Can I text via SMS? Using your cell phone overseas to text

woman-texting-overseas-paris-liveworkanywhere

I was talking to my friend the other day about keeping in touch with family and friends when traveling overseas and she made the following statement:

“I can still use text messaging while I’m traveling. I just have to use Wi-Fi.”

What do you think? Is she right? Is SMS or texting overseas a valid option as long as you have access to an Internet service?

The answer is technically yes.  But you’d better be careful if you do!

To help you understand how to use your cell when traveling overseas (and what it means if you do), I’ve addressed some of my most frequently asked questions so you know exactly what to expect if you decide to keep in touch with family and friends via your mobile phone while on your next far-away adventure.

Can I Use SMS Or Text Messaging While Traveling Overseas At No Cost As Long As I Am Connected To Wi-Fi?

No! Not without cost. You will get charged data roaming charges if you step off your own land and into another country without turning off your cell phone carrier data.

In fact, my friend recently went to the Bahamas for the weekend and, because it was a short boat ride from Florida, she didn’t think to change anything on her phone, sending text messages as she would normally. Her AT&T bill wound up being over $200 – from just that weekend!

So, always, always make sure you turn off your cell phone provider data plan before traveling overseas. You can save literally hundreds or even thousands of dollars when you do.

How Do I Turn Off My Cell Phone Data So I Don’t Get Charged Roaming Fees While Overseas? 

The simplest way to turn data off is to put your phone in Airplane Mode. Here’s how based on which smartphone you have:

  • iPhone– Go to Settings and the very top option is Airplane Mode. Set this to ONand wait for the airplane icon to appear.Then go to the option below it for Wi-Fi. You can set this to ON so it picks up any network that is available; otherwise, just leave it off for now.

how-to-set-iphone-airplane-mode-liveworkanywhere

 

  • Android– Click Menu and go to Settings. Under Wireless & Networks, select MORE. You will see that the top option is Airplane Mode. Check the box and wait for the ON button to turn blue.

how-to-set-android-airplane-mode-liveworkanywhere

(Note: If you do not have a smartphone (i.e. iPhone, Android, or Windows phone) or a phone that allows you to turn off your data and still access Wi-Fi, then you should turn your phone completely OFFwhile traveling.)

If My Data Is Turned Off, Will I Still Get Charged?

As long as your phone’s data is turned off, then you cannot be charged for any roaming charges, even with Wi-Fi enabled. Essentially, your phone switches from being a cell phone that uses cellular data into a computer via a wireless hotspot – again, without creating any carrier fees.

In other words, it’s safe to use Wi-Fi on your phone while you are in Airplane Mode.  No carrier fees will apply.

What Is The Difference Between Cellular Data and Wi-Fi?

The difference between cellular data and Wi-Fi is that cellular data is transmitted over your cell phone network (think AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint), whereas Wi-Fi data is over a wireless Internet network, such as what you would have when using Starbucks Wi-Fi.

Can I Use My Phone As A Mobile Hotspot While Overseas?

You won’t be able to use your phone as a hotspot that you can connect to from other devices while overseas, as this requires that your phone become a wireless access point, leveraging cellular data.However, you will be able to use the phone itself to access the Internet.

(One option to consider is T-Mobilewho now offers a prepaid plan called “Simple Choice”. With it, you can buy 7gigabytes per month and turn on data with mobile hotspot enabled.)

Getting a Local SIM Card

If you want to get Internet while overseas and not roaming, you have to get a local SIM card with a data plan. Most SIM cards can be purchased at a local gas station, drug store, or, of course, your one of your cell phone carrier’s stores or kiosks.

You can also purchase an international SIM card from onesimcard.com.

OnceSimCard

What Is the Difference Between a Local SIM Card and a Regular SIM Card?

The difference between a local SIM card and your regular SIM on your phone is that, with a local SIM, you will have a local number. This means that friends and family trying to reach you will have to text you on your local number.

For example, let’s say you go to Berlin, Germany and you get a local Vodafone SIM card. Your phone number will begin with “49,” which is the country code. It’s a great option for texting within the city, but not such a great option for contacting mom.

You do have a few options when getting a local plan, though.

