Using ATT iPhone for International Travel - 3GS, 4 & 4s

Using ATT iPhone for International Travel Without Breaking the Bank (3Gs, 4 and 4s)

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When I traveled internationally for the first time after buying my iPhone, I was concerned about the potential for racking up huge phone bills. I’d heard horror stories about people who used their ATT iPhone for international travel, only to discover they had mounted up thousands of dollars in cell phone charges upon returning home. As an underpaid writer, I needed to make very sure this didn’t happen to me.

iPhone 3GS

I started by calling AT&T and was told that I needed to add an International Calling Plan for $24.99 per month. Initially that seemed like a reasonable solution, until I read the small print. The plan provides 20MB of usage within 65 countries, and the list of countries did not include my destination. Additionally, usage over 20MB would have been charged at $.005 per KB. If that all sounds like a lot of gibberish, let me put it in perspective: opening an email with a five megapixel picture in it or downloading a three-minute video on YouTube each require about 2MB of data, so it wouldn’t take long to eat up 20MB of data. Additionally, there are 1,000 KB in each MB, so if I was over my limit, opening a 2MB email would cost me $10! Obviously, this plan was not acceptable.

Since I intended to access my email and the Internet solely through the hotel’s WiFi network, I asked AT&T for instructions to block the cellular network completely. Although it was a struggle to get the rep to agree to send me the appropriate information, she finally offered to send an email with instructions. The instructions were somewhat incomplete, but with research I was able to fill in the missing details and the steps I took successfully shut off the 3G network (I have since traveled internationally for months without incurring any roaming charges). The following are the specific instructions for using ATT iPhone for international travel without incurring high international roaming charges (3Gs, 4 and 4s):

Settings for iPhone 3GS:

  1. Make sure that standard International Roaming and International Long Distance feature, if it is included in your cellular plan, is removed (call AT&T and make sure the rep adds a note to your account confirming that you requested this)
  2. If you are going to forward your number, do so before you change any other settings (Settings->Phone->Call Forwarding->Turn ON->Enter number to which you want calls forwarded)
  3. Disable 3G (Settings->General->Network-Enable 3G->OFF)
  4. Turn off data roaming (Settings->General-Network->Data Roaming->OFF)
  5. Make sure WiFi is enabled (Settings->WiFi->WiFi->ON)
  6. Turn of automatic pushing of email (Settings->Mail, Contacts, Calendars->Fetch New Data-Push->OFF and set Fetch to Manually)
  7. Put the phone in airplane mode (Settings->Airplane Mode->ON)
  8. Although not absolutely necessary, I wanted to be very sure I was not mounting up the MB’s, so I reset the usage counter to zero in order to monitor it throughout the trip, ensuring my usage remained at zero. To do so, go to Settings->General->Usage->Reset Statistics (scroll to the very bottom).

Settings for iPhone 4 and 4s:

  1. If you are going to forward your number, do so before you change any other settings (Settings->Phone->Call Forwarding->Turn ON->Enter number to which you want calls forwarded)
  2. Disable 3G (Settings->General->Network->Cellular Data->OFF). Also check your Data Roaming; it should be off by default, but for some reason if it is on, turn it off here as well
  3. Make sure WiFi is enabled (Settings->WiFi->WiFi->ON)
  4. Turn of automatic pushing of email (Settings->Mail, Contacts, Calendars->Fetch New Data-Push->OFF and set Fetch to Manually)
  5. Put the phone in airplane mode (Settings->Airplane Mode->ON)
  6. If you wish to reset the usage counter to zero in order to monitor it throughout the trip and ensure usage remains at zero, go to Settings->General->Usage->Cellular Usage->Reset Statistics
  7. NOTE: In my 4s I do not turn off Location Services and Notifications, as they both work over wifi as well as a cellular network. Disabling 3G and putting the phone in Airplane Mode ensures that they will use only the wifi network and not rack up expensive roaming charges.

When I arrive in an international destination, I simply log into an available WiFi network and Voila! I have access to the Internet, email, Twitter, and can even make international phone calls with the iPhone Skype app without incurring cellular charges. When you return to the U.S., simply reverse the process, although you may choose not to reinstate the International Roaming and International Long Distance feature.

