Photo by Yangshen Chen, feature photo courtesy of Best of Both Worlds

When I first bought my iPhone through AT&T, I made the mistake of taking it to a conference in Canada for 24 hours. To my surprise, that trip resulted in a $700 data roaming charge.


“How can 24 hours in Canada result in such a charge?”
I remember beseeching the AT&T customer service representative. Eventually AT&T offered to remove the charge if I paid $59.99/month for the international data plan. For short-term travel, the international plan made sense financially. However, for trips abroad lasting for several months, I wondered if there was a more cost effective alternative.

When my husband Isaac and I began to plan a six-month trip to Central America, we researched iPhone plan options. We found that AT&T allows iPhone users to choose a reduced rate suspend on a temporary basis for $10 a month for a maximum of six consecutive months.

Under the reduced rate suspend, the data plan is disabled, so the iPhone effectively becomes like an iPod touch and users have to rely on wireless Internet connections. Obviously, this plan works best if you know you will be in cities where access to wireless Internet is readily available.

An iPhone is an expensive investment, and the reason I decided to buy one for my travels is that, as a writer, it allows me to make money while traveling. If you have a job that you can take on the road, then the iPhone enables you to function effectively as a digital nomad.

If you are traveling to escape from work and the daily barrage of emails, then traveling with an iPhone is not a good investment. I have included a description of the various options for traveling with an iPhone below.

Reduced Rate Suspend

1. When you call AT&T customer service, there is the chance the customer service representative will say that the reduced rate suspend does not exist. Isaac and I had to call two different representatives to get current information about the $10 plan. Verizon, which is now a carrier of the iPhone, does not offer an international data plan, but they do offer the reduced rate suspend plan.

2. Download applications for Facetime and Skype to be able to make local and international calls for free. This will allow you to make free calls from your iPhone to any computer (Skype) or from iPhone to iPhone (Facetime) as long as you are connected to a wireless network.

3. Download the Wi-Fi Finder application, and use it to check for wireless availability in the cities you will be visiting. Although this application is most thorough about wireless availability in U.S. cities, it also offers useful information about many international locations.

International Data Plan

Photo courtesy of Whizzer’s Place

1. Through AT&T the international data plan costs $59.99 per month plus the price of your regular subscription. The plan allows users 50MB of data per month, but charges roughly $5 per MB more than 50MB of data is used. Verizon does not currently offer an international data plan. This plan only works in the 65 countries listed on the AT&T website.

2. Monitor data use closely because data overage charges can add up quickly.

Unlocking the iPhone

1. If you decide to unlock the iPhone you void your warranty. When I called AT&T to discuss their official policy on unlocking the phone they said, “It is our official policy not to comment on unlocking the phone.”

However, that said, many travelers have successfully unlocked the iPhone and installed SIM chips from the countries in which they are traveling. Several useful tutorial videos are available on YouTube that demonstrate different ways to unlock the iPhone.

2. Research the best options for a pre-paid SIM card in the country you will be visiting. This will allow you to make affordable calls in the country you are visiting. However, for international calls it will still be most cost effective to use Skype or Facetime.

General Tips

1. Invest in a good travel case. Not only does this protect the iPhone from the wear and tear of travel, but it also makes it look less like an iPhone. I recommend the Defender Case for iPhone 4.

2. Use the map application on the iPhone to open up a map of the city you will be visiting. Then when you get to a destination where there is no wireless, you will have the map available.

Having the iPhone on the reduced rate suspend plan as we travel has allowed us to save time and make money. I have managed to write the last two chapters of my dissertation and work on freelance projects. Rather than paying for frustratingly slow service and bad connections at Internet cafes, we have been able to find good wireless connections and use them for free.

When staying at hostels and renting apartments, we always look for options that include wireless Internet. When wireless connections are plentiful, Isaac and I use Facetime to video chat while we are out running errands or shopping for groceries.

In fact, while sitting at our apartment in Utila, Honduras writing this article I called Isaac to tell him to pick up an avocado while he was in town.

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