the length of time you’ll be abroad, you may be able to just use your provider’s roaming plan. Check it out before you leave home, though. Some roaming plans are very expensive.
Local Prepaid Service is Usually Inexpensive
If you don’t want to use roaming, you can probably find an expensive prepaid plan to use while you’re overseas.
When I arrived in Panama I took my unlocked phone into the local Movistar store and in just a few minutes I was hooked up with a local SIM card and a bunch of prepaid minutes. I generally spend less than $10/month for calls and texts, and I just recharge by adding money to my card when it gets low.
I store my US SIM card, and when I travel back to the States I swap SIM cards when I land and I’m ready to make and receive calls by the time I’ve cleared Customs.
Local service is fine for calling within the country, but what about talking to family, friends, colleagues and clients back home?
Again, learn the rates and know your budget. You may be fine placing the occasional international call from your prepaid plan. Or you may want to find other ways to talk to people overseas.
If you have an unlocked smart phone, everything above still applies to you. Except that roaming data can be hideously expensive. Since your provider may bill you for all the time your data network is on, if you are going to use roaming, turn the data off until you need it. You can also save money by using WiFi whenever it’s available.
As with calling costs, you’ll want to research the cost of using the data network in the new country. Here in Panama I’m spending $15/month for unlimited data (which compares favorably with the $70/month for unlimited data with my US plan).
You should also check on the type of data network available in the country you’re going to. Common data types include 3G, 4G and EDGE (which is slower).
International Calling with your Smart Phone
With a smart phone and a WiFi connection, you’ve got all sorts of options.
Skype is one of the most popular. You can call, text or video chat within Skype for free. Or you can use Skype to call a telephone for a nominal amount.
Vonage provides Voice over IP phone service throughout the world. If you have a Vonage account, you can set up your mobile phone as a Vonage Extension. This lets you use your cell like an extension phone when you’re in a WiFi hotspot — including overseas.
Another Vonage offering is called Vonage Mobile. You can call, text and share photos for free with other Vonage Mobile users worldwide. If you have a smart phone you can video chat.
Rebtel offers a similar service to Vonage Mobile. You can use it on your smart phone or on your computer.
There are other services that offer free or inexpensive international calls using your mobile phone and a WiFi hotspot. You can search for them online.
Text Messaging with Google Voice
If you live in the US or Canada you can set up a Gmail and Google Voice account before you leave home. It’ll give you a phone number that will ring on your computer. You can use it for free calling to any US or Canadian phone number, or you can place international calls inexpensively.
While it won’t help you place calls from overseas, there’s one feature that will work — SMS Text messaging.
You can text from your Google Voice account, and replies are delivered to your Gmail inbox. The person you’re texting gets the messages as normal texts on the phone.
Computer or Tablet
If you’re traveling with a laptop or a tablet computer, your options increase. But that’s a topic for another post.
In the meantime, here’s a roundup of some previous articles on technology and staying connected:
- Portable Computers for Portable Careers
- Use a VPN with your Tablet or Smart Phone
- How to Watch Your Favorite TV Shows from Anywhere in the World
- Traveling with Smart Phones
- Buy One Mobile Phone for Home and Overseas