If you're like the vast majority of Americans with a cell phone plan, you're probably pretty confused about what to do with your smartphone as soon as you cross international borders. Long have we heard the horror stories of others who have racked up outrageous phone bills just by turning it on for a brief moment while overseas. Just keep it in "Airplane Mode," people will tell you.

The Problem with Airplane Mode

While keeping it in Airplane Mode is one way to avoid a hefty bill in the mail, it essentially turns your phone into a modern-day iPod. You'll still be able to snap pictures, listen to music stored on your device, and connect to WiFi whenever it's available, but you won't be able to connect to the internet just anywhere, and you won't be able to make a phone call if you really need to. I can hear some of you already: But I'm going on vacation. The last thing I want to do is be tethered to my phone. I hear you loud and clear, and I share your sentiments. 

The truth is, whether you are tethered to your phone or not is always in your control. We live in a world where connectivity has become so regular and seemingly necessary, that we feel naked without our "connecting devices." However, it's important to forget about these devices sometimes, because they really prevent you from Being in the present moment and taking in the beauty and wonder of the experience we call Life.

I think we tend to like vacations so much because we are forced to put the phone down and be more present with our surroundings. But this can be achieved at anytime, and I recommend engaging in the present moment as often as you can. Our smartphones can also be a useful tool, though, both at home and abroad, and their functionality doesn't need to be limited by the confines of Airplane Mode. 

Buying a Sim Card

There are times during your travels when you are really going to wish you could connect to the internet, even if just for a brief moment. Although WiFi has become much more prevalent, it still doesn't exist (or work) everywhere. Sooner or later you'll find that your journey is at least partially being dictated by where there is WiFi. You can free yourself from these detours by purchasing a sim card.

Most countries outside of the United States operate on a "pay-as-you-go" basis. This means you are not contractually obligated to any plan, but rather, you purchase a sim card (one time) to connect to the network, and occasionally you "refill" or "recharge" your account with funds that give you access to the network. You'd be surprised how far you can get with just a few dollars. So why would you want access to the networks in another country?

I can't tell you how many times it came in handy that we had internet pretty much everywhere we went. Again, I don't like to be glued to the phone either, but the wonders of the internet have come far enough that it can actually maximize our travel experience. Here are just 10 of the advantages to having internet access everywhere you go:

  • Accessible directions with Map applications (walking, driving, keeping taxi drivers honest, etc.)
  • Finding great local food/drink
  • Being able to chat/text with new friends you meet
  • Access to translation apps 
  • The ability to dial out in case of emergencies
  • Currency conversion tools
  • Social Media during long bus trips
  • Ability to read up on travel advice websites while on the go
  • Ability to check bank account info on the go
  • It can control your GoPro

There are an infinite number of scenarios where a network connection would prove useful. And you won't be subject to phone calls from your home country because you'll have a new and temporary number. Getting a sim card will not only allow for a safer travel experience, it will also make your adventure more efficient, allowing you to spend less time trying to "figure out how to do things" and more time actually doing them. It doesn't make sense not to get a sim card. 

A Few Cautions

By now, you can see the value of purchasing a sim card abroad. Here are a few things to keep in mind that will make your life easier, instead of having to learn the hard way.

  1. Don't be like me and lose your original sim card from back home. Make sure to put it in a safe and easy-to-remember location so that communication is easy when you return.
  2. The Pay-as-you-go system tends to be cheaper in other countries, but you'll find yourself making frequent trips to recharge your balance if you start streaming music and video a lot. Save that for when you're in a WiFi area. And focus on your trip, not the internet!
  3. In some countries, getting connected initially and learning how to refill your balance may be confusing. Don't hesitate to ask for help! If you don't speak the language, find someone who can interpret for you. Usually, they understand you and are more than willing to help you get started. And most places that sell these sim cards also have the tools to perform the swap (some phones are trickier than others).
  4. Make sure to keep the phone in Airplane mode as long as your native sim card is still in the phone, unless you are will to pay when you get home, or you have an International Calling Plan. 
  5. Use your phone minimally, as a tool to aid your experience. Don't forget why you're traveling. Focus on being in the present moment as often as possible.

Hopefully this article has given you some insight on how to use your smartphone abroad, and how purchasing a sim card can actually improve your travel experience. Many travelers that I ran into were convinced that they should do the same after seeing its benefits. Post your thoughts and any questions you might have below!