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Mobile Data Tips for Americans Traveling Overseas - Part I

Bill Malchisky  November 7 2012 04:00:00 AM
Update: Due to the length, I split this post into two documents.

After several trips abroad over the past five years and been burned several times with a less than stellar cellular experience, I thought I would provide some tips for Americans traveling internationally to avoid potentially similar hassles and instead, enjoy better their trip.

First, you will want to avoid the using your local domestic cell company for making and receiving calls overseas, unless you do not care about your wallet's contents. I found my older Verizon Wireless Global Data pricing book from early 2010. Calls on their network to/from the United Kingdom were $1.29/minute. This year (2012), the prices are $1.69/minute. So, checking your voicemail alone can cost $3 per message. Depending upon your job responsibilities, this may not be an issue. For me, as my clients do telephone and e-mail support queries, I need to be available during Eastern Time zone business hours--wherever I may be in the world. To that point, data usage abroad with my carrier is $20.48/MB. Hardly reasonable. You can pre-pay $50 to get 100MB, but if you under utilize that amount, they keep the cash. Some carriers also offer a package for a reasonable fee to get better international rates; my carrier prorates the fee. An example, pay up-front $4.99/month and get a voice rate of $0.99/min. Still quite high, but far more reasonable that $1.69/minute.

Nota bene
: Disable Use Data While Roaming on your phone, or you can come home to a very large and unexpected cellular phone bill in the thousands of dollars. Proof: here and here

Alternative SIM Card

So what are some reasonable alternatives? First, you will need to unlock your phone. Most carriers will give you the code for free and provide you directions on how to enter it, so that you can utilize a non-native SIM card when traveling. This freedom pays huge financial benefits. You carrier will not advertise the service of course, as it impacts their revenue, but if you keep their service and alert them to your travel plans, they can be quite accommodating.
they will warn you about their being unable to provide technical support when utilizing a non-native SIM card and that if any damage occurs to your phone, your under warranty phone will not cover that. Good points and reasonable. Buy a quality SIM and you should have no issues either.

Next, get a GoSIM card. This quality service provides significantly lower rates on utilizing mobile airtime when abroad and your card works in over 170 countries, as I recall. The card provides a UK mobile number natively, and upon activation, a US mobile number. This is key. Why? Because, now you can forward your original phone's incoming calls to this domestic number and your international cell phone rings. Fantastic feature, because most if not all cell phones will only allow you to forward to a domestic number. Period. The included flexibility with GoSIM solves a lot of technical challenges.

My card provided $0.59/min from/to the US on a GoSIM SIM card. This is $1.11/min or $0.40/min savings over Verizon's two global options and adds-up in a hurry. Data with GoSIM is $0.49/MB or approximately $20/MB cheaper than my carrier. You have one account with GoSIM that debits your balance whether you utilize voice or data. Then you can renew for free via your phone. They are a service oriented company with 24/7 support and local numbers in most major countries. Getting a sympathetic ear to assist when you are abroad is easy with them as I pleasantly learned. Also, inbound calls to the UK number are free, which is a nice plus too. You can provide that number to your family and with a VOIP solution, they can call you for free or close to it--depending upon your plan and vendor.

Inbound calls to the US number are only $0.19/min, so that keeps the issue of forwarding to a minimal concern. Even at $0.59/minute, to receive a call from a family member in need, or a client, it is well worth it.

Additionally, you can find plenty of options in towns and the UK airport where you land to get a cheap SIM card -- if the displayed number on the recipient's CallerID is irrelevant to you.

Other GoSIM notations:
  • Dial 191 to recharge, even when out of minutes
  • The card and assigned number will expire after six months of inactivity
  • You can pay $0.50/month to keep your card active between trips; great feature if you need continuity or consistency with your overseas number and may be cheaper than shipping a new card for your next trip
  • The fee will be charged whether the card is active or no, so you can telephone GoSIM and pause the charging when you are traveling abroad, if you wish
  • The card is $26 then you just pay for your data balance; with plans above the Student offering, provide you bonus minutes to make it more attractive
  • They value repeat customers and provide exceptional service should your SIM get damaged or lost
  • Inbound calls to the UK number are free -- worth repeating; so anyone in The States calling this number, results in zero charges to you; send the family a DM asking them to call, and you can talk for $0.00/minute
  • If you need to receive calls from The States for nearly free when abroad on your original number, then GoSIM is a great solution as you can forward your mobile number to the US number on the GoSIM card; then you just call out on a VOIP solution or Pingo (see below) to call back from your locale and keep the rates very reasonable

Nota bene:
Make sure you provide your travel sites (e.g. TripIt, Travelocity, or airline carrier) with your e-mail address in addition to your cell number in your notification profile; because if there are any itinerary changes (e.g. cancelled flight, delayed flight, gate changes) and they only have your domestic carrier's SMS address, you may not get the update, as you are using a different phone number. Keep that in mind.

Data Access Options When Roaming Abroad

First point to note on data is that in Europe, particularly the UK, you should not go into your travel expecting to have a smooth in-hotel WiFi experience like you do in the USA. Being naive here can create a lot of undue stress, otherwise avoided. The hotels can and frequently do have various offerings from 30 min/day/device free, then charging thereafter, to a $20+/day option on a rolling 24h window, and anything in-between. The performance can be questionable and frustrating at times -- whereas some days it is flawless. The point here is that if you are an administrator (for example) and need to resolve a client situation back at the office, you should not expect to sit in the lobby or your room and easily do so with the hotel network. This should be a backup, not your primary option. Solutions to this conundrum follow are included below.

Data Only SIM Card

I learned a tip from my friends Chris Miller (@IdoNotes) and Paul Graham (@LotusKiwi) regarding the T-Mobile data only SIM card in London. I purchased a £5 (US$8.13) T-Mobile SIM card which provided me 500MB of data. I can renew and the card expires in six months sans usage. As I use 3G Watchdog on my Android phone, I know that 500MB lasts me just under 15 days. So, for a five day trip, this is more than enough. Even better, was the special they had, in that they only counted actual downloads against the 500MB balance, and browsing was free. Now checking mail, Twitter, and general web surfing were included, whereas downloading a file, mail attachment, or streaming audio/video feeds will in fact use up your allowance--a very reasonable approach. Great coverage overall and I only had to reboot my phone twice in four days to get the card working. This occurred after a situation of lost signal over an extended period of time. Impressed with the service. In a phrase: get one!

Mobile Hotspots

Option 1
: Several people in the Lotus Community have purchased MiFi devices, with renewable data cards, so traveling to a particular locale becomes an easy proposition. You can keep your preferred SIM card there, disable data roaming, and enable the WiFi option to use your MiFi device. There are various options and many countries offers these. What may be expensive in country A, is a bargain for a foreign national visiting that region. The inverse is also true. Interesting paradigm.

Option 2
: Another option allows for using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot and then having your other device(s) use that to get data. At UKLUG, the university network providing quality service to us, did not allow files to be downloaded. I needed a patch for my laptop to run my demos on the projector. What to do? Disconnected from their WiFi network, associated with my Android phone's mobile hotspot, which had the T-Mobile data only SIM card, and I had Internet access on my laptop, got the needed files easily, and then reconnected to the conference SSID for overall performance on web browsing. A complete win.

Wireless Fidelity

Many hotels, conference centers, coffee shops, airports, and lounges offer WiFi service. Some to most are free. Set your cell phone to use WiFi and you can connect to a local network and get your data for free, or a small fee. Fantastic if you are in a remote area with poor cell coverage as well.

This post continues... Click for Part II

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