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  • Oriana Skylar Mastro

Travel Admin: Dealing with Cell Phones

I spend a lot of time overseas for work, sometimes 4-5 months a year elsewhere, sometimes longer.

Traveling is awesome, but also creates a lot of admin. One thing I loathe is paying for things I don’t use – so when I leave the country for a month or more, there are a few things I consider doing to save money.

The first is figuring out whether I'm going to use my US cell service (in this case, ATT). If I'm going for only a few days, I add the international plan to my phone. Most companies have daily plans and monthly plans - in the case of AT&T, the monthly plan costs the same as five daily plans, so the monthly is best if you are staying longer than five days.

A performance note. AT&T has NEVER gotten my bill right when I go overseas. NEVER. They always overcharge. Sometimes they claim I never put on the international plan. Other times they charge for multiple daily plans for the same day. The point is: keep a record that you put on the international plan starting your first day overseas (remind time differences, this should be the first US day). Check your bill. And contest it by calling if they got it wrong. Don't use the chat function. It's more convenient when you are overseas, but they don't seem to have the authority to do anything. So it'll save you time to call customer service.

Another reason to stick to your plan is if you are traveling someplace where getting a SIM card will be difficult. In China, where I travel often, cell phones can be a tool of dissent. Or in India, a tool for terrorism. In both, you have to present your passport and go through more annoying admin to get a local SIM card. So I’ve done this when I’ve stayed a few months in each country, but I won't waste my time if I’m there only for a week or two. HOWEVER, for security reasons, I don't bring my US cell phone to China. I'll get a new SIM and use it in my ‘China’ only cell phone. But that’s for another day.

Anyways, if you decide to get a local SIM card and want to keep your US cell phone number and service, you can put a seasonal pause on the line. I'm not sure how much it costs with each company, but for AT&T, it's $30/month. This is much cheaper than my full bill, so take the time to pause it!

To use a local SIM in your phone, however, you have to own the phone. That means if you are on a payment plan, you need to pay it off completely and then submit a request for the company to unlock your phone. Do this before you travel.

Then the rest is easy! You can usually get a SIM card for free in the airport, download the company's app and then load data/talk/text on with a click of the button. Using a local SIM is much cheaper than adding an international plan to your US phone – and you can make/receive phone calls. For most US companies, that's extra.

To make it easier for the next time, I keep notes on how to pause my US cell phone and the phone numbers, cell companies, and additional information for the overseas ones. For example, I like to keep the same phone number for my Chinese cell and my Australian cell, respectively – so I make a note about how often I have to add money, so those don't expire. I have had cell phones in India, the UK, and Italy as well – I keep notes on how to get SIMs for those countries since the ones I have are expired.

So if you need cell phone service in multiple countries, I suggest you:

1. Plan and pay the setup costs. Research what the best option is given where you are going and how long you are staying.

2. Put it together. Make a record of the information you gathered. I have an Evernote for cell phones where I link additional notes on cell phones for other countries. I include information on costs, expiration dates, how to access my account, and the best way to troubleshoot.

3. Produce reminders. I add reminders to check my cell phone bill every month, and when my international SIMs will expire.

4. Performance notes. I keep notes mainly on how to deal with AT&T when they get my bill wrong and the best cell plans I've discovered in the countries I visit often.

And then take the $150 a month you save and buy yourself some fun souvenirs!

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