If you’re traveling for less than a month, you don’t always need to upgrade to an international phone plan, rent a phone, or buy a local SIM card. You can easily get by with just Wi-Fi on your iPhone, and best of all, it’s free (or nearly free depending on if you pay for Wi-Fi). This approach will also force you to ‘disconnect’ while exploring a new country. You’ll still be able to check emails, make calls using a VOIP app, and get on the internet. You’ll just need to have a Wi-Fi connection to do so. Free Wi-Fi is normally standard at almost all hostels around the world, so you should still have the opportunity to get connected at some point during the day.

READ MORE: Backpacking Phone Guide

Cities around the world are investing in free Wi-Fi hotspot networks, so you might be able to stay ‘connected’ more than you think. New York City is a great example where there is generally a free hotspot a short walk away anywhere in Manhattan. Other cities around the world with extensive free hotspot networks include Barcelona, Seoul, Tel Aviv, Perth, Osaka, and many more. At the very least, you can always find Wi-Fi at coffee shops and cafes.

First Let’s Answer a Few Questions

What’s Cellular Data? – This connects your iPhone to the internet when you’re not connected to Wi-Fi. When this is turned off, you can’t connect to the internet when you’re traveling domestically or internationally (assuming there’s no Wi-Fi). So that means no Facebook, no Google Maps, and no email. When cellular data is off and you’re not connected to Wi-Fi, you can only make phone calls and send text messages (not iMessages; you’ll need Wi-Fi or cellular data turned on for that).

If your iPhone is connected to Wi-Fi, anything you use your iPhone to do won’t count against your cellular data allowance. It’s therefore important to know when your iPhone is connected to Wi-Fi and when it isn’t. It’s easy to tell. Look in the upper left hand corner of your iPhone. If you see the Wi-Fi radio signal next to your carrier name (in the shape of a baseball diamond), you’re connected to Wi-Fi. If you see LTE, 4G, 3G, or anything else next to the name of your carrier, your iPhone is using cellular data.

What is Roaming? – When you “roam,” your iPhone connects to other wireless carrier’s cell towers. So if you have Verizon, you’re roaming when you’re connected to an AT&T cell tower. The good news is that you can roam free of charge in the United States. However, you should fear roaming charges when traveling abroad, they are crazy expensive. Because of this, you’ll want to turn off cellular data unless you have an international plan.

Can You Still receive Calls when Cellular Data is off? – Yes you can. When cellular data is off, you can still receive calls and texts. You generally want to turn off the ability to receive phone calls and texts in addition to cellular data (they both cost money when abroad). The easiest way to make sure everything is off is by turning Airplane Mode ON (see below).

Turn Airplane Mode ON and Wi-Fi ON

Use W-Fi on Your iphone

1st Step – Just prior to turning your phone off for your international flight, go to Settings and turn Airplane Mode ON. This turns off Cellular Data and the ability to make or receive phone calls and text messages over cell networks. This will keep your phone from incurring expensive roaming charges while traveling abroad.

2nd Step – Next, you’ll want to turn your Wi-Fi ON by going to Settings.

3rd Step – choose a Network. You’ll probably need to get a password if you’re at a hostel or coffee shop. You generally don’t need a password for free public hotspots.

Make Calls and Send Messages
over Wi-Fi for Free

There’s two preloaded apps on your iPhone that will work over Wi-Fi, Facetime and iMessage. However, both will only work if you’re contacting others who have iPhones.

  • Facetime – for calls, you can use FaceTime.
  • iMessage – for texts, you can use iMessage. You can tell who has an iPhone based on the color of previous texts. Blue text bubbles mean the other person has an iPhone. Green bubbles mean they don’t.

Many people you’ll want to contact don’t have an iPhone, but don’t worry. There’s many free VOIP apps (voice over internet protocol), which allow you to send free messages and make free phone calls when you’re connected to Wi-Fi. I typically use Viber, which offers the following features:

  • Free text, photo, and video messages with location sharing to other Viber users
  • Call non-Viber mobile or landline members at low rates with Viber Out (costs 1.9 cents per minute for calls to the U.S.)
  • Group messaging with up to 100 friends
  • Available for iOS, Android, Desktop, Windows phone, BlackBerry, and Nokia

There’s many VOIP apps available including Skype, Google Hangouts, Rebtel, and Vonage. They all offer similar features, so it’s basically personal preference. You pretty much just have to choose one and go. Some people believe some have better voice quality than others, so I normally download a couple.

What About When There’s No Wi-Fi?

Have no fear, there’s a ton of apps that work with no Cellular Data and no Wi-Fi. Best of all, GPS doesn’t need either to work, so there are plenty of offline map apps that will keep you from getting lost abroad. Here’s a few examples of offline apps that will simplify your travels:

  • Google Translate (free) – this app offers 3 different translation options. You can type, talk, or take a photo for translation. The two-way automatic speech translation is really cool and useful. You can speak in English and it will translate what you said into ~40 other languages.
  • City Maps 2Go ($4.99) – Maps and guide content are stored directly on your iPhone so you can access them at any time even without an internet connection. This app also acts as a guidebook with comprehensive and up-to-date information available for thousands of places and attractions. Search a specific place by name or browse by categories like restaurants, architecture, hotels, shops, bars, etc.
  • TripIt Travel Planner (free) – You can forward hotel, airline, car rental, and restaurant confirmation emails to create an instant itinerary. This can be really helpful if you need to access a travel code and you can’t access your email. With a data connection, you’ll get a local map and some other extras, but the main features work offline as long as you’ve synced your latest itinerary.