Tech & Gadgets

How to: Use an American iPhone (or other gadgets) abroad without going broke

By on April 15, 2013

Angel iPhoneI am among many travelers that think smartphones are one of the greatest travel tools ever invented. Mainly because it allows us to multi-task, communicate and become a temporary local anywhere in the world. Becoming an effective traveler is now easier with the use of a smartphone. Unfortunately, many travelers have made some serious mistakes while using their gadgets abroad that have resulted in extremely costly phone bills. So how does one use their iPhone in Europe (or abroad) without going broke? Last year, after traveling to Europe three times, I was happy to avoid a nasty surprise on my phone bill by following these simple steps…

Please note: This article applies to GSM capable smart phones, particularly the iPhone or other iDevices such as iPad.

Turning on Airplane Mode is the “safest” method of traveling with your device. By turning on Airplane Mode your phone will not do the following:

  • Receive or send calls from/to your US Phone number
  • Receive or send SMS (text messages)
  • Download any data (unless connected to WiFi) like voicemail, email, GPS and other data based apps

If you do not want to do any of the above, then consider using your device on WiFi only. This will significantly reduce high data & voice charges that result in expensive bills. While inconvenient for some, Airplane Mode keeps your phone from becoming expensive while abroad.

Go to Settings—>Turn Airplane Mode ON
Select Wifi—>Turn Wifi ON

Airplane Mode

Airplane Mode ON


Now, you can use your device (iPhone or iPad) as an internet (via WiFi) only device. Your device will no longer be able to accept phone calls, SMS (text messages), automatically download email and voicemail. To access your web browser, download email, or use any internet based apps, you must connect to a WiFi network.

Download Key Apps

There so many key apps that we can use as travelers to communicate effectively via WiFi. Downloading smart travel apps before you leave, will help you make the most of your WiFi connection and possibly eliminate the need for Data and Cellular use (and expensive bills).

Skype. Skype is the grandaddy of them all. It allows free video, free voice calls and free instant messaging to other Skype accounts. Incredibly cheap rates for phone calls to land lines, mobile phones and SMS have allowed me to not use an international phone card in years.

Viber: Viber for iOS lets you use your iPhone to make free calls and send free text and photo messages to other Viber users, on any device, network and in country! With Viber, your contacts on your device are also your Viber contacts, because Viber automatically detects your contacts who already have Viber. All you need to do is click on a name and start talking. No invites. No hassle.

WhatsApp: (For text messaging only) WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. WhatsApp Messenger is available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone and Nokia and yes, those phones can all message each other! Because WhatsApp Messenger uses the same internet data plan that you use for email and web browsing, there is no cost to message and stay in touch with your friends.

For finding Free WiFi, I use Free Wi-Fi Finder

Apps for Communicating


Other Apps that make my life easier:

Travel Apps Photo Mar 11, 13 45 42



Business Travel Apps


Dont Forget about FaceTime & iMessage

Your device already comes with great communication apps already. iPhones & iPads are pre-loaded with FaceTime and iMessage. If you are trying to communicate with others who have iPhone or iPad, then you can simply use these apps to help you communicate when you are connected to WiFi. If you will be using iMessage as your main text messaging service, don’t forget that it sends messages over WiFi only. When your text bubble is blue instead of green, you’ll know you’re using iMessage instead of SMS (text messages where rates apply). For FaceTime, I always take the extra precaution to disable Cellular Data usage. 


Turn iMessage ON and Send as SMS OFF

Text Messaging SettingiMessage Setting


Settings—>Facetime. Turn Facetime ON and Use Cellular Data OFF

FaceTime SettingiMessage Example


Other options:

The only time an international plan (either voice or data) is preferable is if you *MUST* use your US number to make or receive phone calls or would like to use data when NOT connected to Wifi. For example, if you insist on using your iPhone or tablet as a GPS anytime/anywhere wherever your are, pre-buying data may be the option for you.

If you need to make or receive phone calls from your US phone number, would like to receive SMS (text message rates apply) to your US phone number, possibly need to write an emergency email/text message or need to be on the cellular network of the foreign carrier at your destination for any reason, than you may want to consider the following:

  • Turn off Data Roaming
  • Change Push Notifications
  • Reset your cellular data count
  • Get a minimal data plan from your carrier as an insurance policy


Turn Data Roaming Off 

Settings—>General—>Cellular—>Switch Data Roaming Off (Leave Cellular Data ON to receive or make phone calls from your US phone number while traveling abroad. Leaving Cellular Data ON also helps with the GPS function on your Maps app is you’ve left your WiFi zone)

Photo Jan 29, 9 26 25 Changing iPhone Settings


Change Email Settings 

Mail, Contacts, Calendars—>Fetch New Data: Turn Push to Off and the Fetch Schedule to Manually.

