An estimated 75% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the border to our friends to the south, United States of America. This is why we often travel there for various reasons from business ventures to vacations or shopping and dining. Our Australian and South African clients are also frequent international travellers.
One painful inconvenience of international travel is the high costs of mobile phone operation – both voice and data. Here’s a text message I received as soon as I crossed recently into USA:
Quick math tells me that 100 minutes of talk time will cost me $145 – wow! My main smart phone in Canada is with Rogers, and they do offer Travel Paks (www.rogers.com/roaming/). With one of those purchased in advance, you can get as low as $0.50/minute if purchasing a bundle of 100 minutes. Still very limiting and costly if you plan on staying for several days or weeks.
Value of Unlocked phones
The value of unlocked phones becomes obvious when you realize you can purchase a pre-paid or monthly plan from a number of carriers for about the same price as 100 discounted roaming minutes with Rogers. If you purchased a smartphone at a discount with a contract extension, likely your phone is carrier-locked. It means that using a SIM card from another carrier will not work. In Canada/US, iPhone 4 and 4s models are unlocked only when purchased from Apple directly or authorized retailer (not mobile phone stores). SIM locks vary from country to country, but generally speaking, unlocked phones do not qualify for purchase subsidy, and therefore cost more.
If you are an international traveller and plan on purchasing a new phone, make sure it is not carrier-locked, but rather a complete unlocked phone in which other carrier SIM cards will function.
The next step is to simply purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM or MicroSIM card for your phone when you reach your destination. In my specific example as a Canadian travelling in the USA, the best option was to purchase a $60/mo T-Mobile plan with unlimited talk, text, web up to 2GB of data.
For the frequent international traveller
These guidelines apply if you travel internationally frequently and don’t find it is practical to give a large group of people a temporary foreign contact number at which to reach you while away. You want international travel to be possible without disruption to your important circle of associates and friends and family to be able to reach you.
- Establish your main contact number to be PBX-driven, not your mobile phone. Having your main number be a virtual number is important for you to establish customized call routing rules. In the US, a popular service is Google Voice, and in Canada a similar set of features (except SMS) is available via RingCentral. If you have an established network of people who only know your mobile number, many countries offer number portability. In Canada, see http://www.wirelessnumberportability.ca/.
- Use Find-me, Follow-me features on your PBX (or virtual PBX service) to forward your main phone number to the country and mobile number you’re currently at.
- Avoid SMS messaging from your mobile phone directly as it starts to fragment your phone number identity. Many countries now have services of virtual SMS numbers that integrate with email. It means that SMS messages you receive are translated via email, and you can use email or web interfaces (or apps) to respond. Google Voice does this well (available only in the US).
The difficulty in seamless international travel is that phone systems have their roots in a geographically-zoned world, but the modern virtual and international entrepreneurs don’t know such borders, so it’s a major problem still to be solved. 🙂
Have I missed anything valuable in international travel that you want to contribute in the comments?