Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 1

Pasadena, CA (USA) - Shanghai (China)

Smartphones for international travel: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2022 update: Part 1 | Part 2

“Will my smartphone work abroad?”

[Some of my SIM cards from around the world. Each of these is associated with a different phone number and service plan with a different carrier in a different country. Any of them can be used with any unlocked quad-band GSM cellphone.]

Daniel and Amy finished second in a footrace along the riverfront “Bund” in Shanghai in the first leg of The Amazing Race 21 after they foolishly told another team where to find the finish line at the Gutzlaff Signal Tower. What’s noteworthy, though, is how they had initially taken the lead by locating the tower: they asked one of a crowd of passers-by to show them a picture of the tower on his smartphone, so they would recognize the tower when they saw it.

It’s become common for contestants in the race, who unlike real-world travellers aren’t allowed to bring any electronic communication devices with them, to ask local people to use their cellphones. But this was one of the first times that using smartphone features, like the ability to look up photos of landmarks, made a decisive difference in the race.

Aside from the irony of using contacts with local people not as an opportunity to find out what these people know or what directions they might give, but rather as a conduit to what information and directions might be available from sources further afield on the Internet, the racers’ use of a smartphone as a travel tool raises questions that are increasingly common for real world travellers.

As we have come to rely on cellphones (“mobile phones” as they are called in many parts of the world and languages), questions about cellphone usage, prices, and choices have become among the questions I am most often asked by international travellers.

I’ve covered many of these issues for voice cellphone calling abroad here in my blog and in previous columns about The Amazing Race, as well as in the more recent editions of The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around The World.

Smartphones raise new questions, though. Will the same smartphone and apps you use in your home country work abroad? Do the same strategies that work best for voice cellphone service abroad also work for smartphones? If not, what features of smartphones, data service plans, and “apps” should you look for, and what might be some of the best choices of smartphones and apps for international travellers?

It’s a big topic I haven’t delved into before, and will be the subject of a three-part series, beginning with this article.

“Will my smartphone or mobile data device work abroad?” is probably the wrong question to ask. It might, in some places and at varying speeds, but where it does the cost will probably be prohibitive. Your “all you can eat” cellular data plan doesn’t include data usage abroad. Most travellers will be better off either getting their smartphone or other device “unlocked” and getting a different service plan, carrier, and phone number for international travel, or getting an entirely different (cheaper and differently optimized) device and service plan to use abroad.

This week, I’ll discuss the general issues of international travel with a smartphone, including the hardware, software, and service plan prerequisites and some of the less obvious pitfalls and problems to watch out for. Next week in Part 2, I’ll explain the choices I made, and why, when I recently needed to buy a couple of new smartphones for use abroad as well as at home. Finally, in part three of this series, I’ll look at examples from “The Amazing Race” of how some of these choices might work out, especially for travellers in less-connected and less-visited places.

International voice and SMS text message cellphones and services

First, before we get to smartphones, a brief review of of what you need as an international traveller to make voice cellphone calls abroad:

Basic voice cellphone service in most of the world operates on the GSM (“Global System for Mobile Communications”) standard. GSM service is available essentially everywhere in the inhabited world, including the USA and Canada and excepting only Japan and Korea.

Four GSM frequency bands are in use in different parts of the world (two in the USA by AT&T and T-Mobile, and in some other parts of the Americas, and two others in the rest of the world), but many GSM cellphones, including most recent models, support all four bands. “SMS” text messages are sent within the GSM system, over the same frequencies, and essentially all GSM phones can send and receive text messages.

Most GSM phones are sold by service providers who heavily subsidize the handsets they sell, but “lock” the subsidized phones so that they can only be used with that carrier’s service. Cellphone companies expect to recoup the handset subsidies through the ability to charge owners of locked phones higher monthly or per-call prices as a captive market of customers who can’t easily change to any another cellphone service provider without having to buy new phones.

