There are two primary ways to access the internet to web browse, send and receive e-mails, stream music and videos.
Option 1 – Using the device’s Wi-Fi connection
Cell phone (must be a smartphone), tablet or laptop
Must have a Wi-Fi connection to the internet.
A connection fee might be charged by the company providing the Wi-Fi access (e.g. a hotel or a hotspot). Wi-Fi connection fees are usually based on the amount of time the connection is being used not on the amount of data that is uploaded or downloaded. This is why it is much cheaper than the cellular data option which is discussed next. Some hotspot locations, such as coffee houses or bars, might expect you to make a purchase. Websites such as Boingo, which have access at thousands of hotspots all over the world, have package plans such as unlimited access for a flat monthly fee.
Go to your device’s settings and ensure the Wi-Fi is on. When on, the available networks, in the area, should show under the “choose a network” section. All of the open networks should appear. Those with a lock next to the name will require a password to access. Even those without a lock might require a password to log-on. I suggest putting your phone (or tablet if applicable) on airplane mode (e.g. turning off the cellular connection). This is just a double check that you’re only using your mobile device’s Wi-Fi connection. Select a network and enter the password if applicable. Go to your device’s browser and start accessing the internet. See the Safe and Secure Internet Use page for secure internet use. This is a much cheaper option than using a cellular data connection. The one drawback is you have to wait for an internet connection.
Option 2 – Using a cellular data connection
Cell phone or tablet (that has cellular connection capability)
You will need to sign-up for a data plan with your current cell phone carrier or use your local SIM card (if the SIM card allows data access). The phone, or tablet, must be able to connect to the foreign country’s frequency for this option to work. This option will not work for a Wi-Fi only tablet.
As previously mentioned, using a cellular network (via a data roaming plan) in a foreign country to access the internet is very, very expensive. For instance, Verizon charges $25 per 100 MB of data per month and AT&T charges $30 for 120 MB of data per month. This is a lot more expensive than the 2 GB you get at home for $30 per month. With cellular network access, you are charged for the amount of data you upload and download. AT&T, on their website, notes the estimated average amount of data consumed by certain activities. Here are a few examples:
- 1 web page – 1 MB of data
- 1 social media post with photo 350 KB
- 1 minute of streaming music – 500 KB (or 30MB per hour)
- 1 minute of streaming HD video – 5.1 MB (306 MB per hour)
- 1 app/game/song downloaded – 4 MB
Helpful hint – estimate your internet data consumption with AT&T or Verizon’s data calculator. Great way to estimate your potential expense. AT&T has a good data calculator that estimates the amount of data used for certain activities. You can insert different volumes of activity and the calculator will estimate how much data will be used. You can then compare your estimated usage to the data prices to budget your internet use expense – highly suggested before using a cellular data connection.
The major cell phone carriers offer data roaming plans. There are two types: a “pay as you go” plan (a cost per MB used) and a “package” plan (a flat dollar amount for a certain amount of MB per month). You should verify the cost of exceeding the monthly amount with your cell phone carrier.
You will need to either 1) sign-up for a data plan with your cell phone carrier prior to traveling or 2) purchase a SIM card that has a data plan. Your device must be able to connect using the foreign country’s frequency. You will need to have the cellular data setting turned on to access the internet when using a cellular data network. See Data Roaming Notes below.
Data roaming – THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Your mobile device should have a cellular data setting (unless it’s a Wi-Fi only tablet). You can find this in the “settings” section. In order to connect using a cellular network, you will need to have the “cellular data” setting for your device turned on. When turned on, your device will search for and can connect to the cellular network in the area. With data, there are a number of ways in which you can incur charges when this is turned on and you are roaming in a foreign country. You might have other phone or tablet settings which are set to access the internet for things such as pushing email to you as you receive it from others. As a result, you can incur data charges without even realizing it.
If you are using your device (and its normal SIM card), you will be roaming on the local foreign network who will invoice your cell phone carrier, who, in turn, will invoice you on your monthly bill. Voice is a little easier to control. You know when you make or receive calls or send or receive text messages. Data is much trickier and should be handled very carefully. If you are only using Wi-Fi to access the internet, turn off cellular data and data roaming prior to traveling and leave it off. If you want to use cellular data at times on your trip, turn off the cellular data and data roaming prior to traveling and only turn it on to connect to the internet as needed. Turn it off as soon as you complete each task. Be very careful about data. You do not want an “uh-oh” when you open your telephone bill when you get home. If you purchased a local SIM card that allows for data (internet) access, you probably will not have a problem. Many local SIM cards, purchased in the country you’re visiting, allow for much higher limits of data. Ones that we’ve purchased recently allow for 30 days of data with a limit of 1 GB to 4 GB for just $10 to $15. This is why the local foreign SIM card is a much better option (for calling, texting and internet use) than voice and data roaming on your normal cell phone provider.