Thursday, July 9, 2015

How to set up an iPhone for international travel on AT&T

Traveling abroad with a smartphone plan is definitely confusing. You can have all the features you want pretty much as-is, but you have to be willing to pay for that convenience. In the worst-case scenario, it could literally bankrupt you if you're not careful. AT&T charges $0.0195/KB $0.002/KB for international roaming data, but don't be fooled by that small number. Your monthly phone plan at home might have 10GB included, but one tenth of that (1GB) in maps, music, youtube videos, and FaceTime calls (not unreasonable) while abroad will cost you $21,000 $1997. Whoops.

Update 2/23/2016:

  • It looks like AT&T made some changes on Nov 13, 2015 in our favor to keep up with the competition! After Verizon made roaming to Mexico and Canada for short trips incredibly easy (an automatic $2/day for the same service as your home plan), AT&T made roaming in Mexico completely free! Unfortunately, no change in pricing for Canada.
  • However, pay-per-use data cost seems to have come down, and this blog now reflects this. I could not find any evidence online of when this exactly happened (do any of you know?) so I assume it was at the same time as this other change. The new rate of $0.002/kB is $1997/GB which is 1/10 of the previous mind-boggling $21,000/GB. Still too high to use casually!
  • Passport packages remain the same price

How do we get around this? Here are a variety of options that start with the simplest and safest for not having any overages, and slowly increase in service, cost, and complexity. Given your individual needs and budget, take a look and choose what's right for you! Most of these tips will be applicable to Verizon or T-Mobile plans, too. I tried to be comprehensive since I've never seen another website that lays it all out with detail.

Option Voice Incoming / Outgoing Text Incoming / Outgoing Data Capability Difficulty Cost
0. Turn off your phone None / None None / None None Paperweight Low Free
1. Airplane mode + WiFi None / None None / None WiFi only All your apps/camera with data on WiFi only Low Free
2. Data roaming off to have most phone functionality Straight to voicemail / Outgoing works No extra charge / $0.50 extra charge WiFi only, but can turn on cellular data for extra charge (risky) Most functions work; very popular Med Low
2A. Set up a Google Voice account Like above with better voicemail Low
2B. Turn on data roaming when needed Get data on-the-go at risk of big bill Low to High
2C. Use VoIP for voice calls Cheap calls to back home Low
3. Buy a travel data package $1.00 to $0.35 per min based on plan Unlimited 120MB to 800MB included based on plan Full capability with controlled price Low Med
4. Get a local SIM card Variable minutes included Variable texts included Variable data included Full capability; same as local phone High Med

The Basics

Without a special international plan, everything will be pay-per-use. Data is about two dollars per megabyte (i.e. $1997/GB). Texts are $0.50 to send ($1.30 for a pic/vid msg) and no extra charge to receive (cool!). Incoming/outgoing voice calls cost $1.00/min from Canada/Mexico, $1.50 from Europe, and $2.50 from the rest of the world. 

AT&T international roaming pay-per-use rates
Updated AT&T international roaming pay-per-use rates reflecting the new data cost of $1997/GB instead of $21,000/GB. Latest as of 2/23/2016.

Option 0—Turn off your phone
No service, but no definitely no overages. Another benefit is that you'll spend much less time on your phone while in a new country!
  • If this is your only plan of attack, be sure to not turn on the phone during the trip, or else it may register for up to 24hrs with a local carrier and you can be hit with overages for incoming calls (more on this below) even after the phone is back off. Thankfully the damage here would be minor unless you are very popular.

Option 1—Turn on airplane mode, then turn WiFi back on

You can use your phone for most apps and functions, but not phone calls or texts, and data is limited to your hotel/host's house/cafe where WiFi is available. iMessage and FaceTime to other iPhones will still work, but only when on WiFi.
  • This is probably the most straightforward and popular choice, great for many people. No traditional phone functions, but you'll be able to take your pre-loaded maps, notes, and emails with you. And use the camera!
Turn on airplane mode, then turn WiFi back onTurn on airplane mode, then turn WiFi back onTurn on airplane mode, then turn WiFi back on

