Travel Tips for Rookies: How to Use A Phone Overseas

Today, I'm going to talk about how to use a phone overseas while traveling.

Every country is different {both your home country and your destination} when it comes to using phones. I'll give some general prep tips about what you need to do before you depart, and a few options for when you arrive in-country. Because I've traveled mostly in Thailand and Cambodia, I'll list some different ways to get sim cards for those countries.

Why do you need a phone while traveling overseas?

  • First, it makes your travel significantly easier and less stressful. Whether it's confirming hotel reservations, airport pick-ups, or contacting friends in the cities you're visiting, you need the freedom to contact people {whether for convenience or in emergencies} that having a phone gives you. 
  • Pay phones are completely absent in many parts of the world, and you can't guarantee that you'll have access to a phone when you need it. 
  • Let's be honest - with the advent of smartphones, instant access to internet is one of the biggest reasons you want your phone with you. If you can access wifi hotspots, you might not even have to worry about getting a sim card - you can make calls and texts for free!

Obviously, the easiest option is to use the same mobile phone you use back home.

However, signing up for international roaming through your phone company is ridiculously expensive, compared to getting and using a sim card overseas. For example, if you buy the cheapest monthly AT&T international roaming package, you're still paying $1.20 per minute for 100 minutes, and $2.00 per minute once you pass 100 minutes. For $10, you can get 50 messages for a month to use overseas, but will pay $0.40 per message after that. In comparison, I regularly text family back home using my Cambodian sim card for $0.10 per minute, and we can call home using special codes for $0.07 per minute to the States.

To use your phone from home, you need to check out a few details first:

  1. Call your mobile carrier and see if they can unlock your phone for international use. Most of the time, the company will do this for free if you've had the phone for at least a year. 
  2. Make sure your phone uses a removable sim card. One friend brought an iPhone to Cambodia with her, only to discover that particular model didn't have a sim card she could remove. Major bummer. {you can look up videos on YouTube that show you how to get a sim card out of your phone if you're not sure how to check}
  3. See if your phone charger is 100-240 voltage. Remember, outside the USA, most countries use 240 voltage, not 110 - which means many of your electronics won't work without a transformer. In fact, if you try to use them, they'll probably get fried by the higher voltage. You can check your electronics' voltage by looking at the plug-in itself for the electrical information. If it only says 110v, you can't use that charger without a transformer.
  Example of a phone charger you can use anywhere - note that it says "Input AC 100-240V" - that's what you're looking for. But you still need to use a plug adapter if the plug is a different shape than what the outlet takes.

Example of a phone charger you can use anywhere - note that it says "Input AC 100-240V" - that's what you're looking for. But you still need to use a plug adapter if the plug is a different shape than what the outlet takes.

4. Even if your phone charger is only 110v, you can still charge your phone without a transformer using a wall USB charger, if you have one for your phone - like this PowerGen adapter that works for 110-240 voltage. Remember, if the outlet shape in your destination is different than back home, you'll need a plug converter {aka adapter}, or else you won't be able to plug it in. Below is an example of a travel kit that includes a transformer to convert 240v to 110v, as well as several plug adapters.

Even if you go through these steps, you might not be able to use your phone overseas. Maybe your company won't unlock it, or you can't get the sim card out. Luckily, mobiles are cheap and plentiful overseas, and you can get a "burner phone" {i.e. one you'll use only a short time} for around $20.

Amazon also sells a cheap Nokia phone that looks similar to what is sold in Cambodia at every phone shop {and is in the photo at the top of this post}.

When you have your phone in hand and ready to use, you need to get a sim card to pop in before you use it.

Many countries have tourist sim cards; a quick Google search should at least get you started in figuring how much it costs and how to get it at your destination.

Sim cards are cheap and easy to get in Cambodia and Thailand. As a foreigner, you need to know that the phone shop needs to see your passport before they'll sell you a sim card. So keep it in hand when you go to get your sim. And if you have an iPhone, most shops can sell you a nano or micro sim card, or cut down a regular sim card to fit in your phone {which is what they did for us!}.

Most companies overseas are pre-paid. That means you go to the shop, buy a "top-up" card with a code you text in your phone, and it transfers the money to your account. You then use the card until you use up all the money, at which point you buy another top-up card - unlike the States where you receive a bill at the end of the month and then pay.

In Cambodia, there are several companies with cheap data packages. The company we use is Cellcard (also called Mobitel). They sell sim cards for $1, and minute rates range from 5-7 cents per minute. We also get 3.5 GB of internet data for $5 for one month, which is shockingly cheap compared the States and even Thailand. You can check out this page for their cell phone packages, as well as information about their internet and tourist sims. Other companies in Cambodia include Metfone and Beeline.

Thailand has several mobile companies, such as DTACAIS, and True Move. We recently bought a mobile internet package for AIS that gave 1GB of internet at 3G speeds for one month for 399 baht {$12.34 at today's exchange rate}. Once that initial 1GB of internet is used up, you can keep using the internet at a much slower speed.

So those are some quick tips about using your cell phone overseas - lots of little technical details, but hopefully it will make your trip easier to plan when you know how and where to use your phone. I'd love it if you shared your tips in the comments, especially if you've traveled to other countries and have ideas to share with those who are going somewhere else besides Southeast Asia!

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