A “locked” GSM phone can be used abroad, with the same phone number as at home, only:

  1. If you have service with the operator to which it is locked (e.g. AT&T or T-Mobile USA);
  2. If that operator has a roaming agreement with a local service provider in the country where you are travelling; and
  3. At whatever price is set by your service provider — who has a monopoly on your roaming business as long as your phone is “locked” to their service.

Because of the lack of competition inherent in “locked” handsets, international roaming rates tend to be much higher than domestic rates, and much more profitable for cellphone companies. There’s no such thing as an “unlimited minutes” international roaming plan, and charges range from (US) fifty cents to five dollars per minute or more. One of the major successes of the Pirate Party and its Green Party allies in the European Parliament has been legislation capping cellphone voice and data roaming rates within Europe, but many European cellphone network operators have responded by increasing roaming rates between Europe and the rest of the world, including to and from North America.

There’s another, usually better, option, however. Unlike cellphones from Verizon and Sprint, or other proprietary cellphones that are essentially hardwired to a single cellphone company, any “unlocked” GSM cellphone can be used with any GSM service provider. The phone number and service provider are contained on a removable SIM (“Subscriber Identity Module”) about the size of a digital camera memory card. Move the SIM card to a different phone, and that phone rings at the number assigned to the SIM. Replace the SIM in your phone with a new SIM from a local cellphone company in a new country, and all of a sudden your cellphone rings at the new number assigned to the new SIM — a local phone number in that country, on the local carrier’s rate plan associated with the SIM (rather than at your home carrier’s roaming rate).

You can get an unlocked GSM cellphone:

  1. By getting your service provider to unlock your phone (assuming it’s a GSM phone in the first place, as it is if it’s an AT&T or T-Mobile USA phone);
  2. By paying a third party to unlock your phone (the price is whatever the traffic will bear, typically anywhere from US$20 up, depending on the value of the phone); or
  3. By buying a new or used phone that was never locked or that someone else has already gotten unlocked.

The subsidies on most phones are so large that brand-new unlocked phones are extremely expensive, and it’s usually cheaper to get a subsidized phone unlocked or to buy a phone that’s already been unlocked. There’s a large secondary market — more about that later — in used, reconditioned, and discontinued unlocked phones. Unlike iPhone “jailbreaking”, cellphone or smartphone unlocking is legal (at least in the US) and doesn’t void any warranties.

To sum up, you need the following to make voice cellphone calls abroad without paying extortionate roaming prices through your home network:

  1. An unlocked, quad-band, GSM cellphone; and
  2. A SIM card with a local number in the country you are visiting (typically purchased on arrival, although you may be able to get one in advance for a substantial additional price), or a special roaming SIM with a rate plan optimized for international travellers (much more expensive than a local SIM, but cheaper than roaming with your home operator, and useful in countries where you aren’t staying long enough to make it worthwhile to get a local SIM).

International smartphones and other wireless data devices and services

So much for voice calls. How does all this change, and what else do you need to know, to use a smartphone or other mobile device, data services, and apps abroad?

As with a basic voice-and-text cellphone, you need a suitable device, and a service plan with affordable rates for use in the country where you are travelling. For a smartphone, you also need data service coverage and Internet connectivity to any services you want to use, and/or apps that work offline or with only a minimal amount of data transmitted to and from the network.

Here’s what this means:

Smartphones and mobile data devices:

High-speed data and so-called “3G” and “4G” services generally use the same basic system and SIM cards (separating the handset hardware from the chip with the phone number and service provider assignment) as GSM services. Almost all 3G or 4G cellphones, smartphones, and mobile devices — except for proprietary phones and devices from non-GSM operators (mainly in North America) and phones and devices in Japan and Korea where there is no GSM service — also support GSM voice and low-speed GSM or “GPRS” (2G) data service as a fallback.

The basic requirements are similar to those for a cellphone you want to use for voice calls abroad: For high-speed data connectivity abroad, you need an unlocked GSM smartphone or device that supports the 3G or 4G frequencies (bands) in use in the country or countries you want to visit.

