The Study Abroad Student’s Guide To Using The iPhone Abroad

Everything you need to know about using your iPhone abroad

Using The iPhone AbroadI’ve written in the past, both here on the blog and in The Ultimate Study Abroad Guide, about the big role communication plays in the study abroad experience. I’m now realizing it’s more like “the big role the iPhone plays in the study abroad experience”. However, due to Apple’s tight restrictions, using the calling, messaging, and data features on the iPhone when you’re abroad can come with some hefty international roaming charges.  I created this guide to help you navigate your options for using those features when you’re no longer in America.

A quick disclaimer: Not only am I not promoting any particular method or app, I’m actually not even advocating a few towards the bottom. I just wanted to put the information out there, point you in the direction of a few resources, and let you make the decision. I’m not a technology expert, so if you have any questions regarding in-depth iPhone technology, your best option is to Google it.

International Roaming – Buying the “Affordable World Package”

This is what you would do if you wanted to go straight through your normal carrier (AT&T or Verizon), and I’ll use AT&T for my example. They happen to pride themselves on having more wireless phones working in more places around the world than any other U.S. carrier. Apparently you’re good in 220 countries, and for the people that love the ocean, on more than 140 cruise ships.

The plan itself is pretty simple. You pay a monthly fee for the use of the World Packages, and then depending on how you plan on using the iPhone abroad, you pay separate monthly fees for voice packages, messaging packages, and data packages. You can see the starting prices for each package over on the right.

Using The iPhone Abroad AT&T iPhone International Rates

Starting Rates...or how to spend all your money in one month

It may not seem all that expensive, but you should know beforehand how much you’re getting for your dollar. AT&T actually provides a convenient little calculator to help you understand just how much data you use per month, and I have a feeling the results will surprise you.

It calculates the cost for one month of data, but you input your daily usage. I tried: 10 Emails sent/received (no attachments), 15 Web pages viewed, 1 Email with photo attachments, 1 App/Game/Song downloaded, 2 Email sent/received with attachments, 1 Social media post with photo uploaded, no streaming music, and no streaming video. That came out to about 250 MB per month, so if I did it correctly (which I’ll admit I might not have), I could get away with the $99.99/month package.

However, add on a half hour of streaming music and 5 minutes of streaming video, and I would have used almost 1 GB of data, or 200 MB more than what’s offered in the most expensive monthly plan. Try it out for yourself, and keep in mind how long you’ll be abroad.

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and Video Chatting


FaceTime is Apple’s video calling software app, and is supported on any iOS device with a forward-facing camera and on any Mac equipped with a FaceTime Camera. While it’s another form of webcam-based video chatting, sites like say it delivers the best overall video call experience—by far. On the iPhone 4, FaceTime is built directly into the phone’s Contacts, and for the iPad2 and iPod Touch, FaceTime comes as a standalone app. Using FaceTime is as simple as selecting a contact, and then tapping on FaceTime to start the call.


The TimeToCall app was something I had written about back before I came to China. It’s a pay per call app that allows you to talk for up to 15 minutes to 100 countries for $1.99 or less. One of the most convenient features of the app is that you pay for your calls directly through your iTunes account. It’s a lot easier than using calling card services, and it’s much less expensive than going directly through your carrier. The TimeToCall app is free to download, and although it’s by Vonage, you don’t need to be a Vonage customer to use it. As awesome as FaceTime is, for those who want to call a land line or someone without an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, the TimeToCall app is a great alternative.

Using The iPhone Abroad Skype

Skype - a study abroad students best friend

Skype – The Old Reliable

You can call, video call and instant message anyone else on Skype for free from your iPhone. It may not have the same quality, but while FaceTime is only for Apple-to-Apple calls, you can connect with anyone you want, anywhere in the world, at any time if you’re both on Skype. You can also talk as long as you want, and with multiple people at once. Video chatting is completely free, and you can text and call phones anywhere using Skype Credit. It works across basically any mobile device as there’s a Skype iPad app, Skype Android app, Skype BlackBerry app, and Skype for Windows or Mac. It has been known to have some small issues with video quality, but for overall convenience, it’s number one.

Jailbreaking And Unlocking The iPhone

“Jailbreaking” allows you to use your iPhone with applications that aren’t available from Apple’s store. After jailbreaking your iPhone, you can “Unlock” your phone’s SIM, further allowing you to use a wireless service provided from an unapproved carrier.

Both terms describe the process of removing the limitations imposed by Apple on devices running the iOS operating system through the use of custom kernels (a kernel connects the application software to the hardware of a computer/phone). According to Wikipedia, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, jailbreaking an iPhone is legal in the United States, although Apple has announced that the practice ‘can violate the warranty’.

