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AFAR's Ultimate Guide to Prepping Your Phone for Travel

How to prep your cell phone for travel to any destination, domestic or international.

Let’s be real: just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you’re going to ditch your cell phone. And that’s ok! Your handset should be an integral part of any trip you take. Not only do they snap gorgeous photos, but with an ever-growing number of travel-centric apps and features (Siri, how do I ask “where’s the bathroom” in Farsi?), it’s kind of crazy to be disconnected in a foreign place.

Still, traveling abroad can be hazardous for your phone: pickpockets, roaming charges, unexpected falls into baffling Japanese toilets. That’s why we’ve assembled this practical guide for prepping your cell phone for travel, no matter if you’re heading to Nashville to visit your sister or heading to Phnom Penh in search of the best Khmer food.  

How to Prep Your Phone for International Travel  

First things first: Before you set foot on international soil, call your cell phone carrier and find out exactly what your plan charges for international travel. Trust us, it pays to be wary. Cell phone companies have no issue gouging customers with extreme international roaming fees that result in bills of $5,000 and higher. 

That being said, many providers offer special international roaming agreements that you can add to your regular plan for the duration of your trip. Varying from carrier to carrier, these packages typically give you a certain number of voice minutes, text messages, and data to use while overseas. AT&T’s international package, for instance, starts at $30 and gives you unlimited text messaging, 120MB of data, and voice calls at $1 per minute.

Do you have AT&T or T-Mobile? Good news! That means your cell phone will likely work in most foreign countries. These two giant carriers use the GSM network, which is standard in Europe and widely used in Africa, most parts of Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Oceania.

If you have Verizon or Sprint your phone works with the CDMA network, which is not quite as common overseas. Japan and South Korea both widely use the network, as does India and many parts of South America and the Caribbean. As always, it’s always a smart idea to check with your carrier to find out specifically where your phone will function. 

Prepaid phones are a good option if you’re going to be abroad for a long period of time or if your cell phone isn’t compatible with an overseas network. It's simple: You purchase a relatively inexpensive handset ($50-$200) and load up prepaid voice minutes, texts, and data. While you can pick up a prepaid phone in practically any country you visit, we recommend using services such as onesimcard.com, which can provide everything from handsets to prepaid plans.

It’s also possible to unlock your cell phone so that any SIM card, foreign or domestic, will work with it. While there are numerous videos online detailing exactly how to unlock a phone, it’s best to proceed down this road with caution since unlocking your phone can sometimes void your warranty. 

How to Prep Your Phone for Domestic Trips

In the dark times (circa 1999 until 2005-ish) some cell phone plans didn’t cover domestic roaming. You’d come back home after visiting your aunt in Tuscaloosa and be hit with $400 in charges. Now, thankfully, just about every carrier has nixed extra roaming within the United States. What carriers don’t tell you is where, exactly, their coverage works. Most carriers like to claim they have vast swaths of the nation covered—but in reality, coverage can change from block to block.

That’s why we like resources like opensignal.com. Just punch in a location into the site—it can be somewhere as remote as Yosemite—and this online service will show you which of the four major carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) have the strongest coverage. As a bonus, it will also display data on the number of cell towers in the area, the number of cell networks, signal readings, and Wi-Fi points.

How to Prep Your Phone to Take Better Pictures and Video

The optics fitted into the cameras of today’s cell phones are more advanced than ever. The iPhone 6S has the ability to record videos in 4K resolution while the Nokia Lumia 1020 shoots images at a whopping 41 megapixels. But there are still multiple things you can do to improve the shots your camera takes.

The photo editing apps that come preloaded on most phones are steadily getting better. However, we like the advanced options found on photo editing apps like Pro Camera 8, VSCO Cam, and Camera+ for iOS. Apps like Camera ZOOM FX Premium, Pro Capture, and Camera FV5 will help you create stunning images and video on Android-based phones.

If you want to improve your camera’s zoom and macro abilities we recommend an additional lens clip. We love the Olloclip, a small lens system for iPhone, iPad, and Samsung Galaxy that adds capabilities for macro zoom, fisheye view, and telephoto. 

How to Deal with Your Phone Being Lost, Stolen, or Broken

Your handset has just been snatched by a pickpocket/launched into an active volcano/trampled by a heard of wildebeest. Remember the wise council of Douglas Adams and DON’T PANIC. With a little bit of prep work, a missing or wrecked phone can be merely a minor inconvenience.

A few weeks (better yet, months) before your trip, ring your carrier and see what the current rates are on cell phone insurance. Most offer plans that will replace or fix a phone for a relatively small deductible. Read the fine print first though: Many plans don’t cover things like natural phenomena, or will replace your equipment with secondhand devices. 

Third party insurance also exists from companies like Asurion and SquareTrade. While usually a tad more expensive, they'll often replace your handset with a brand new version in the event of damage. Again, read the fine print, since sometimes these companies require you to have the remains of your phone to make a claim.

If you’re shooting pics with your cell phone, make sure to connect to the Internet and upload the photos every so often during your trip. Many phones and services automatically do this, but it’s a good idea to sync your device to make sure the uploads go through.

Finally, make sure to activate location-based services like Find My iPhone and Where’s My Droid, which can help locate a handset in the event of loss/theft. And if your phone is pilfered, let the authorities handle it—you’ve got better things to do on your trip than track down something as easily replaceable as a cell phone.

>>Next: What to do if your passport is lost or stolen