Travel Hack: Use your iPhone Anywhere in the World

Before becoming a full-time traveler, I experienced foreign places like most others, as a tourist on vacation.  That meant turning the phone on airplane mode, and worrying about the rest when I got back to the office (or at least, when I got to the hotel room).  If I knew I needed to be “connected”, I would suck it up and pay the $5-10 per day for international data (damn you Verizon!!!).  The daily cost wasn’t too hard to swallow when my average vacation was only 4 or 5 days every 6 months or longer, but it just wasn’t an option when I started full-time travel and needed to be connected almost every day of the month.  

Even if I was balling (not on a budget) and the $150-300 extra per month was no big deal, I was still facing a big problem once I hit 90 days abroad.  That’s when almost every U.S. carrier will suspend your line until you come back to the states.

Drawbacks of T-Mobile’s International Plan

You’re probably thinking, switch to a carrier like T-Mobile, which offers “unlimited” data in over 170 Countries for only $15/month!  Notice the quotes? That’s because T-Mobile’s international plan caps you at 5GB per month.  Then, they drop your data speed to 256kbps, which makes using the internet really difficult, to say the least.  Also, I’d still have the 90 day abroad problem mentioned above.

Getting a client to FaceTime….

At this point, I was ready to accept that I would need to give up my U.S. phone number and get an international SIM card to keep up with work emails and phone calls.  Unfortunately, without a valid U.S. carrier, I wouldn’t be able to use my phone number to take Wi-Fi calls on services like FaceTime Audio, WhatsApp, or Skype.  Even if I could, it would be really awkward asking a client if I could FaceTime them on their iPhone. That’s when I came across an article on wirecutter.com, that recommended Google Fi for frequent international travel.

Enter… Google Fi

Google Fi, previously known as Project Fi, is kind of like a super carrier.  They constantly switch between multiple carriers, so you’re always connected to the best signal.  Google Fi charges a flat rate of $10/GB in over 170 countries. You only pay for the data you use, and they cap your charges at $60 per billing cycle (even less if you add multiple lines).  What’s even better is that you get 15GB (which means 9 GB for FREE) before they start throttling your data speed. You have the option of buying full 4G speeds again at $10/GB if you need it before your next billing cycle kicks in.  There is also a flat Talk & Text fee of $20/month, which can’t be turned off even if you’re not using talk minutes or texts (just an FYI for iPhone users, iMessage doesn’t count as texts).

Pros & Cons of Google Fi

With Google Fi, I didn’t need to worry about using my iPhone XS while abroad.  Another big plus (I thought) is that international calling was only 19 cents per minute.  That’s a significant amount less than other carriers that charge $1.19 or more PER MINUTE!!!  I thought I was golden. It wasn’t until I got to Europe that I realized how quickly the minutes add up, even at 19 cents.

This brings me to some of the downfalls when using Google Fi on an iPhone.  Google Fi is currently in beta on iPhone, which means you lose some important functions.  The two most important to me are that I can’t use Wi-Fi Calling or hotspot internationally.  I’m hoping these features will become available once it’s no longer in beta. Until then, I found some amazing workarounds to save a ton on my monthly bill.

Solution to the Problem: Avoid talk minute costs

One solution to getting around the lack of Wi-Fi calling is to use Google Hangouts, which lets you dial using your own phone number over Wi-Fi for FREE!  What’s more amazing is that Google Hangouts uses data, not calling minutes, so it’s part of the $10/GB plan.  Just for reference, Google Hangouts uses about 40 megabytes per hour of talk. That means you can talk for 2.5 HOURS for just $1 basically anywhere in the world.  That’s insane considering U.S. carriers charge $1.19 per MINUTE.  

Ultimate Dream Team: Google Fi & Google Hangouts

This strategy of Google Fi plus Google Hangouts has been a game changer for working abroad.  It lets me use my iPhone just like I do in the U.S. without needing to notify anyone that I’m out of the country.  

Hope these hacks help you with your future travels too! Let me know in the comments if you tried any other hacks that work for you!

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  • Jim

    This is a great post for those of us who travel regularly (and a lot). I use T-Mobile, and face some of the problems you outlined. I’m going to send this to my daughter who faces silimlar issues

    • Adnan Akhand

      That’s awesome! I forgot to mention in my post that you need to make sure two settings within the Hangouts app are turned on to ensure calls come through on Google Hangouts. The first is to toggle on the “Answer on lock screen” option. Second, in the same settings menus under “Phone number” toggle on the “Incoming phone calls” option. Feel free to email me if you or your daughter have any questions, adnan@lifeofnomads.com

  • Elizabeth Aslakson

    Glad I came across this post! I’m traveling full time and don’t use any phone plan and just rely on wifi. I like not paying anything for my phone, but it can be challenging only having wifi. It requires a lot of planning ahead and problem solving! How much do you pay on average with google Fi a month?

    • Adnan Akhand

      It’s definitely tough surviving on just wifi. The most you will ever pay is $80 in a month plus tax. My phone plan address is my parents’ house in Connecticut, so the taxes are $3.59 bringing my maximum bill to $83.59 for a month. But that’s if you hit your max data of 6GB in a month. I usually use 4GB per month, so my bill comes out to $40 for data plus $20 for the Talk & Text plus taxes so about $62 per month. You can also setup alerts at any data usage level you want in case you don’t want to use more than say 3GB. You can also suspend the entire service line any time you want if you don’t think you’ll need to use it for a month or two (or more). Let me know if you have any questions! Or feel free to email me at adnan@lifeofnomads.com

  • Federica

    I usually buy a SIM card as soon as I land in a foreign country. You can get montly plan that even if you are staying only one week are so cheap and worth every penny

  • Brian

    I’m planning a trip to Central Asia and was wondering what to do about communication back home when I’m there. Thanks for the info!

  • Amrita

    I usually get a new SIM card when I am in a new country. It helps me with the data plans. But Google Fi looks like a good alternative. I will try it on my next trip abroad.

  • Daniel

    My choice when I travel to a new country is always getting a local sim card. However, I never heard of Google Fi. I might just consider it for my next trip.

  • Debra Roberts

    I am going to show this to my deployed son. He got t-mobile and uses Duo Voice to call over wifi, but it is still pretty sketchy. He switched to T-mobile for the “unlimited” data too!

    • Adnan Akhand

      I’m so glad you found this helpful! One thing I forgot to mention on my post is to turn on two settings within the Hangouts app to override the default iPhone call answering (it may also be the same on Android phones). These settings will make the Google Hangouts the default phone service for incoming calls. The first is to toggle on the “Answer on lock screen” option. Second, in the same settings menus under “Phone number” toggle on the “Incoming phone calls” option. Feel free to email me if your son has any questions, adnan@lifeofnomads.com!

  • Tami Wilcox

    This is actually very useful information and I’m so glad you shared it. I think my son had learned about the Google calling with hangouts and used it recently in Peru. We’re off to the United Kingdom for a few weeks later this year, and I’ll have to get set up for this!

  • Sara

    That sounds like a great option! I’m an android user but this would probably work for android too. I hate paying for unreliable throttled data and switching sim cards is very inconvenient.

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