Travel Tips on raveable

507 Comments on “Using ATT iPhone for International Travel Without Breaking the Bank (3Gs, 4 and 4s)

  1. Wow- sounds complicated! Great site though!
    1. If I have an iPhone5 under contract then it is “locked”?
    2.Does this mean I cannot exchange the SIM card for an international one like TruPhone makes?
    3.If you do have an international SIM, then you don’t have to turn the cellular off?
    4.I will mostly email and Skype which I can do with Wifi, but want to know that I can call states if I needed to. In this case, I could always turn back on the cellular and do an expensive cellular call, right?
    5. Also for work I need to do Instagram- no reason I should need cellular for this?
    6. YouRoam app would replace cellular function?
    thanks so much!

  2. Thanks for a great article. I did quite a bit of research on using the iPhone while traveling abroad. For extended travel, I decided to switch to Tmobile. They have a global plan with unlimited data and texting for $80 per month with additional charges to call the US are .20 per minute. I was gone for 6 months and for 2 of the months my bill was $140 because of more frequent calls to the states. I used SKYPE and FaceTime primarily. It eliminated purchasing Sim cards in each country I was in.

    • Thanks for your comment Faith. Things have definitely changed (for the better) since I wrote this article. I now use a world sim from TruPhone, which allows me to call anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world, for very affordable prices, and it provides texting and voice mail as well.

  3. Thanks for the great info. Would you still have to purchase the $25 call plan for your iPhone to be able to work in a different country? Or does it stay working no matter what? (First time international traveler and I am very new to all of this.) Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Mandee: It depends upon what you are trying to accomplish. If you just want to make calls in the country where you are traveling (call the hotel, call a taxi, etc.), and IF your iPhone is unlocked, you can buy an inexpensive sim card when you arrive in the country. If your iPhone is NOT unlocked, you can do one of two things: 1) buy an international plan from your carrier, or 2) put the phone in Airport mode (which will still allow you access to all apps and email, etc. when using wifi) and use Skype to make International calls when you have access to a wifi network. If you choose to buy the plan, please read the small print carefully. You are allowed a very small amount of data transfer before additional charges begin to accrue, and many people return home to bills in the thousands of dollars. You need to be VERY careful about use of your phone on an International plan – don’t surf the web, turn of all location and notification services that operate in the background, as well as iTunes synching, and set email push to manual.

  4. I really admire you.I am a concierge who gives advices to people but sometimes i feel like unleash the adventurer inside me take my 2 sons and do the same crazy stuff.Good luck with your blogging. You can read my blog about the scams in Istanbul Turkey. Cheers

    • Hi Eric: In my opinion, there’s no better teacher than travel. Hope you can find a way to hit the road with your boys, if only for a little while.

  5. YouRoam is a new app I am using when I travel that allows me to receive calls using my cell phone number and continue to make and receive calls very inexpensively while abroad without paying roaming fees. I also can make calls and message other users for free from anywhere in the world. I am going to Africa for a month and it helps me stay in touch with my family while abroad.

    • Hi Andrea: I took a look at YouRoam. There’s been a lot of these services popping up of late. The language on their site is somewhat misleading, in my opinion. On their FAQ’s page, under the question about whether it is necessary to have an international plan from your carrier, I found this:

      “Once your phone is connected to WiFi, you will automatically receive all calls on your own number for just $4.99 cents per week for unlimited calls to and from the US. If you need to receive calls at all times while on the road, we suggest you contact your carrier and subscribe to an international data and text messaging (no voice) plan. By turning on YouRoam, you can receive and make all your calls while abroad over 3G/4G/LTE/WiFi. Warning: Turn off voice calling while abroad. Otherwise incoming calls will be charged at your carrier’s international rates which will be very expensive!”

      I’d be very careful and check this out. It looks to me like you’d be paying $4.99 per month for the right to call using wifi, which you can do for free with Skype. I’m currently using a Truphone sim, which automatically connects me to a local 3G/4G network in every country I visit and I’ve been pleased with them. They have decent rates in 200 countries, and because their sim comes with a U.S.phone number, I can call someone back home, tell them to call me back, and often pay a much lower price for an incoming call, which costs the caller nothing (except for minutes). None of these plans is perfect yet, but in the next few years, things will be changing drastically. The E.U., for instance, is working on laws to combine all countries in the E.U. into one wireless zone.

  6. Hello, Thanks for all the comments. I leave for Thailand in 4 days and have an iphone 5 with ATT. I will be there a full month.
    I have been there before with other phones and was very successful with local sim cards.
    Here is my question:
    If I buy a monthly plan, which includes internet on my phone, can’t I have folks in the US call me on my US Skype phone number and speak to them on my phone (rather than with my laptop…)? And, if this is so, then it will be at no charge to them. Is this correct?

