Not long ago, keeping in touch while traveling abroad seemed like a Herculean affair. Wi-Fi was often difficult to find, different phones had different standards, and high roaming fees ensured that photo upload to Facebook would cost you dearly. Unless you really needed it, it seemed best to turn the phone off completely.
But staying connected is big business: According to a February 2015 report by Amba Hotels, travelers racked up more than $7 billion in fees when overseas, and that’s just looking at business travel. And with smartphones being incredibly handy for travel, whether it’s looking for directions or finding places to eat, it’s silly not to utilize your phone. The European Commission plans to abolish roaming charges on travelers to E.U. nations, by 2017, and while this is progress, there will still be some fees levied.
Hurdles still exist, but keeping in touch with loved ones back home or colleagues at the office is now far easier. New products and services have made it cheaper or practically free. If you travel abroad infrequently, you could rent a phone when you land at a destination, or purchase an international plan package from your existing carrier. For frequent travelers, there are plenty options at your disposal – you just need to know how. Here are a few of our favorite options that not only could help you keep costs down, but you may already have some installed on your phone.
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If you’re an AT&T customer rocking an iPhone 6 or newer, the new International Wi-Fi Calling feature lets you make regular stateside calls as you normally would, but over a Wi-Fi network rather than a cell tower. The approach is similar to Wi-Fi calling within apps like BBM, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik, etc., but it doesn’t require an app, and doesn’t cost you anything on your bill, or even credits like Skype. Of course, you will need to connect to a Wi-Fi network first. If you don’t have AT&T, or a compatible iPhone, check out Wi-Fi-based phone service providers like FreedomPop or Freewheel.
Exorbitant roaming fees are enough to ruin anyone’s vacation: You can spend as much as $2.50 a minute on AT&T and $3 a minute on Verizon if you opt for a pay-as-you-go plan. If you travel internationally often, you may want to look into T-Mobile’s Simple Global option in its Simple Choice plans. T-Mobile gives you unlimited data and texting in 145 countries, which T-Mobile says covers about 90-percent of the world that Americans travel to. You don’t need to swap SIM cards, log onto Wi-Fi, or activate any setting – just use your phone as you would. Cellular calls are 20 cents a minute.
Whether it’s WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Kik, BlackBerry Messenger, Line, Skype, Viber, Vonage Mobile, or Wire (just to name a handful), there are plenty of messaging apps to choose from. No doubt, you’re probably already using one or two of them. These apps let you send texts, make phone calls, and even video chat (provided the recipient is using the same app as you are) using only Wi-Fi, so you won’t incur any charges. Attention iPhone users: You can send texts via iMessage and make FaceTime calls over Wi-Fi, too.
Dual SIM devices
In countries where 4G data is expensive, some customers use phones that support two SIM cards – one for data, and the other for basic calls and SMS – which they can switch between. This is also handy for using prepaid services in which a user simply refills when needed, which is popular in many Asian countries.
These phones aren’t prevalent stateside, but an upcoming accessory, called the Krimston Two, looks promising. It’s a case for the iPhone 6/6S that doubles as a portable battery and unlocked secondary SIM slot. The companion app lets you choose between the native iPhone and the SIM in the Krimston Two, using the main iPhone display for either. For travelers, this means you won’t need to swap out the iPhone’s tiny SIM card (if it’s even allowed, since most iPhones in the U.S. are locked to their respective carriers). You can use your iPhone via the Krimston Two with a foreign carrier, and use your native SIM only when you need to receive things like text messages.
Krimston CEO Fouad Fattal recently demonstrated a prototype for us. He easily made two separate calls – one from a local SIM and another from an international number – through a single iPhone. Though it’s bulkier than a basic case, it’s relatively thin for the extra functionality it provides. Even if don’t travel abroad, Fattal says the Krimston Two is practical for domestic uses, like using one phone for both personal and work SIMs, for example.
The Krimston Two is currently running a Kickstarter campaign, with special pricing of $99. However, the Krimston Two has already been slated for production.
While Vonage, the VoIP (or Voice over Internet Protocol) landline service, isn’t as popular as it once was, it has a unique feature that some travelers may find handy, especially if you plan to stay abroad long-term.
Normal Vonage uses a landline phone, and a hardwire connection, which is increasingly harder to find. Since everything is now mobile, Vonage offers an extra feature in its Extensions App for iOS or Android. Essentially, it lets you make and receive calls on your Vonage account through your smartphone over Wi-Fi or 3G/4G, without needing to take the home equipment with you. If you don’t want to pay cellular or roaming fees, the app also lets you make Wi-Fi calls.