When I decided to leave the US for an indefinite period of time, I needed to figure out a cost effective way of communicating with people back home, as well as having a reliable way of connecting with people in the countries I was visiting.
I sure wasn’t going to keep my relationship with AT&T intact since I was leaving the US with no return date set and you can only suspend an account for 6 months. Not to mention how much I hate major phone carriers, taking this trip was the best chance I ever got in giving them the finger.
Now that I’m free of any contractual commitment with a mobile phone provider, I get by with an iPhone 4S utilizing free or significtantly cheaper services that use WiFi and 3G instead of traditional cell towers and voice minutes.
Unlocked iPhone 4S
First off, I sold my previous iPhone 4 on eBay and cancelled the associated AT&T contract(more on this in a second). I bought a Factory Unlocked 4S from Apple for $599.99, three times the subsidized 2-year contract price of $199.99(selling the old iPhone 4 helped offset the price by almost half).
I also decided to buy the AppleCare+ protection plan, so if the phone is damaged over the next two years, I can swap it out at any Apple Store worldwide.
Knowing I would be in multiple countries, an unlocked phone would be a requirement and the 4S is as reliable as they come. The top-of-its-kind onboard camera also negates the need to carry another device, so it saves some room in my bag too.
Terminating my Contract by Porting My Old Number
A few days before I left the US, I closed my AT&T account by porting my longstanding number over to Google Voice, thus terminating my contract. I had to eat the Early Termination Fee(ETF) since there were still about 6 months left on the contract, but that was a small price to pay for complete freedom from a carrier and keeping my 5-year old number.
Family and friends can still reach me normally so nothing changes on their end, but behind the scenes all calls are placed and received using Google Voice, dependent on only an internet connection(WiFi or 3G) instead of a being voice call.
Using Free and Cheap Services
Apps I Use with Google Voice
Though my calls back home wouldn’t be placed with the default Phone.app, the selection of third-party iOS apps made it easy to communicate in any way I normally would.
For voice, I could just use the official Google Voice app, but it can’t make calls without being paired to a traditional cell number or landline, and that’s something I didn’t want to be tied to. Though an uglier app, Talkatone remedies this with minimal configuration in GV’s settings. (GV is tricked into thinking your Google Chat handle is a phone number; works great.)
Calls go to voicemail if I am not able to receive the live iOS push notification over WiFi or 3G and I can check that both in Talkatone or a web interface on a desktop computer.
For texts, most of my family and friends have iPhones so they iMessage me as normal, but standard texts for non-iPhones just get routed through Google Voice to Talkatone instead of Messages.app.
You could also us GV Connect to supplement Talkatone if you want a nicer and more robust UI, but it’s not needed.
Video Calls with Facetime and Skype
Apple’s Facetime works great for video calls over WiFi when I’m abroad and Skype is a great option when the person on the other end doesn’t have a FaceTime-enabled Apple device.
SIMs Around the World
You can do everything over WiFi, but what happens when I’m not at the hostel or internet cafe?
Pre-paid, Contract-free SIMs flow like water everywhere in the world outside the US. They’re also cheaper most of the time and the data speeds are eons faster because the major US carriers push shitty services and overcharge their customers for a fraction of what the rest of the world enjoys because of their corporate monopolies. Don’t believe me? Internet Speeds around the world.
If you ever find a pre-paid, 3G data-only SIM, jump on that immediately because it’s all you need.
All Phones Are Smart Enough These Days
You do not at all have to buy an expensive, unlocked, newest release iPhone by any means. Any unlocked phone these days can do most of what you want, and even if you use your carrier-locked phone for a 2-week trip, just turn off all cellular data and use WiFi where available. Heck, an iPod Touch will do everything I mentioned, minus the SIM card/3G business.
For me, it was all very worth it to invest more on the unlocked phone up front to grant the freedom of popping in any country’s SIM card down the road. Seeing as how this phone would also be my camera, computer, and hold other important information in the form of scanned documents, the money was very well spent.
Matthew Haughey has a comprehensive rundown of his experience in World travel with the unlocked US Verizon iPhone 4S.