    Thanks so much. I hope someone sees this.

    • Hi Shari: I have also purchased local sim cards and used them quite successfully in Thailand, although with the military coup there have been some changes to cell service that may impact tourists in the future – sorry, but I don’t know the exact details yet. However, I want to make sure you are not confusing cell signal with wifi. You can buy a Thai sim that includes a data plan, which will allow you to download email, get on the Internet, use real-time mapping, etc. However, the Skype app is intended to work ONLY with a wifi connection, so your cellular data will NOT work with Skype. You must be connected to a wifi network to use the app. Having said that, wifi is fairly ubiquitous all over Thailand. You can get it in coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, hostel, etc.

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  9. And by the way, even if you’re still in contract, you might be able to break it and get the phone unlocked for a small fee or even fro free (T-mobile did it for me for no charge whatsoever) if you tell them you’re moving abroad. T-mobile asked for some sort of proof I was moving abroad, I sent them a generic rental agreement in German and that was good enough for them. So even if you’re not officially moving overseas and just traveling for a few months, you may be able to get out of your contract. I would absolutely recommend this if you can swing it. Then get a local or regional SIM (cards that let you call cheaply neighboring countries). I would do this even if you’re not moving abroad but just traveling for a few months.

  10. If you have an iPhone 3GS, that is a fairly old phone by today’s standards and therefore it hsould be no problems to break your American contract and get the phone unlocked. If you’re past your two year contract commitment, and you should be if you have a 3GS or even an iPhone 4, breaking contracts and getting it unlocked is easy. Trust me, I’ve done it. If you’re spending any significant amount of time overseas, it makes absolutely no sense to continue to pay an American phone company with all the potential fees, bad service etc. Just get out of your American contract, unlock the phone, and get a local SIM. Most local SIM are extremely cheap and you only pay for the minutes you use. If you want to spend a little extra money, you can usually get a SIM that includes internet access…also for very cheap, in case you need to access the internet and there is no WiFi around. When you get back to the States, you can also get a pay-as-you-go SIM for much cheaper than most iphone contracts, and these plans are becoming more and more numerous so you have lots of choice. As far as staying in touch with people in the US? Skype and similar services are the best…simply have skype forward a call from the US to your local number. This costs a few cents. When you get a skype forwarded call, just quickly tell the person you’re not online and to call back in an hour or whenever you can get back to your hotel/apartment/wherever you have internet access. If you’re going abroad for a year or more, I think it is worth it to buy a US-based skype number so that people in the US can call an American number and still get a hold of you. Last I checked, a skype number is $60 for a year. I’ve been living overseas for 6 years and it always astounds me when I come across American backpackers that plan to be on the road for a couple of months and they are still paying their American cell phone service provider to make calls overseas! It is completely nuts and only makes sense if you’re going abroad for a short two-three week vacation.

  11. Hello Barbara,
    My daughter is traveling to Thailand for a year to teach. After reading thru all of these comments, I havent seen a thing about having to unlock or jailbreak the iPhone. If we follow these steps, I am to assume that is not necessary, is that correct? Also, would you recommend having her forward her phone number to a new Google Voice and Skype? That way we can communicate via text msgs or phone calls, correct? Love all this information, extremely informative, thanks!!

    Jim

    • Hi Jim: Jailbreaking is quite easy to accomplish, however it only provides access to apps that are not included in the Apple library. Unlocking allows you to place a foreign sim card into the phone, if her phone is from a GSM service provider such as AT&T or T-Mobile, or has a dual CDMA/GSM capacity (I believe all the newest iPhones have this, regardless of carrier, but check to make sure). GSM is necessary because most of the rest of the world works on GSM cellular technology and their sim cards are only compatible with iPhones that support GSM. Having said that, unlocking is not as easy as it used to be and doing so is a violations of the terms of the AT&T contract. If she unlocks and than accidentally upgrades the operating system after unlocking, the phone will likely turn into a brick and AT&T says it will not be repairable. However, if she has had the phone long enough to satisfy the contract (typically 2 years), she can call AT&T & request an unlock code, which they will then text her. As soon as it is unlocked she can use a Thai sim card with it. Now, that will only allow her to make local calls in Thailand, so it does not solve the issue of calls back home. I rely on Skype with a wifi connection for those calls. I also have a Skype phone number and subscription (total $60 per year), and I forward my cell to that number when I am overseas. The subscription includes voice mail, so when anyone calls my cell they can either reach me live if I happen to be online with wifi, or leave a message, which I can retrieve the next time I am online. If all she wants is to make calls back home, she can do the same and doesn’t have to worry about unlocking. However, with all this, there is one thing missing – texts. Texts require the cellular network to work, which you will have deactivated by following the steps in my article (for newer phones, not all the steps are necessary – in Settings->Cellular just turn off the Cellular Data, which keeps the phone from accessing the mobile network completely). So if the cell network is deactivated, or if she is using a foreign sim, no text messages will get through. The best solution I have found for this is the app called WeChat, which allows both texting and video messages over the wifi. Hope that all helps.