Email Setting

Turn Off Push


If any of the above seems too difficult, there is the option of purchasing an inexpensive phone abroad or using an international SIM card if your iPhone is unlocked. Those options have their limitations too so be careful. Usually phones purchased abroad become problematic if multi-country hopping is part of your itinerary.

I like having the ease, familiarity and advantages of using my own devices (Apple’s iPhone & iPad). By following the advice and steps listed above, you can travel well and travel often without breaking the bank. 

For more info please visit Apple’s website or check out this great article by TechCrunch. Contacting your cell phone provider with questions will likely leave you baffled.


  1. Reply

    Kathryn Romero

    April 15, 2013

    This was super, thanks Angel!

  2. Reply


    October 3, 2013

    Hi Angel,

    I’m about to travel for 4-6 months with my iPhone so this was very helpful for me.

    Just a few random questions:
    – have you ever gone the route of unlocking your phone and using international sim cards?

    – what are the limitations you mentioned?

    – I’m debating doing this but I’m not sure if it’s going to interfere with my international communication apps like iMessage, whatsapp, and Viber because it will be a new number with the SIM card.

    – I’m going to be traveling around south east Asia, do you recommend going the 100% wifi route Or buy extra data or SIM card?


    • Reply


      October 9, 2013

      Thanks for reaching out! Here are some answers.
      1. Yes, my current iPhone is unlocked. I’ve only used local sim cards as they are cheap and come with data plans. I’ve never used an international one as I don’t find them to be cost effective. The limitations to local sim cards is once you leave that country (or coverage) the sim card becomes almost obsolete.
      2. Switching out your SIM card to any sort of new sim card will wipe out your contacts and therefore make your other apps like iMessage, WhatsApp (and others) a bit more harder to use as you will not have your contacts stored on them anymore. Skype should still be okay though and others that don’t rely on importing your contacts. I believe the newest version of viber and whatsapp have made it so your contacts don’t get wiped out. It’s a big gamble though.
      3. If you are staying in one country in SEA for more than 10 days, it may be worth it. For me, it’s just always easier to go 100% wifi. Pretty easy to do in that part of the world unless you are not in urban areas a lot. If you buy extra data, think of it as an insurance and only use it in an emergency or when you are desperate.

      I hope I answered your questions.
      If not, please send me an email.

      Travel Well & Often

  3. Reply


    February 20, 2014

    I am not clear about why I would want to change my email settings if I turn off data roaming on my IPhone while in Europe. I will usually go wifi, but may need to text travel companions on occasion. Two will have US phones like me, and one has a SIM as she is studying abroad for an extended period.
    Thanks. My carrier isn’t all that helpful. They have given me incorrect information in the past. Perhaps I should have contacted Apple instead.

    • Reply


      February 20, 2014

      Thanks for writing me. I change my email settings as a precaution when I turn data roaming off. That gives me peace of mind that nothing will be downloaded even if data roaming gets switched back on somehow. I’m sure your carrier isn’t helpful at all since they want to make money off of you. If you go to Apple, make sure you talk to someone who travels and has used their phone abroad.

  4. Reply

    Mark T Holmes

    August 3, 2014

    I want to use location services so that iPhone photos will be tagged with geographic. Can I turn on location services and turn off cellular data and still not use any data?

    I was thinking that location services uses GPS and gets information from Wi-Fi and cellular towers and thus I was afraid it might cost me some money to have location services turned on
    Is there a way to do this?

  5. Reply


    August 4, 2014

    Is the airplane mode method 100% free?

  6. Reply


    April 5, 2015

    Hi Angel, I have seen several translation apps. Which one do think is the best?

    • Reply


      April 6, 2015

      Hi Cindy! Google Translate is amazing. One feature, Word Lense is phenomenal. Lots of off-line features too.

  7. Reply


    March 6, 2016

    Hi Angel, I enjoyed your packing tips from the talk you gave yesterday in Santa Clara,Ca . You showed the audience a small wheeled carry on Eagles Creek bag . I would like to get one to use for my next travel . Is it the Tarmac 22 or the Lync 20? I just wanted to make sure I ordered the correct one. Thanks !

    • Reply


      March 10, 2016

      Hi Sally! It’s the Tarmac 22 AWD (4-Wheels).

Leave a Reply

Angel Castellanos
Pasadena, CA

I'm a US based travel expert and spend my time teaching people how to travel well, smart and often. I'm passionate about travel and helping people save time & money. This blog, or travel lounge, is a collection of my practical travel advice and experiences from traveling 8-10 weeks internationally each year. I believe that travel has never been easier and that everyone can achieve their travel dreams. Happy Travels!


    Join me on Twitter
    %d bloggers like this: