You’ve just arrived in a new country. The plane touches down and everyone goes to switch on their phones. That’s when you realize: “Oh wait! I can’t use mine here”.
My iPhone is an amazing travel tool. I was lucky enough to inherit my mom’s old iPhone 4S which was just old enough to get unlocked for free by AT&T. For those of you foreign readers who are confused about what an “unlocked” iPhone is, in America we can get smartphones for much lower prices than the rest of the world, but they’re “locked” to a service provider, so we can’t replace the SIM or switch to a different provider. Yes, it’s ridiculous, and yes, we don’t even fully own our own phones.
The day after I arrived in China last June 2013, I went down to the local “Friendship Store” and purchased a SIM card for my iPhone. I was so excited! When I studied abroad in Beijing and Xi’an a little over two years ago, I had a hideous tiny black brick phone. I almost never used it, especially since most of my friends lived in the same building as me.
The best part was that my phone had a limit on how many characters each person’s name could have, so all of my contacts had to be shortened. Tiffany= Tifay, Courtney= Courty… you get the picture. While I did bring my iPhone, I didn’t even have wifi so I could only use it as an iPod/camera/alarm clock. I also used the “Pleco” dictionary app religiously for all my Chinese homework. If you’re moving to China to work or study, I suggest you download it immediately.
Bringing my iPhone to China
After teaching abroad in China for over a year, it’s hard to imagine how I survived without my iPhone when I studied abroad! While the Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat apps are all blocked by the Chinese government (and Instagram only works on wifi?), I could have gotten around those restrictions with a phone VPN app if I was a little less technologically challenged/lazy.
Aside from those restrictions, I used my iPhone all the time! I could text family and friends back home whenever I wanted using apps like Whatsapp and Viber. I texted my friends in China for free using WeChat. I could check my email on the go, or look up the address to any location my friends and I wished to visit. The first time I tried to drive home from the grocery store, I got incredibly lost (it was dark and I received faulty directions!), I used the Apple Maps app to route myself back home. Best of all, I could use Instagram, which is something you can’t do without a phone that has internet.
In the good old days (when I was a child), international phone plans cost an unbelievable amount of money, and travelers were forced to either pay up, or invest in calling cards and frequent internet cafés. I remember traveling in high school, getting excited over my 30-minute internet allotment, where I sent lengthy Facebook messages about my travels to all of my friends on the deathly-slow dialup internet.
Travel SIM Cards
When entering a foreign country, the first stop for many travelers is buying a local SIM card. This way, you can use your phone whenever you want without worrying about international fees. A SIM card in China will run you around $30 plus whatever amount of money you choose to put on the phone. Obviously different countries have different rates, so you may want to do some research online or ask around to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
Having a smartphone while traveling allows you to do many things. You can text friends to meet up with you, you can call your hostel/hotel, you can use google maps to find destinations, you can use the Trover app to find cool places and restaurants around you, and of course, you can Facebook, tweet and Instagram to your heart’s content!
While I’m definitely glad I purchased a SIM for my year in China, I never buy a SIM card for a country I don’t live in. I know what you’re thinking: “Why not??!” It’s so easy and relatively affordable, and your iPhone is UNLOCKED.
Why I don’t buy a SIM card when I travel
1. Technology Detox
In today’s society, we’re constantly connected to technology. Phones, computers, iPads and social media have pretty much taken over our lives! As a travel blogger it’s my job to stay connected. I spend so much time on the computer working on my blog, reading other people’s blogs, participating in Facebook groups and Twitter chats- it’s hard to step away. I think I’m not alone in saying that the first thing I do every morning is check my phone. I check Instagram first, then maybe Facebook while I’m still half-asleep. A lot of us work behind computers every day from 9-5, then come home and spend more time on the computer! Sometimes we all just need a break!
Nowadays, most hostels have free wifi. I almost exclusively stay in hostels when I travel, so access to the internet is normally not a problem. This leaves me free to explore the world around me during the day, and focus on the technology stuff when I return home at night. While it’s important for me to stay somewhat connected when I travel, I try to limit my time on the computer as much as possible when I’m traveling. Sometimes I’ll bring my computer down to the common room with the intent to get work done, but I’m so outgoing I normally just end up chatting with people the entire night. I don’t know how I would ever find the time to blog if I was a permanent nomad!