      • Re: I forward my cell to that number when I am overseas — i am a bit slow to understand. Does this mean you maintain a contract w AT&T to have a cell number or does the new SIM card come with a new cell number? Thank you. I have been trying to figure out how to make the phone thing work. Also how do travelers look up restaurants and directions… with the changes you have described?

        • Hi Nur: Yes, I still have a contract with AT&T because I go back to the States occasionally, so I forward my AT&T cell number to my Skype number whenever I am out of the country. However, this year when I’m home for Christmas my 2-year contract will have been satisfied and I will probably have the phone unlocked and turn off my service for good. Then whenever I am back in the States I can pop in a prepaid sim card. Each sim card comes with a phone number, whether in the U.S. or overseas. You can buy a sim that has a data plan, just like in the U.S.; I have one right now in Thailand. Or, you can just buy a sim with phone minuts and rely on wifi to access the Internet to get email, look up restaurants, and have gps mapping services. Wifi is everywhere these days, so unless I’m going to stay somewhere a month or more, I just usually opt for minutes with no data. Hope that helps.

  12. I am having issue calling US only from Indonesia I can call other countries no problem I have an international plan

  13. Are your instructions to disable the 3G network the same if your carrier is Verizon? So what you,are saying if you disable the 3G and solely use a wifi connection there would be no roaming or other charges to your bill?

    • Hi Cindy: Because my article was written for those with AT&T service, I am not familiar with Verizon. However, I am quite sure that disabling the 3G and using only wifi will ensure you get no roaming charges, regardless of carrier. Unfortunately, I do not have a Verizon phone, so there may be some settings on your phone that are different from mine. Just make sure that you turn off all cellular data, and that data roaming is off. You need to be very certain that no services are working in the background, such as location or notification, or email pushing, that would cause your phone to connect without your knowledge. If you have the 4s or newer, turning off cellular data should ensure that, however again, I do not have Verizon, so maybe do a bit more research to make sure that is correct in your case.

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  17. For international texting, try downloading the viber app. It allows you to text anyone else with that app for free, since it uses wifi. It’s kind of like Skype, but for smart phones. You can also TALK via viber to any other iphone user with viber.
    I will be using it on an upcoming trip, so if it does NOT work I will repost. But I have tried it in the US and it works fine!

    • Thank you Barbara! I’d very much appreciate it if you’d let me and my readers know if Viber works, as the texting is the one missing link for me when I’m traveling internationally. I recently also learned about WeChat and wanted to test it, but it won’t work in my old 3gs, which is jailbroken and unlocked, so I can’t upgrade the operating system.

  18. I have always removed my sim card and left it at home when I travel, that way I can ONLY connect via wi-fi.

  19. Hi Barbara! I was wondering if w can take few pictures from your iphone while in other countries when disabling 3 g ? I will definately follow your instructions when I go to visit Italy this summer ? Also I am hard of hearing so I do text messaging alot but is it ok just to email instead of texting on my iphone ?
    thanks !

    • Hi Marcy: Yes, you can still use your phone to take photos when the 3G is disabled, and you can send photos to friends via email whenever you have an active wifi connection. As for text messages, I’m afraid this is the one thing that I have not been able to resolve to my satisfaction. Sending a text requires the 3G network, and if you turn it on without an International calling plan (pricey), you will be charged quite a lot per message. At the moment, I am using Google Voice, which provides me with a free phone number that I give to friends and family, telling them to use it whenever I’m out of the country. Google converts the text to email and sends it to me. I can then text back using Google Voice, again whenever I have a wifi connection.

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