In cellphone acronym-land, the high-speed (3G or 4G) data transmission modes and frequencies are referred to in handset specifications as “UMTS” or “HSPDA” bands. Because of issues with spectrum allocation, significantly more 3G and 4G bands are in use or planned for deployment in different countries than the four GSM bands.

Some cellphones, smartphones, and other devices support as many as five UMTS/HSPDA bands, and will work in most of the world including North America. Look for fine print in the handset or device specifications or reviews listing supported UMTS or HSPDA bands (identified by roman numerals I, II, III, IV, etc.), or a description of the device as “pentaband” UMTS or HSPDA.

Except in Japan or Korea, a GSM cellphone or device will fall back to low-speed GSM or GPRS data if no high-speed data service is available, or if it doesn’t support whatever 3G or 4G band is in local use. There’s no GSM service in Japan or Korea, but there is UMTS/HSPDA service. The only way a GSM phone will work in Japan or Korea is if it also supports one of the UMTS/HSPDA bands used in those countries.

Data service plans:

It’s easy to pick up a cheap SIM card with a local carrier and phone number when you arrive in even a Third or Fourth World country, usually before you leave the airport. Beware, though: Most prepaid SIM cards either don’t include data service or have prohibitive rates for data usage (though you might get lucky). “Unlimited” wireless data service is unheard of in most countries. This wiki (useful but not comprehensive and not to be relied on — check with the individual carriers to confirm current services, rates, and conditions) gives the most extensive list I’ve found of prepaid SIM cards that include data service, although some of these are only available if you have a local bank account and/or proof of residence in the country. Check your typical data usage at home in MB or GB per month to see what the same usage would cost you on one of these plans.

Roaming abroad with your home service is generally not an option unless someone else is paying the bill and you’re on a generous expense allowance. Even if you have an “unlimited” data plan in your home country, roaming data usage abroad will be metered. Your AT&T iPhone or Android device will work seamlessly abroad, with no special setup and the same US phone number — for a price. Automatically checking every 15 minutes to see if there is any new e-mail (which your smartphone or device may be doing without your realizing it) could cost you US$100 per day in international roaming data charges, and downloading a full-length movie could cost US$1000! Bills for US$10,000 or more in roaming data charges after a two-week trip abroad with a smartphone are common.

Availability of wireless data service and Internet connectivity:

GSM voice service is available almost everywhere there’s significant population density (again, except Japan and Korea) , even in the Third and Fourth Worlds. But high-speed data service, where it’s available at all, often covers only the largest and wealthiest cities. You might find good (and even affordable) wireless data connectivity in unexpected places, but you can’t count on it.

Lower-speed GSM or “GPRS” (2G) cellular data service is generally available wherever there’s GSM voice service. For years I relied on GPRS, with my cellphone tethered to a Psion netbook or pocket computer, for essential e-mail and Web browsing (with image loading turned off) on trains and buses and in other locations where no faster wireless data service was available.

The theoretical maximum speed for GPRS data transmission is 40K bps, slightly less than the 56K bps maximum for a dial-up modem connection over a landline (remember those?). That’s adequate for checking e-mail (if you use your e-mail for text messages rather than transmitting photos or other large files), or for browsing text-based Web sites. And GPRS speed effectively limits how quickly you can rack up data charges. But it’s not fast enough for multimedia (photos, audio, video) or most real-time interactive applications that haven’t been carefully designed to minimize the amount of data that’s sent back and forth.

Even if network coverage maps show that high-speed data service is available in the specific places you want to go (and not just somewhere in the country you will be visiting), and even if they are accurate (coverage maps are often overly optimistic advertisements which significantly anticipate actual deployment), a fast connection to the cellphone company is not enough to ensure high-speed connectivity to Internet servers in the USA or other countries. The bottleneck in many countries is international data bandwidth between the national Internet backbone and other countries including the USA. That’s especially likely to be a problem in countries where a large proportion of Internet users are trying to use services hosted in the USA (or elsewhere abroad), rather than accessing servers within the country.