  1. Buy a phone with a SIM card that you can recharge. These usually start at around USD $20 and you can add credit as you go.
  2. Buy an unlocked cell phone and purchase a SIM card. I currently have an unlocked iPhone 6 Plus with a T-Mobile SIM cardon the US-based Simple Choice month-to-month plan which costs me $50 USD per month for 3 gigs of data. This means that I don’t have to change out to a new SIM card when I arrive in a new country and I get unlimited data and texting, Wi-Fi calling, and in-flight texting. Plus, if my plan goes over, data doesn’t shut off, it just slows down. This can come in very handy when you would have otherwise been stuck with zero Internet.Also, with the T-Mobile plan in the US, you can call other countries for only $.20 cents per minute, and international texting is free.
  3. Buy a phone with dual SIM, like the Sony Xperia E1 Dual.

Here are some examples of local SIM card providers:

  • Mexico – TelCel (wider coverage) and Movistar (cheaper)
  • Germany – Vodafone, E-Plus, and Telekom
  • USA – T-Mobile, AT&T, and Boost

 What Services or Apps Can I Use While Traveling Overseas To Send Text Messages?

Technically you aren’t sending SMS messages or “text” messages when you have Wi-Fi on and data off, but you can still send text-like messages to your family and friends using services like these.

(Note: If you have AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or a regular T-Mobile cellular plan and you set your phone to Airplane Mode, you will not be able to send text (SMS) messages.)

To text with a family member or friend while abroad, make sure your Wi-Fi is turned ON and that you both have one of the following services on your phones:

  1. iMessage. This option causes the most confusion and the reason is that if you and five of your friends all have iPhones, you can “text” each other as if nothing ever changed. However, you aren’t actually texting; you’re just using Apple’s messaging service to send correspondence back and forth over a Wi-Fi connection. Therefore, you can only converse with others who have Apple products.

With iMessage, you can still receive messages abroad while data is turned off.Andif you’re in Airplane Mode but have Wi-Fi set to “on,” then you can receive iMessages which appear like text messages but they will be in blue versus green, like this:

imessage-blue-versus-vs-sms-text-green-liveworkanywhere

Ultimately, you will not receive the green message when you are abroad and your cell phone data is turned off. So, if you have data turned on and you see green messages – look out!You are getting charged insane rates.Remember, Airplane mode – on; Wi-Fi– on.

  1. Google Voice. This one has been around for awhile and is still quite functional, but not the most popular option. To use it, simply download the Google Voice app, sign up for a Google Voice phone number (free in U.S.), and you can send messages back and forth from that number. They will appear on your phone via the app, allowing you to send SMS messages overseas as much as you’d like!

Google Hangouts may start to soon replace Google Voice, but for now, it’s still a great option and I use it all the time. At the very least, it’s like having a second number on the same phone so you have two options. Give friends and clients your Google Voice number so you’ll always have a local US number for people to text you.

  1. WhatsApp. WhatsApp became very popular recently when it was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. To utilize it, just download Whats App, find your friends, and send messages back and forth. It’s not the first of its kind, but it is fairly popular and growing in popularity. If your friends are tech or travel savvy, or if they/you are European, you’ll most likelyfind them here. It’s a must-have app for travelers or for communicating and texting your friends overseas.

To use WhatsApp(and all the other apps), you must be connected to Wi-Fi.

A kind of fun feature of WhatsApp is that you can send MMS, or picture messages, for free as well – all over Wi-Fi.The images will also automatically be added to your photo album on your phone (at least on iPhone).No more asking your friend to share an album with you and no more having to ‘save image’; it just shows up.

  1. Viber. Not dissimilar to Google Voice and WhatsApp, Viber takes the best of the two and combines them. Once you download the app, you find your friends who are also using Viber, and you can connect immediately. The nice thing about this particular messaging app is that, not only can you send free messages back and forth inside of the app, but you can also make free calls. Viber even uses your cell phone number as your identifier.

There are a growing number of options for sending messages to family and friends, and these are just a few. For instance, GroupMe is another popular group messaging app that allows you communicate with a number of people at once (and you can still use emoji!).

For more messaging options while traveling overseas, I suggest you read:  Top 7 Communication Apps to Use While Travelling.

Summary Of Texting Overseas:

Just to hammer the main points home –

DO NOT send SMS messages or text messages while traveling overseas unless you want to pay out the nose for them.(Also remember that it’s not possible to send SMS over Wi-Fi.)

You CAN receive SMS messages/texts, but you will pay for them. A lot!  So turn off your cell phone data by putting your phone in Airplane Mode and turning on Wi-Fi.

You CAN receive messages (non-SMS) over Wi-Fi, for free.

You CANNOT send or receive SMS messages (“texts”) via your cell phone carrier when you are in airplane mode.

Eventually, we may not even need cellphone carriers to keep in touch but, until then and until you get rid of your cell phone plan, be careful of extra charges when traveling overseas. They’re simply not worth it when you have so many free options available.

Again, just remember that SMS is always associated with your carrier (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.) and a message can be eithera text message synonymous with SMS or a non-SMS text message image, or other form of communication.

What Have YOU Learned about Sending SMS or Text Messages or Overseas? Or What Would You Like to Learn?

Do you have other questions or see anything I’m missing? Please feel free to drop your questions or comments below.

 

44 Comments on “Can I text via SMS? Using your cell phone overseas to text”

  1. Mary

    Roaming charges are crazy so you really need to make sure you turn off your data plan and use the wifi networks available to you. On my last trip I used Viber and I loved it because you can make calls and not just text. There are so many apps out there, you only need to find the right one for you!

  2. Pris

    The great thing about wifi is that it saves me a lot of money, roaming is really expensive. Whatsapp is probably my favorite app, since I like texting more than making phone calls.

    1. Libby Tucker

      I agree, Pris, it’s a great app and so many people use it. I’m in Alaska right now and using Whatsapp with a new friend from Germany. It’s great for international communication wherever you are!

  3. Mintz

    If you turn your data off, is it possible to receive the texts messages that were sent to you during this time after you’ve gotten back from overseas? Or will my phone act as if it had never gotten those messages while my data was off?

    1. Libby Tucker

      Great question and I did some follow up research to be sure, but in my experience (and was just confirmed by TMobile), SMS & MMS (over cellular plans) will only be stored for a certain period of time, i.e. 24 hours to 14 days, depending on the carrier. Then, they are removed from their servers and you will not get them when you come out of Airplane Mode. What you can do to avoid this, and what I’ve done for the past few years, is to get a Google Voice number. I have a 10 digit phone number that people can call or text and I will get it via email and via the Google Voice app on my phone when connected to wifi. I got rid of my cell phone plan completely at one point and nobody (referring to clients) even noticed because I had been using Google Voice as my primary number for some time. Additionally, you can purchase a Skype number and it will act as a main line, but Google Voice is free and it will transcribe messages for you in email, and you can view your SMS messages online – forever, without fear of being deleted.

  4. George Meszaros

    I’ve been using iMessage, Google Voice, and Whatsapp for years. A new one that I have been using a bit WeChat. I wish there was a global standard we could use from anywhere any time.

    1. Libby Tucker

      Great insight, George, and I’ve questioned for a long time also why there isn’t a global standard. Of course, competition and everyone wanting a piece of the proverbial pie makes it nearly impossible for everyone to play nicely together. However, I believe we will start approaching a few standards that will be initially user-driven. Thanks for the tip on WeChat!

  5. tracy

    question:
    When a person returns to our country and turns on phone data will any text messages sent to them then appear ?

    1. Libby Tucker

      It’s not likely that your text messages will appear, no, not if they are sent via the carrier (SMS). There are a certain amount of days that providers will allow your text messages to be sent. If you are overseas for 90 days, for example, and you turn your phone back on, you will not receive the SMS messages that were sent while your cell data was turned off. If you travel often, it’s better to communicate using Wi-Fi enabled apps and messaging while in your local country so that when you go abroad, everything is seamless / works as normal, and there is no issue. Use apps like Whatsapp, Google Voice, Viber, and iMessage when not traveling versus your carrier’s data for SMS (text) and you will be fine when traveling, nothing will be lost .

  6. ctweinberg

    THANK YOU! Finally someone has given me a straightforward, clear explanation of what is and isn’t a charge and why.

  7. D90

    I just don’t bother about roaming fees, at least as I’m roaming within the EU:
    Reciving sms is always free (even outside the EU),
    data roaming isn’t free, but still affordable (25c/megabyte) and for email /whatsapp/GPS I’m going to spend no mnore than 5€ per week .
    Sending text is also affordable 7cent/SMS.