2. Human Connection
Most of us use technology as a buffer to boredom and awkward situations. Your friend is late meeting you at the bar? Phone! You don’t know how to find the restaurant? Just google it! It’s become a mission for me to embrace awkward situations and be comfortable on my own. I try to make myself look approachable rather than stick my face in my phone. If I go to a cafe on my own, I’ll bring a book. That way, if someone wants to strike up a conversation with me (read: handsome, mysterious foreign gentleman), we already have something to talk about!
The great thing about traveling without 3G on hand, is that you’re forced to make that human connection. Your friend is late to the bar? Well… better make some friends. You can’t find the restaurant? Ask someone! There have been times while traveling that I was lost, and frustrated, and wished more than anything to have a working phone. Those times of desperation have almost always led to wonderful encounters with the locals who went way out of their way to help me. It’s probably why I’m convinced that everyone is “so nice” wherever I go. People are almost always willing to help if you just ask for it!
Just a few weeks ago, I accidentally deleted the email with the directions to my hostel as I was walking there! Normally, I would go into my trash folder to find it, but I didn’t have internet to load the new discarded emails! All I had was the name of my hostel and a general direction to walk. I was frustrated, and upset, and couldn’t figure out what to do. I eventually walked past a 7-11 offering wifi. Yes! When I tried to sign in, I realized I needed a Taiwanese phone number to connect. Extremely frustrated and near tears, I asked some of the locals to help me. Not only did they show me a map and let me copy down directions, they even drove by on a moped a few minutes later to point out a shortcut!
3. A Personal Challenge
Sometimes I don’t know how my parents survived without technology. I’ve become so dependent, I almost can’t function without it. For example, a few days ago I met up with a friend in an area I had never been before. That evening when it was time for me to go home, I realized my phone was dead! I had no idea how to get back to the freeway and no way to look it up. In the old days, I’m sure my parents would have just used a map, but why keep a map when you can just use your phone, right? I ended up getting extremely confusing oral directions from my friend that turned out to be wrong and I was forced to drive around until I eventually found the freeway. I couldn’t even pull over to ask anyone because it was after midnight and everything was closed! Talk about stressful.
These days I like to use travel as a way to challenge myself to get around without technology. I use real maps (I know! gasp) and plan out my routes ahead of time. I ask real people for recommendations rather than the internet. If I’m lost, I ask the locals for help. If I make a mistake or get on the wrong bus, I view it as an adventure rather than a setback.
4. I’m on a Budget
Last but not least, refraining from technology can save you a lot of money! While purchasing a SIM may be a necessity for an expat or long-term traveler, it’s an added expense that can be used elsewhere. That $30 SIM card you buy in China can easily buy a very fancy hot pot dinner for two, or a private room in a nice hostel for the night! In addition to the price of the SIM card, you’re also paying for minutes, texts and data. While phone plans can be a lot cheaper in many countries than they are in the US (the phone companies are robbing us!), that money can add up quickly if you’re constantly using your phone. For me, I’d rather save money and enjoy my experience!
I’ve never understood people who videotape concerts on their phones. Here you are, at a concert you paid money to attend, and instead of enjoying the live show, you’re focused on the tiny image on your smartphone. No one watches those clips these people post on Facebook, because they’re always such horrible quality! Why would you stare at that little image on your phone when there’s a real-life concert going on right in front of you!
This is how I view using my phone when I travel. Why spend 10 minutes staring at my phone, selecting the perfect Instagram filter for my travel shot, when I could be using that time to appreciate the country I’m in! Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Instagram perfection, but sometimes Instagram doesn’t have to be quite so instant. Take the time to appreciate what’s right in front of your eyes! It’s okay to put down the camera or stow away the phone every once and a while. The pictures and the technology are nice (hey! I rely on them for this blog!), but the best part of travel is the real-life experience.
What do you think about the increase of technology in travel? Does it enhance or detract from your experience?