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Roam If You Want To: Wireless Tips for the International Traveler

Wireless Tips for the International Traveler :: Mint.com/blog

In December I’m heading to Japan for a research trip. Japan is a highly wired nation with excellent cellular service, but free wifi is rare.

Furthermore, it’s easy to get lost in Japan, so I want consistent access to Google Maps on my phone.

Sure, I had excellent pre-GPS travel adventures in the 90s and 2000s, but I remember plenty of situations that could have been avoided with a little electronic wayfinding.

Like the time my wife and I were wandering around Bangkok at night looking for a restaurant, asked two guys for help, and were almost suckered into eating at the overpriced tourist restaurant they were working for.

Yes, I know maps apps can lead you into a lake or onto a runway, but to avoid bad food or being late to dinner, I’m willing to take the risk.

So I’m trying to figure out the cost-effective way to stay online for several weeks in Japan this fall.

And since I know you’re not all going to Japan (though I recommend it), I’d like to figure out some general principles for getting your phone or tablet online wherever you roam.

Avoid the horror

It’s been a while since I’ve heard a good horror story about international data roaming charges. Just in case, though, here are the basic rules:

  • Never, ever hop off the plane and just start using your phone. Assuming you carry a GSM phone, it will probably work fine — at an astronomical price. For fun, I priced out what it would cost to use 1GB of data on my AT&T iPhone in Japan (or any country other than the US and Canada) without buying an international plan. The answer: $20,447.
  • No matter what data solution you choose, turn off automated email checking and anything that downloads automatically in the background; monitor your data usage; and use wifi when you can. Here are some tips for Android and for iOS.

Ways to get online

There are four ways to get online abroad without cashing in your 401(k).

Note that I’m assuming you’ll use Skype or another voice-over-IP (VoIP) app for making phone calls; this is almost always cheaper and simpler than paying for voice minutes.

1. Buy an international data block from your cellular provider.

For example, AT&T sells 300MB of international data for $60/month or 800MB for $120. Verizon charges more: $25 per 100MB.

Not sure how much data you need? Check your usage in previous months (available on your provider’s billing site) or use a data calculator.

Pros: Easy. No new hardware to fumble with. Works nearly everywhere.

Cons: Fairly expensive. Have to monitor data consumption carefully. Probably not available if you use a prepaid plan.

2. Buy a SIM card

How does your phone know what network to connect to and where to send the bill? It contains a little ID card called a SIM.

If you have a GSM-capable phone (most but not all smartphones), you can buy a new SIM when you travel abroad.

Pros: Can be very cheap. To find a good deal on a SIM that works in the countries you’re visiting, check the Pay As You Go SIM wiki. I found a SIM for use in Japan that costs about $30 and offers 1GB of high-speed data, more than I need.

Cons: Requires an unlocked GSM phone not under contract. Can’t receive calls at your existing number (but you probably don’t want to anyway). May be tricky to set up.

3. Rent a phone

Many services will rent you a cell phone (smart or flip) for the duration of your trip. Usually you can pick it up at the airport or have it sent to your hotel.

Pros: Simple. Usually the cheapest way to get voice minutes, especially if you rent a flip phone. (Still more expensive than Skype, but more reliable.)

Cons: Renting a smartphone is expensive, and you have to reinstall your favorite apps.

4. Rent a wifi box

A wifi box (aka a “mobile wifi router” or the brand name MiFi) is a little bubble of wireless internet you can carry with you.

Turn on the small battery-powered device, and it will connect to a 3G or 4G cellular network and supply wifi to all of your electronics: laptop, phone, and tablet.

Pros: Works with all of your devices simultaneously. Unlimited data. Easy to set up. Relatively inexpensive: in Japan, I can rent a wifi box for a month for about $130.

Cons: Requires carrying and charging an extra piece of equipment. Renting in certain countries or for a multiple-country trip is more expensive.

The verdict

Ever do so much research on a purchase that you end up stumped? Sure you have. It’s the modern way.

I knew I didn’t want to rent a cell phone, but I kept dithering among the other three options.

Finally, I noticed that my friend Allison Day of the blog Sushi Day had liked the wifi box on Facebook. I emailed her and she recommended it highly.

Sold. It’ll be waiting for me at my hotel when I arrive in Osaka.

NOTE: Just as I was finishing this column, T-Mobile announced unlimited free international roaming on all of their no-contract Simple Choice plans.

The catch? Data is limited to a low-speed 2G connection, which is really slow. Still, if you’re a T-Mobile customer, you now have access to by far the cheapest way to get online worldwide.

How do you get online when you travel?

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.