    I find pretty silly that a carrier could ask money for a recived text, that is something that is not-rejectable, at least as I’m in my country (IT).

    If travelling outside the EU I suggest to ask your carrier if has an ‘option’ with some data voice and text included

    this is what my carrier offers:
    30€/week offers 50min outgoing 50 incoming 100text, outgoing as incoming are free, and 100MiB everywhere but EU or US
    Or
    500min (250 in / 250 out) 500sms 1GiB for 20€/10days if travelling in EU or US.

    1. Libby Tucker

      Thanks for your comment. Who is your carrier? Some positive policy changes are also coming for the EU to make communication more seamless and less expensive for EU residents.

  8. margaret Zolotto

    Hi, i just want to add something i just found out, my daughter arrived in Bangkok and turned her iphone celular data off, data off, send as sms off and she was driving in taxi picking up the Thai signal on her phone and she was sending and receiving text messages in green, this is iphone to iphone – so not sure what is happening or where the charges are going to come from, then i read turn off airplane mode – so she has and it is still working, now this is strange. has this happened to anyone else? She is texting from Thailand to Australia.

  9. Mira Kim

    I brought a Verizon Samsung Galaxy Note 5 abroad and bought a local sim but I can’t send text messages to local numbers? The strange thing is I can make and receive calls as well as receive text messages. Do you know what’s going on?

    1. Libby Tucker

      I would check the plan that you set up with your carrier. It might be that the carrier plan didn’t allow you to send messages, but only receive. I would also check your Galaxy settings to make sure you have cellular data turned on and that you are able to send SMS. Are you receiving an error message or are they just not going through?

  10. Jeff

    My son is in Africa and we purchased a plan through AT&T that has unlimited texting for his iPhone. I know he needs to turn off iMessage so the texts are sent and received as texts but I think that he has to have cellular data turned off or the phone won’t work at all on a network. Is that correct? He doesn’t have access to WiFi at the moment so this is the only way to connect.

    1. Libby Tucker

      Sorry for the late reply. Assuming AT&T Passport, from my understanding, all incoming and outgoing texts will be included in the plan, regardless of carrier he’s roaming on. If he needs cellular data, even if roaming, then he should have cellular data turned on.

  11. Zoe

    If my friend is traveling to another country overseas and has purchased a roaming plan that says unlimited incoming texts will it charge me to text him?

    1. Libby Tucker

      If your friend’s number has not changed, then the same rates apply that you were sending to him before. His plan strictly applies to him. If he purchased a local number, or his number has changed, then you may get charges. If for example, you both have a US phone number. He goes overseas and adds an international roaming plan to his plan, then no, you won’t pay anything different. If he buys a local SIM card and you do not have the same rate to that number, i.e. your plan doesn’t support international and he traveled to Germany, then yes, you will get charged. If that’s the case that it’s a new number, I would check your current cell phone plan.

  12. kathy

    I am overseas. I have an android Turbo2. I have my phone on airplane mode. I do have WiFi on. All of the sudden I have txt messages coming in. I have not opened them. Will I be charged? How do they come in while in airplane mode?

    1. Libby Tucker

      Hi Kathy, there’s a feature that allows for SMS to come in over wi-fi. You may not be charged but I would check with your carrier for wi-fi calling plans and SMS over wi-fi when in airplane mode.

  13. Bridget

    Question: Do you need to turn off SMS messaging under settings when doing this or does the airplane mode automatically do that when you switch to it and Wi-Fi.

    1. Libby Tucker

      Good question, Bridget. By turning your phone into airplane mode, SMS messaging is automatically silenced. So, you only need to worry about turning your phone into Airplane mode, which turns off all cellular connection to your carrier.

  14. Pj

    Hi I’m my phone is using my hotels WiFi in Japan and my phone is currently on airplane mode but im still receiving sms from friends in the USA. Why are they coming through and will I be charged for then and yes my phone is 100% on airplane mode.

    1. Libby Tucker

      You are receiving messages that have a mutual data sending capability. They are not SMS though they appear that way, which is confusing. For example on the iPhone, you can be in airplane mode, with wi-fi on, and you’ll get messages from friends over iMessage. You and your friends have to have iMessage turned on in order for these to send and be received. SMS is over cell data and if your phone is in Airplane mode no cellular charges will be made.

