How to use your phone overseas- and not spend a fortune

(Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

Did you get a shiny new iPhone or smart phone for Christmas? Are you worried that it might cost you a fortune if you dare to turn it on overseas? In this guest post, longtime TICKET reader Jim Braude offers some excellent tips for staying connected when overseas– whether you use an iPhone or an Android device. Braude divides his time between Atlanta and Paris managing a delightful collection of guest apartments in both cities that he rents to travelers.

Learn From My Mistakes!

The first time I came here [to France] with my iPhone I didn’t pay attention to details or warnings, resulting in an $1800.00 bill after just two weeks. Now I’ve learned the tricks and happy to share them with you. — Jim Braude, ourhomeinparis.com

1 – Use the wi-fi! Most hotels and all of our apartments have unlimited wi-fi use. Of course, it makes sense to do as much data transfer as possible using the wi-fi network, as it’s the 3G that nails you if you go over your limit (see next point). More coffee houses are adding wi-fi too as a free perk, but be careful if non secured.

2 – AT&T has three features that greatly reduce the bill:

>Global messaging – 200 international text messages for 30.00

>International roaming – data – 125MB for $49.99 – this is greatly reduced recently. If you use it with ONAVO (see below) it’s more than enough for a once-an-hour check of emails for a full month.

>International roaming – voice – $5.99.   Cheaper long distance to the US.   But I use SKYPE when on wi-fi instead, which is even cheaper.

3 – SKYPE nothing beats Skype to Skype video calls, free and with the newer Macs you get really clear sound and picture.

4 – ONAVO is a free app for iPhone that compresses data and greatly reduces the amount of data transmission– it literally halves your incoming data bill.

5 – PHONE TAG – for $9.99/month.  I forward my incoming voice calls to my phonetag number, it then computer-generates a voice to email message, and sends me an email. This also makes it unnecessary to check voice mail which I prefer. It’s not perfect– occasionally the computer will make some odd choices in its translation from voice to text– but it includes an attachment of the actual voice message that you can listen to if needed as a back up.

6- CHANGE SETTINGS. Change how often your phone checks for email from every fifteen minutes to every hour during the day and change to MANUAL setting at night unless you have wi-fi setting and wi-fi remains on 24/7.

7- WHATSAPP - an almost free app (99 cents) for international texting, works great [across iPhone, Android and Nokia platforms].

8 – GET AN APARTMENT - when a homeowner gets cable service in France, it costs only 5 euros more per month for the owner to add unlimited free calling to the US or Canada from a fixed line.  Warning: some carriers do NOT allow free calls to mobile phones–only to fixed lines–  so confirm that first. And confirm whether the country you are calling is on the free list.  When you install cable (and wi-fi and phone) in your apartment, calls to the US and Canada are almost always free, from both both fixed line and mobile.

9 – PICKPOCKETS – the number one most stolen item in France is the iPhone. DO NOT leave it on a table top at a cafe. A young man covered mine with a newspaper as he asked me a question and took my iphone away in seconds, but I caught him in the act. Avoid using on the subway as you are alerting those around you that you are a prime target. Never leave your iphone in backpack or purse that is behind you rather in front of you.

Do you have any other money-saving or hassle-reducing tips on using your mobile phone overseas? If so, please leave your advice in the comments box below!



  • ira

    you left out the easiest. Unlock the phone and buy a local SIM card

  • http://www.astriker.com Douglas

    Calling – Skype helps, or if you have a Google Voice set up, with a few configurations, you can receive calls to the computer on the already established number. Google Voice transcribes voicemails to email and texts, allows you to view them in your google voice inbox. It’s free and does the same as PhoneTag.

    WhatsApp is a must when I travel, utilizing data to send text and leveraging wifi helps me save money.

    Data: I also download maps that just utilize the GPS versus data. This reduced the data load.

    Quick Reply to unlocking the phone has made it completely unstable before. I prefer to keep my iPhone in tact, last thing I’d like to worry about is it being in opt, and away from my iTunes at home to restore. SimCard with different number and data plan, also doesn’t quite help in my case either.

    Thanks for the post Chris!

  • Chris

    Sent via email from Suzanne:



    I am a travel agent and bought a Telestial phone and sim card for $80. It has worked in every country I have visited so far. If someone wants to call their voicemail at home and doesn’t need a phone for long talks, this works great and doesn’t vary much in quality from country to country. It has a lot of nice bells and whistles for the casual phone user.

  • http://www.bradbellphoto.com Brad Bell

    If you travel internationally on a regular basis, you should have an unlocked cell, or use an iPad. All iPads come unlocked. Once you arrive at your destination, simply purchase a local sim or micro sim for your device and you’re all set. On my last trip to Europe, an unlimited data micro sim for my iPad for 3 days cost around $15US and allowed me to wander the streets of Paris with my iPad using GPS, following guides and looking up buildings and monuments as we walked. It was amazingly informative. In Asia I bought a 30 day prepaid sim for about $9US.

  • John M

    I live in Thailand six months out of the year. Own a Black Berry that I had unlocked by T-Mobile. First thing I did, as others have said, was to get a local Sim card. I added BlackBerry Services for $7 a month, month to month from the Thai phone company I have my pre-pay (top up) services with.

  • John R

    Download magicJack free from the app store. Make phone calls from Europe or anywhere for that matter to the states and perhaps Canada for free. All you need is wifi. Why pay for skype?

  • THW

    Quick points of clarification: as of 1/18/12, Onavo is free on the App Store (referenced above as a “inexpensive”) and Whatsapp is a .99 app, not free as stated above.

  • Chris

    Thanks! We’ll fix it.

  • http://www.backpacksandbunkbeds.co.uk Neil

    Thanks, had never heard of onavo before. Whatsapp is a good shout too. That $1800 bill is staggering!

  • Chris

    Thanks! We updated info.

  • http://www.turfnet.com Jon Kiger

    I agree with Ira. Get a local SIM card. My international travel has been limited to Ireland and the UK mostly since 2008. I have a standing Irish mobile phone number that I can give anyone who needs to get in touch with me while I’m over there. From the States it’s also the best way to reach me. Even if you get a roaming plan for your US-based number it is unlikely that people in the countries you are traveling to are going to want to make an international call to reach you. My local number has been a great help in finding/confirming hotels, meals, attraction hours and of course getting directions.

  • Cindy

    On the iPhone or iPad, you can also use Facetime for free (when connected to wifi) to call other iPhone or iPad users (they must also have wifi access). Similiar to Skype, but typically comes standard on these devices at no additional charge.