Option 2—Cell service on, data roaming off, forward calls to voicemail

Leave cellular communication on, but turn data roaming off, and forward all calls to voicemail—Now you are in control with the ability to make calls and send/receive texts, but there won't be any overages if someone back home calls you or texts you. Text messaging will still be enabled even though roaming data is off.
  • Turn off data roaming in Settings → Cellular → Data Roaming. Note that "roaming" means international roaming, so it's generally safe to just leave it turned off forever unless turning it on for a special reason or trip.
Cell service on, data roaming off, forward calls to voicemail
  • Why forward all calls to voicemail? Per AT&T's FAQ, if you don't, you can be charged for two minutes of international roaming if someone calls you even if they don't leave a message. Pretty inconvenient when the dentist or telemarketers call.
    • To make calls go straight to voicemail, you can turn on the "call forwarding" feature and have it go to a special direct-to-voicemail number from AT&T's system. You can find such a number here, but for that effort you are much better off setting up the Google Voice option shown below.
    • This is not the same as your iPhone's "do not disturb" feature because it changes the settings back on your carrier's end, not locally at the phone.
    • Details: On the iPhone, go to Settings Phone Call Forwarding and switch on.
turning on call forwarding
  • Inexplicably, you can't access an AT&T visual voicemail message with roaming data turned off, even if connected to a cellular network. And yet you can't use WiFi data to get the voicemail either. It can only be via cellular data. What kind of sick game is AT&T playing?
    • Yet another reason to use a Google Voice account for this instead—see below.
    • Tip: If you need to retrieve a voicemail stuck in AT&T's servers, calling your voicemail like AT&T recommends is more expensive than using cellular data to download it (by a factor of 2-3x). The gory details:
      • Update 2/23/2016: Reduced data rates make this recommendation even more true, even though the original math is below. Calling the voicemail would now be 20-30x more expensive than just downloading.
      • Downloading voicemail uses about 2KB per second of message
      • In one minute of voice call, you might be able to listen to 45 seconds of messages, once
      • You should be able to download 75 seconds of messages for the cost of one voice minute from Europe, or 125 seconds of messages for the cost of one voice minute from the rest of the world. And now they are on your phone and you can listen at will.
    • Important: If you're going to turn on data roaming to get your voicemails, do it while connected to WiFi to make sure the phone doesn't download all sorts of other things too at $1997/GB.

Additional Option A (highly recommended)—Google Voice

Set up a Google Voice account for much more power. Benefits: receive voicemails over WiFi data when available, and always immediately receive a free text message with a (sometimes hilariously imprecise) transcription of the message. You can also use Google Voice to send texts for free over data.

Once you've signed up and have a phone number, set up the iPhone's call forwarding feature to forward to this new number (just like above). Now, to make the calls go straight to voicemail instead of having the caller wait around for ringing no one will answer, turn on Google's "do not disturb" mode:
  1. Open Google Voice.
  2. At the top right, click Settings .
  3. Select Settings, then choose the Calls tab.
  4. Select the checkbox next to "Do Not Disturb" to turn the setting either on or off. 
  5. Click Save Changes.

Additional Option B (not so recommended)—Selectively turn cellular data on when needed

You could do this only periodically to keep charges down, but this is really dangerous without a travel data package (see next section). To minimize data usage, go to Settings → Cellular and turn off specific apps from using cellular data (iOS 7 and above). Also reset the data statistics before the trip to monitor usage.

resetting data usage

Additional Option C—VoIP calling

VoIP (Voice over Internet [Protocol]) apps for making calls to home. Check out services like Skype or Google Voice (using the Hangouts app, something like GV Mobile +, or others) to make cheap phone calls using WiFi data. And don't forget that Apple's FaceTime has audio chat abilities in addition to video for calling other Macs, iPads, and iPhones.

Option 3—Buy a travel "Passport" voice/data package

Full voice, data, text capability from AT&T at a controlled price. New as of 10/13/2014, $30 will get you unlimited texting, 120MB data, and talk at $1.00/minute (there are larger packages, too). These packages last one month and then go away automatically. This is much better than older methods of signing up for special packages and then having to remember to cancel them on a date where the pro-rated number of texts, etc., covered the actual usage from the trip. Phew.

You'll have more flexibility, but with data still limited and calls still not free, you will likely want to use some of the tricks described above to limit incoming calls and minimize data usage.

While abroad, dial + 1 (area code) (number) to call or text the US. For a local number, use + (country code) (number). The "+" comes from holding down the 0 button.

AT&T Passport data packages
AT&T Passport data packages as of 4/25/2016. Note that data overage is still up to $256/GB.

Option 4—Get a local SIM card

Full benefits of having a local phone at a low cost. This requires that your phone be out of contract so that it can be unlocked. You could even buy an unlocked iphone for this purpose! To see if your phone is in contract, go to your AT&T online account to the Profile section, then the User Information tab to find the contract end date.

AT&T profile info needed to unlock phones

If you are no longer under contract, it will say "Your contract has ended". If this is indeed the case, to request that your phone be unlocked, use the AT&T unlock request page. You'll need your basic account information plus your phone's 15-digit IMEI number, which can be found on the iPhone via SettingsGeneralAboutIMEI.

Once abroad, prepaid SIM cards can be found at the corner shops and sometimes even vending machines. iPhone 5 and 6 models use nano-SIM cards; prior to that use the micro-SIM size. Instructions on changing SIM cards are readily available.


Those options should cover most people. Do you have additional methods or ideas? I'll incorporate any feedback, so be sure to comment below.

Good luck in your setup, and travel safely!

Need some gear before your international adventure? Please consider using my link to REI for all sorts of awesome travel and outdoor gear. Definitely my favorite store.


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