In their ruling, the Library of Congress affirmed on July 26, 2010 that jailbreaking is exempt from DMCA rules with respect to circumventing digital locks. This exemption must be reviewed and renewed every three years or else it will expire.

You can either pay to have someone jailbreak your phone for you (yes, there are actually stores created specifically for this), or you can try it yourself.

Using The iPhone Abroad UnlockingPaying someone to do it for you

Since I don’t use an iPhone, this info is a combo of what I hear on the streets and what I’ve researched in forums about using the iPhone abroad.

Since I currently live here, I’ll use Beijing as my example. There are three wireless carriers here in China: China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom with about 70% of the market using China Mobile. Buying a factory iPhone in China that’s compatible with these carriers will run you about 5000 kuai, or almost $800.

Depending on where and how you buy an iPhone in America, it’s definitely possible to save yourself a few hundred dollars by having it unlocked in Beijing. Again, from what I hear, you can head over to Zhongguancun (a big area in Beijing) where there are stores that will unlock it for between $20 – $60. Apparently it’s pretty reliable.

Doing it on your own

When it comes to Jailbreaking and SIM Unlocking, the name to know is the “jailbreak dream team” which consists of the “iPhone Dev Team” and “pod2g”. They’ve produced a line of programs that allow you to both jailbreak and unlock your iPhone: PwnageTool, redsn0w, ultrasn0w, and the newly released greenp0ison (or Absinthe) for the iPhone 4S and iPad2. Both redsn0w and greenpois0n are used for Jailbraking, while ultrasn0w serves as a SIM Unlock for jailbroken iPhones.

As far as phone technology is concerned, I’m a complete amateur, however, jailbreaking your iPhone seems pretty simple. For unlocking purposes, the iPhone Dev Team suggests checking out tutorials on (I would also take a look at this site – Hack That Phone.) Unlocking does seem a little more complicated, but still doable.

Do your research! While it’s currently still legal to do this, you never know when that might change. If that does occur, it’s possible that your warranty may be voided, i.e. if something goes wrong, you’re on your own.

PC World has compiled a simple list of pros and cons you should read called “5 Reasons to Jailbreak Your iPhone – and 5 Reasons Not“.

And that’s every way I found to use your iPhone for calling/communicating while studying abroad. (I’ll talk about some great study abroad apps in a later post!). If I learn about any more, I’ll be sure to add them in.

If you have any other questions or comments please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!

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  • Rita P!

    I wish I knew about this before I went abroad!

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  • Anna

    hey Nate, I’m going over to work in China for a few years.  I have heard that it’s better (and cheaper) to just buy a phone over there and Skype with you American contacts on your laptop. would you recommend this or did you bring your American phone with you?

  • Hey Anna,
    I use Skype for communicating with just about everyone back home. I usually video chat, but I bought $10 worth of Skype calling credit before I came over, just in case I needed to use Skype to call a land line.

    As for my phone, I bought it during my first few days in Beijing. You really only need it for calling and texting, at least in the beginning, so I went with the cheapest pay-as-you-go phone on the shelf (Nokia). The phone cost me about $35 US, and the SIM card with 50 kuai worth of minutes cost about another $20. I’ve been here 5 months and have only had to buy more minutes once (although I use my phone less often than the average person). Essentially, that means I’ve spent less than $20 on calling minutes since I’ve been here.

    It’s definitely a good idea to bring your American phone with you. You might use it to look up someone’s number when calling a land line back home, or even just as a second alarm clock like I do.

    Hope this helps!

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  • Rick H

    Hey Nate — I’m going to be in China for 4 weeks and I’m trying to figure out if Facetime is still a viable option over there — have heard conflicting reports about whether it functions to be used in China making calls back to USA. Anything else I need to know specifically about using my iPhone in China?

  • Hey Rick, thanks for your message! From what I’ve heard, there seems to be occasional problems with Facetime connectivity, regardless of the country. The app is also facing copyright infringement in China at the moment, which might further complicate things – The good news is that I haven’t had any problems using either iMessage or Skype on my iPhone to communicate with friends and family back home in the U.S., so at least you have some alternatives.

    You also have some different options depending on your wireless carrier. Verizon now unlocks the iPhone 4S and above for international use, and if you bought your iPhone through either AT&T or T-mobile, you should be able to buy a pay-as-you go Chinese sim card over here which can be cut and re-sized to fit the American style card slot. Hope that helps and feel free to let me know if you have any more questions!

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