Using your iPhone on the cheap while in Southeast Asia (or anywhere for that matter) is actually pretty damn easy. However, because domestic carriers like Verizon and AT&T would much prefer you pay them exorbitant fees to use your phone abroad, the simple steps to accomplish this are not widely known. Here are the basic steps to use your iPhone abroad for a fraction of the cost in the States:
Unlock your phone
In most cases this is the biggest hurdle to beating the carriers. If you are past your two year contract (and have thus “paid off” your phone subsidy), this is as simple as requesting an unlock through your carrier (AT&T can be done online here). By “unlocking your phone” your carrier is enabling the phone to use SIM cards from other providers. If you are still under contract, sometimes the carrier will still unlock your phone if you beg and plead. If not, there are software programs that will do this for you for a hefty fee. If that doesn’t strike your fancy, buy an older phone like a 3GS that’s already unlocked. (NOTE: some Verizon phones use older technology that may not be compatible w/ other SIM cards so it’s best for Verizon customers to check into this first)
Buy local SIM cards
When you arrive in each country you are travelling to, find a local carrier and purchase a SIM card with a prepaid data, talk, and text plan. These are usually available at the airports and surprisingly very cheap. We bought a prepaid plan w/ a SIM card in Bangkok for ~$15 USD that included 1GB of data and unlimited local talk and text for 30 days. I couldn’t believe how inexpensive this was and had to confirm what we were getting half a dozen times with the agent, who I’m sure thought I was a complete idiot. We’ll do the same thing in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and most of the other countries outside Asia we visit for an extended period (and maybe I won’t look as dumb next time).
Enjoy your phone as you normally would!
Go ahead and check email, upload pictures to Instagram, text Aunt Suzy, and/ or call the hostel owner for directions when all the street names on google maps are in Thai. The last item certainly comes in handy when you get to a new city at midnight and have no idea where you’re going.
But what about my domestic plan? I’m still under contract and I’ll have to pay a big fee to cancel the plan.
You can actually “suspend” service when still under contract with a carrier. With AT&T it costs $10/ month per device and I’ve heard it’s similar with Verizon and other providers. Let’s say you’re travelling for two months and want to use your phone in another country (or don’t want to use it at all!). By suspending your service and only paying $10/ month, you’ll probably save $200 relative to just keeping your monthly plan. Not too shabby.
AT&T/ Verizon/ [INSERT EVIL CARRIER HERE] WON’T %^&*#$@& UNLOCK MY PHONE!!
When all else fails and you don’t want to buy an old phone to use on the road, suspend your plan and use the following apps, which will all work on your locked device while on WiFi and will keep you connected:
Skype – best and most widely used way to keep in touch. I’ve probably seen my parents’ faces more times in the last two weeks than I did in all of 2009 and 2010.
Whatsapp – allows you to text any of your contacts from anywhere in the world. (Alison is the expert on this)
Viber – similar to Whatsapp but you can also do internet calls to your contacts from anywhere in the world. Just make sure they have the Viber app downloaded as well. You can send pictures and even send your contacts your current location! You are also able to set up group messages, which is great for updating everyone at one time vs. individually (Alison is also the expert on Viber)
Most importantly, don’t feel the need to stay connected all the time. Get off the grid!