Introduction: International Travel With the IPhone

At the beginning of September, I finally got a break from work and visited  Germany for a couple of weeks. As I don’t speak German and it had been over a decade since I was there last, I was excited about the prospect of taking my iPhone. I figured that quick access to  maps and tools like  Google Translate would smooth over any inevitable bumps along the road. I wasn’t, however, excited about paying exorbitant data usage fees — AT&T calling and unlimited data plans don’t cover usage outside of the US.

Here's what I did and what I should have done when traveling overseas with my iPhone.

Step 1: Set Up Your Calling Plan

The first thing I did was sign up for the AT&T World Traveler plan ($5.99 per month) to reduce any fees I might incur from calls. The World Traveler plan basically saves you 30¢ a minute for calls that would normally be charged at international roaming charges (so in Germany I paid 99¢/minute instead of the normal $1.29/minute).

Step 2: Set Up Your Data Plan

Now, unfortunately the World Traveler plan DOES NOT cover data usage, so I had a choice, hope that I could find unprotected WIFI networks and pay the $.0195/KB (or, $19.50/MB) data charge when I couldn’t, or sign up for one of AT&T’s Data Global packages. The data add-ons come in four options:
  • 20MB ($24.99)
  • 50MB ($59.99)
  • 100MB ($119.99)
  • 200MB ($199.99)

I looked at my bills from the past few months, and since I generally use about 120MB a month, I figured I’d be fine with the 50MB package. After all, I was only planing on being gone 2 weeks and restricting my data usage to the map application, some light email, and Google Translate. AT&T prorates these data plans, so if you don’t use every last megabyte, they’ll credit you back what you didn’t use. Since I opted for the 50MB plan, that I meant I was paying about $1.20/MB.

Step 3: What to Do Before You Arrive

In order to make sure I didn’t go over my data limit when traveling, I took a number of steps to ensure that I wasn’t unnecessarily downloading/uploading information.

  1. Turn Fetch New Data OFF. On your iPhone select Settings>Fetch New Data and set to OFF. This will ensure that your iPhone won’t keep trying to update your email, applications that need updating, etc. every time it’s got a signal.
  2. Reset Data usage. Go to Settings>General>Usage and select Reset Statistics at the bottom. This will help you keep track of how much information you are sending/receiving.
  3. When you aren’t using your iPhone to do anything besides call people, turn Data Roaming OFF. On your iPhone select Settings>General>Network>Data Roaming and turn it OFF. Just another precaution to make sure you aren’t downloading the entire Internet when you aren’t using your phone.

Step 4: What Happened When I Arrived

Just like the  American dollar, 50MB doesn’t seem to go as far in Europe. At times I wondered whether I was using Metric megabytes. And, unlike most Americans, most Germans seem obsessive-compulsive about protecting their wireless network. I found very few “free” WIFI networks and those that I could access where generally owned by T-Mobile, O2, or some other network provider that wanted me to pay €7.95 for a day of access.

Even though I was only using Internet access for maps and Google Translate, after 3 days in Germany I was starting to worry about my data usage. My phone said that I had only sent 1 MB and received 13 MB, but when I logged into my account online, it said that I had used 35MB! I hastily called AT&T’s international assistance and they explained that I had only used 11MB. So I had three different measures of how much data I was using, and apparently the only accurate one could be found by calling AT&T.

At the end of 10 days, I was getting ready to head back to the United States, but decided to switch phones with my wife who was planning on continuing on to Italy with her sister and mother. As she was going to travel with my iPhone, I wanted to make sure she was going to be OK on data. I again called AT&T and this time they told me that I had used almost 63MB!

The operator explained, however, that the person who had set up my Global Data plan had not backdated it to my billing cycle date. Once she did that, it lowered my usage, but I immediately upgraded to the 100MB plan just to be safe.

Step 5: Was It Worth It?

While my iPhone did help overcome some of the initial culture shock, ultimately I was paying $119.99+ for a crutch to lean on more than anything else. The iPhone is a nice tool/toy to quickly access information and entertainment, but while traveling in another country it was mostly an added distraction that I didn’t need.

Google Maps for Europe are excellent, but many of the directions are just as flawed as some of those I have stumbled across here in the states. At one point Google had me driving down a narrow street in  Baden-Baden meant only for pedestrians. Talk about stress. I could feel the “stupid American” glares punching holes in the windshield of my  SmartCar. By the end of the trip, I had completely abandoned using the iPhone’s map function in favor of watching where I was going, following road signs, and occasionally looking at a roadmap.

Google Translate and some of the other tools I used were also helpful, but at the end of the day, they didn’t help me learn a new language. Actually talking and listening to people, however, did. What a novel concept.

If you are planning a trip to Europe and want to take your iPhone, I recommend following the steps above to limit your costs, but at the end of the day remember that you are visiting another country to experience their culture. It’s kind of hard to do that when you have your face buried in your iPhone all the time.

Step 6: Other Tips

If you don’t wanna pay AT&T beaucoup bucks, your other option is jailbreak your iPhone and then buy a local SIM card like this one. Having a Google Voice account can also help decrease your AT&T bill by forwarding your Google voice number to the new SIM card (that way people in the US are calling your local number). Keep in mind that jailbreaking your iPhone voids your warranty and violates Apple’s terms of use.

Another money-saving option could be the Truphone app for the iPhone. It’s like VOIP on-the-go.


Don’t forget to call AT&T and TURN OFF your World Traveler and Data Global plans when you get back.

To signup or learn more about AT&T’s International calling plans, visit their website or dial 1-800-331-0500 or 611 from your iPhone.