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When Soulja Boy advised us all to kiss him through the phone, he obviously didn’t have international travel plans in mind.  Phone service can be one of the most troubling aspects of adjusting to expat life, but we have a few tips to prevent heinous roaming charges and communication meltdowns.

Anyone who has decided to live abroad has faced the inevitable pay-as-you-go cell debacle. In a world where we are used to instant 3G connection, around-the-clock texts, and free weekend minutes, how are we supposed to adjust to top-ups or potentially no smartphones at all!?  Though each destination is different in terms of phone usage and available plans, here are a few fool-proof tips for getting connected without going bankrupt.

Carry two phones: you’ll look important anyway.
For anyone who has codependence on an iPhone or Blackberry, the prospect of leaving your precious baby at home alone is heart-wrenching. Why even bother going abroad if you can’t tweet embarassing photos of yourself at absurd times, am I right?  If your local city makes it rather difficult to sign up for a full cell plan (or if the price is exorbitant), consider carrying two phones – your local cell, and your smartphone that is hooked up to a pay-as-you-go data plan.

Now, let’s get one thing straight – jailbreaking or unlocking your smartphone will more than likely be required to make use of the strategy.  Remember that most manufacturers end your guarantee immediately if you jailbreak your phone (aka allow it to work on other cell networks than the one you purchased with the device) [update - one of our contributors has clarified that jailbreaking opens the phone to third party application usage -- this is an issue for the iPhone, and not the Blackberry.  Unlocking specifically refers to opening the phone to other carriers only], while others may reluctantly advise you over the phone.  Venture carefully! This process can be difficult and potentially damaging, so consider asking a techie friend for help.

London, England. We always knew we liked the Brits, especially after Orange designed a pay-as-you-go data plan.

Once the smartphone has been unlocked for other services, you can insert a local SIM and use it exclusively for data.  In London for example, Orange cell service offers a decent data package for £5 per month.  If your cell network from the States is still associated with the phone, beware – you can be charged roaming for the texts or calls you send and receive.  However, if you proceed with care, you can use data on your smartphone locally and perform all other functions on a local phone that is topped-up regularly.

Utilize WiFi to its full advantage with your smartphone.

You can bring your iPhone or smartphone anywhere and use its WiFi capabilities, as long as you never sign on to the data network.  If you have Viber for iPhone or Android (FREE phone calls – we swear it’s not too good to be true), you can use it to make international calls as long as your phone is connected to a WiFi network.  Download your favorite communication apps (Skype, ooVoo) to your smartphone, and use it in WiFi enabled areas only.  This may seem like a hassle when you are used to a constant 3G network, but it will certainly cut out a load of bogus charges.


Sniff out the requirements for opening a local cell phone plan.

In certain countries, purchasing a phone/opening a cell phone plan could be possible.  It is likely contingent on your VISA.  If you have permission to open a bank account within your new country of residence, it is likely that you can create a cell plan that bills to your local account.  If the price is right and you will be spending a particularly long time, this may be your best bet.  Just remember: if your cell phone works in one country, it may not work across the border five miles away.  If you plan to travel out of your host nation, you may run into all of the same problems you encountered had you traveled with your international phone plan. Get the facts before you commit to this type of contract.

You don't have to choose between eating and texting with these fool-proof ways to keep your phone costs down.

Look into international cell plans from your current provider – but BEWARE.

The most natural go-to for arranging a cell phone plan abroad is your current provider.  If you were going on vacation, chances are you’d call your carrier, arrange an international package that sets a limit on your data & minutes, and make a list of the countries you planned to visit.  As many wary vacationers will tell you, even a two week stint on an “international plan” could be exorbitant.  In personal experience, cell phones like to pick up rather bizarre roaming signals.  You may be in Switzerland, set up on an international plan, and have arranged a deal with your carrier, but your cell phone has decided that it is roaming in Lichtenstein.  You’ll return home to find a range of roaming charges you’ll find difficult to fight, all because of a confusion of cell signals with international towers.   This could cost–prepare yourself–THOUSANDS of dollars.

Be wary if you decide to take an international plan.  Ask plenty of questions–particularly about roaming penalties should you decide to visit another country, of if your cell picks up an international tower–and set a budget.

Your phone should be the least of your worries (and expenses) when taking the trip of a lifetime.

Keeping in touch with friends at home is still most easily done through Skype, Facebook, FaceTime, and other computer-based apps.  If you are an iPhone user, Time2Call is a great way to avoid the calling card mess that so many study abroad students continue to detest.  With over 100 countries available and direct billing to your iTunes account, you can call any phone for up to fifteen minutes with generally low prices.

We fully understand (and share) your smartphone addiction, and would love to hear your instant remedies for escaping the great international cell debacle! Leave us a comment and share your tips, horror stories, or impressions…we love them all.

Slideshow photo: Vertu luxury smartphones.