This morning I received an email from one of our readers, asking me how the iPhone works when traveling internationally.

If I travel to Costa Rica can I use my iPhone there? Do I have to get a special SIM card – or is it like when you go to Europe and it just “works” without doing anything? Also, is it free to e-mail pics using Wi-fi if I am connected there? Gracias!

You don’t need a special SIM card to use your iPhone outside of the US. Straight off the plane, your iPhone will work anywhere there is coverage, since AT&T has partnerships with carriers in pretty much every country. Your iPhone will automatically pick up the local carrier and you will be able to receive/make calls, and send text messages. Same for data (Edge or 3G). It will work as well without you having to do anything, assuming that you have Edge or 3G service where you are.

The Costs Of Phone Calls And Text Messages Outside The US

Now be really careful because making calls from outside the US is very expensive. Even more expensive is the use of the data for Internet connection. Depending on where you are in the world, a one minute phone call can cost you between $1 and $5. Text messages are a little more affordable and it will only cost you $0.50 to send a text message. Received text messages are deducted from your monthly domestic data plan.

AT&T has a nice little tool that lets you see how much it will cost you to make calls depending on what countries you’re visiting. I suggest you have a look at it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find pricing about international data roaming but I know for sure it is very expensive…

What To Do To Avoid Being Charged Extra

To make sure you don’t go over budget, you have several options:

First thing you can do is to put your iPhone in airplane mode. This is not the recommended option as it will pretty much turn your iPhone into an iPod Touch. You will not be able to make/receive calls and you will have no access to the internet whatsoever. This is a solution recommended for people who are paranoid about their iPhone usage abroad and want to make sure they will not spend a dime on extra charges.

My recommendation is to turn off data roaming in your iPhone settings (Settings>General>Network>Data Roaming). It is Off by default but you want to check to make sure you don’t get a $4,286 bill next month. Turning data roaming off will pretty much shut down your internet access via Edge and 3G. You will still be able to get internet through wifi if you have it in your hotel for example. My iPhone being jailbroken, I use a great application called BossPrefs that lets me choose individually what I want to turn off.

If you don’t want to make calls from abroad and you just want to check your emails and update your Facebook status from time to time, the best thing to do is to look for wifi. Most hotels and airports offer wireless Internet and using your iPhone over wifi won’t cost you anything at all. If you have Skype or Fring installed on your iPhone, then use those apps over wifi to make international calls. This is clearly the best way to make cheap calls from abroad.

AT&T International Data And Voice Packages

If you’re going to need an international data plan, the best solution is to call AT&T at 800-331-0500 and get an International Data Package which will significantly reduce the cost of using data abroad. The 20 MB package is $24.99 per month, the 50 MB package is $59.99 per month, 100 MB package is $119.99 per month, and the 200 MB package is $199.99 per month. If you’re going to use any of these packages, make sure you reset your iPhone data tracker to 0 (Settings>General>Usage>Reset). This will enable you to track your estimated data usage. More information about International Data Packages can be found here.

If you know you will need to make calls from abroad, again, the best solution is to call AT&T at 800-331-0500 and to get the AT&T World Traveler package. This package is only $5.99/month extra and works in over 200 countries. This add-on will get you discounted roaming rates in over 85 of those countries. Click here to see a list of calling rates by country.

I think we took everything into consideration. If in doubt, please call AT&T to talk to a rep and have a clear idea of what you’re getting into when using your iPhone abroad.

  • Jim Hanlon

    You will also probably want to (unconditionally) forward your calls to voicemail before leaving (unless receiving calls is important to you.) Calls to your phone which are not answered when the phone is turned on incur two-way call charges: one inbound to your phone and a second back to your US voicemail.

  • Ethan

    Other option could be to get the “un-lock” code for your iPhone from AT&T and buy a local SIM card of the Country you are traveling to before you leave. There are many companies like who can give you local SIM cards without any contract.

    Needless to say, cost saving is huge, consider paying only 20¢ calling home from Germany, whereas AT&T will charge $1.25 for same.

  • Jim Hanlon

    This is an iPhone discussion … where do you get the idea that AT&T will give you an “Un-lock” code for the iPhone?

  • Hi,its a very nice and informative post I have ever seen. iPhone is the best phone, it have lots of feature like games and players that are really amazing.Ii am eager for new release.

  • Vista USER !

    how about just taking out the SIM card ?
    will that help ?

  • Ethan

    Taking out SIM card won’t just help, as phone is locked by the carrier. So you can not use any other SIM in it till it is un-locked.

  • Esti

    Still learning. If I use Skype (which I haven’t downloaded just yet) on my iPhone at a free wifi area abroad (Antigua), will it still be free or will I incurr some charges?

  • Justin

    You CAN turn put the iphone into airplane mode and still use the wifi….at least on the 3GS. Put it in airplane mode, then go to wifi and switch it on. That is the best way to travel internationally.

  • Gesha

    Another option is to rent an iPhone. Nowadays you have an iPhone rental service, and some companies provide you with unlimited internet everywhere. You can migrate all the information (including apps) to the rented device, and avoid roaming charges while using 3G. Think about it !

  • It worked like a charm.

    • niccy

      Hi, so just turn the phone to “Airplane Mode” and that would be it? Wherever WI-FI is I can talk over Skype and won’t incur any extra charges from AT&T? Thanks

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  • kenny

    i have a iphone 3gs on orange-uk i called them from thailand and they were happy to give out unlock codes 🙂 just tell them you bought your iphone from a friend and you are staying for 6 months 😀

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  • Anonymous

    I’ve been researching for a backpacking trip with the iPhone. A great option for calls is Google Voice paired with Talkatone. You can make and receive free calls to the US and Canada with it over wi-fi and 3G. I’ll do the local SIM card thing and friends will call me on a local number back home.

  • NeilAlan

    This is useful information, but using a US carrier in a foreign country was too expensive for us, especially because we want to frequently look at maps to find our way around. We found that using Skype on wifi (which are free calls) is a much better option. It is easy to replace the SIM card in my iPhone with a foreign one (I had to pay to get it unlocked by AT&T) and the costs were really cheap. In Thailand, a month worth of calls and data was $10.00!