Apps optimized for offline or low-bandwidth situations:

Given the likelihood that connectivity to servers back in the USA or your home country will be significantly limited by cost and/or network bottlenecks, the usefulness of “apps” when you are travelling abroad depends on how well designed they are to work “offline” in standalone mode, or with the minimum amount of data being sent in either direction between your smartphone or device and servers elsewhere on the Internet.

Testing apps on your smartphone at home won’t reveal how useful they might be while travelling, unless you carefully monitor the volume of network traffic they generate or test apps in “airplane mode” (i.e. with the radios in your device switched off) so the apps run offline.

Some people bring their smartphone on an international trip just to use apps in offline “airplane” mode, with a separate (unlocked multi-band GSM) cellphone for voice calls abroad. But that means carrying two devices (and perhaps a second charger, spare battery, etc.). And it puts the expensive device you usually use at home at risk of being lost or stolen during your trip abroad.

As I’ll discuss in more detail next week, you can get an adequate smartphone for international travel use for not much more than the cost of a basic voice-and-text cellphone, and leave your expensive device safely at home. Your mileage (and your luck with pickpockets and snatch thieves) may vary, but I think this is a better choice for most international travellers.

Smartphones and tablet devices are the leading targets of snatch thieves and pickpockets worldwide. You can keep your wallet hidden away most of the time, but there’s really no way to use a cellphone, smartphone, or tablet without putting it at risk of theft. The less familiar the location, the more frequently and publicly you are likely to be taking your device out of hiding to look up maps or other location information. Don’t carry a device you aren’t prepared to lose, and don’t put any data on it that you haven’t backed up or aren’t willing to have pass into the hands of a thief.

Smartphone and tablet theft is a problem in hotels and hostels as well as on the street. iPhones and iPads are almost uniquely vulnerable to theft because you can’t remove their batteries, so the whole device is vulnerable to theft whenever and wherever it’s charging. With almost any other device, you can get a spare battery and an inexpensive out-of-the-device battery charger. That way you can leave one battery charging while you are using the other battery in your device, or lock up your device itself in your luggage, a hostel locker, or a hotel safe while you charge the battery separately.

An expensive device left charging is inevitably a strong temptation for opportunistic thieves. Nobody is likely to steal a spare charger and proprietary battery, even in plain view in an insecure location, since they aren’t worth nearly as much and the chances that they will be compatible with someone else’s device are small (and difficult to determine quickly).

In general, standalone offline apps are preferable for international travel use — where connectivity may be slow, intermittent, and/or expensive — than Web services or cloud-based apps. And accessing network data (such as e-mail) through a data transmission-minimizing app can be much more efficient and cheaper than doing so through a mobile Web browser.

Most smartphone users in the USA, with “unlimited” data plans and usually-reliable high-speed mobile data service, have no idea which apps work only with a network connection, how fast a connection they require, how much data they send back and forth in the background, whether they store data on the phone or “in the cloud” (or both), or whether they work offline or where only a low-speed and high-latency connection is available.

Mobile data usage is a per-megabyte profit center for cellular network operators. Providers of “free” mobile services make their money by collecting as much information about users as possible and using that information to target advertising and marketing.

(See these examples obtained by a German Green Party politician from the German parent company of T-Mobile USA for what sort of location-based information about us is routinely collected. T-Mobile USA customers are entitled by German data protection law to find out this same information about what location and other data the company collects about you.)

For app developers, it’s often cheaper to provide an app with a minimal front end on the device, and most data storage and processing on servers “in the cloud”, rather than a fully standalone app or an app that retains major functionality even offline or with limited connectivity.

None of these companies have any interest in calling users’ attention to the connection speed and data transmission demands of their apps and services. Unless you can find these details in the fine print of app descriptions, you’ll have to try out apps yourself — one at a time, with all other network applications disabled, moving from place to place to trigger any download of new location information and checking the data usage counter on your device before and after each trial — to know for sure.

Most (though not all) “guidebook” apps will work offline, although some depend on online map data (more on that below). Language translation and currency conversion apps are a mix of offline-capable dictionary and phrasebook apps or currency calculators, and interfaces to online translation or conversion services. While some (generally more expensive and/or more limited) text translators will work offline, and others require only a slow connection, almost all voice translation apps require a real-time high-speed data connection.

Maps are among the most important uses of smartphones or mobile devices, and among those with the greatest variation in connectivity requirements between rival apps and services.

Most late-model cellphones and smartphones include a GPS that enables the device to find its latitude and longitude even where there’s no cellphone coverage. But Google Maps and the new Apple Maps download maps as image “tiles” as you move around or zoom in and out. You can download individual tiles for use offline, but only for a small area at a time. These cloud-based map services are among the most common causes of international roaming data sticker shock.

The crowd-sourced wiki-style OpenStreetMap and the related OpenCycleMap and transit overlays are accessible on the Web or via apps for almost every smartphone OS. Most of these apps require some level of connectivity, and their connectivity requirements vary, but because of the ways the map data is stored and transmitted (it’s available in vector format as well as in raster image format), some of these apps are much more useful over slow connections than Google or Apple maps.

At the other extreme, Nokia provides a free mapping app and free downloadable map database for all Nokia smartphones, including discontinued models, that can function completely offline once you’ve downloaded the map data. The complete street-level Nokia map of the world, including turn-by-turn synthesized voice directions, fits on an 8GB memory card (US$5).

Instead of making money on data usage (Nokia isn’t a network operator) or monetizing user location data, Nokia uses its offline map apps and database as a selling point for its devices, especially in places where there isn’t (yet) reliable high-speed mobile data service, or where mobile data is metered and most smartphone users can’t afford to ignore how much network data they use.

This is all essential information for choosing a smartphone, but unpleasantly technical and perhaps not in itself very helpful. In the next installment of this 3-part series, I’ll spell out what specific choices I made, and why — in light of these factors — when I recently went shopping for a smartphone to use on my own international travels.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 30 September 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I have watched the amazing race for 21 seasons but was disgusted tonight when the contestants had no idea what the UN flag was. Are you freaking kidding me. My husband is with the british army and has done 8 tours of duty over 9 years and I have been with him ever single step of the way. I am a VERY proud army wife but was a very disturbed tonight when the contestants didn't know what the UN flag was. I am Canadian but still proud of our north American roots. But are you freaking kidding me? Do you not know who is protecting you?

Posted by: Tina Mac, 9 December 2012, 22:38 (10:38 PM)

hey tina,
you need to chill out.

don't you think that maybe the reason you know all about flags is because you're an army wife? just relax, not everyone knows everything.

that's what learning is for.

Posted by: Anonymous, 2 November 2014, 16:50 ( 4:50 PM)


T-Mobile USA international roaming prices

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 10 November 2014, 15:31 ( 3:31 PM)

"Nokia Maps" has been spun off and renamed "HERE Maps" or "HERE WeGo". It is now available as a free app for Android or Apple iOS devices.

Both the Android and iOS HERE apps, like the Symbian/Nokia Maps predecessor, allow you to download the entire worldwide street-level map database onto a memory card in your phone.

The HERE maps for Android take up about 32GB, so you will probably want at least 64GB of memory if you want to store other data on your phone in addition to world maps.

Unfortunately, the Android version of the app isn't as reliable as its Symbian predecessor. Download all the maps you will want before you leave on a trip, and check that they are still available after you have rebooted the phone and used the app a few times. The HERE app sometimes fails to recognize that a memory card is installed, or that maps have been downloaded to a memory card. No matter how a memory card is formatted, neither the HERE app for Android nor the Android operating system deals well with moving offline maps between the phone's internal memory and a memory card. The HERE offline maps work best on an Android device if you have enough space on the internal memory of the phone for all the maps you need, without needing to put them on a removable memory card.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 6 May 2017, 06:14 ( 6:14 AM)
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