  15. Jonathan

    How does my carrier knows I’m overseas?
    When I’m traveling overseas I just connect my phone to another network (let’s says Orange France) so how does my carrier (says Sprint) knows I’m in France?

    Also, as soon as I get off the plane, I often receive a sms from my home carrier saying “Welcome to France, if you would like to purchase a plan bla bla bla….” so again how does my carrier knows?

    1. Libby Tucker

      All phones have a type of technology they use to communicate with the carrier, like GSM (most common) or CDMA. Each carrier purchases cell phone towers and creates a network. The technology on your phone communicates with the cell towers. When you cross into another carrier’s network, you are now communicating with a local carrier who owns the network – your home carrier knows because they no longer fully own the network you are on; someone else (like Orange) does. They can see this because they know the location of your phone because it’s communicating with the cell towers. Orange wants to get paid for you using their network, their cell phone towers. Your home carrier doesn’t own them, so they made an agreement with the company or companies who do. That’s the reason it’s so much more expensive when you’re overseas. It’s because the carriers know who owns what network and they have agreements with each other. Both Orange and your cell phone provider want to get paid. But your cell phone provider has the contract with you and also with Orange, so they are the ones who contact you. Does that make sense?

  16. Casey

    If I am deploying overseas and temporarily suspend my phone service through Verizon, will I still receive text messages to my phone number if someone texts using a text free app but I am not using the same text free app as them? Will I receive these text at all to my phone even if the service has been suspended but I am using wifi? No one has been able to answer this question so I’m trying you as a source ha!

    1. Libby Tucker

      Hi Casey! A couple answers here. 1) you won’t receive your regular text messages to your phone number (and they won’t likely be saved either for retrieval later) 2) if someone is using a free app to text you, depending on the app, you’ll need to both have the same app installed. So, getting a text message to your phone as you normally would using a 3rd party app, no. Install an app like Viber, Whatsapp, etc over wi-fi and make sure your friend is using the same app, and you can get messages. But not to your phone directly as an SMS, no. Hope that helps!

  17. Nicole Brodie

    My galaxy s5 is in airplane mode, background data is turned off, wifi data is turned on. Somehow I’m receiving and can send SMS through the Messages app. I better not be incurring charges (Verizon) because I can’t turn it off. Anyone know what’s going on?

    1. Libby Tucker

      To use a service like: Yahoo Messenger, Google Hangouts, GChat, MSN, Email, Slack, etc – you will need data. Wi-fi is synonymous with data. You can EITHER have a data connection provided by a cellphone carrier OR a wi-fi connection provided by a cellphone carrier, a hotspot or network provider, or both. If you have your phone in airplane mode, with wi-fi, then you incur zero data charges.

      Airplane mode (data off) with wi-fi to use Whatsapp via LiveWorkAnywhere.com = wi-fi, no data

  18. Brenda

    Hi, I have a friend who just left South Africa for Germany and was asking if their cellphone data is off; does that mean nothing will be charged for using Whatsapp?

    1. Libby Tucker

      Thanks for your question, Brenda. Whatsapp works over wi-fi and also over cellular data. If her cellphone data is off, but wi-fi is NOT on, then she won’t be able to access Whatsapp at all. If her cellphone data is off (i.e. airplane mode), and wi-fi is ON, then she will indeed be able to use Whatsapp without charges from the cellphone carrier. She will incur any data charges, i.e. via a wi-fi hotspot. But, if the connection is free, like complimentary wi-fi in airport for example, then there’s zero cost to use Whatsapp. Here are the settings on her phone – airplane mode with wi-fi Airplane mode (data off) with wi-fi to use Whatsapp via LiveWorkAnywhere.com

  19. Lynn

    If you have an international plan (mine is ATT Passport) and you want to use SMS texting which is supposedly free on the plan- what changes do you make to your iPhone to send the free and texts but not be charged for cell phone data??

    1. Libby Tucker

      With the AT&T Passport plan, from what I understand, you should have all texting, including multimedia, included with every plan. So, it should be as simple as you having your SMS turned “on”.
      Turn SMS on iPhone AT&T Passport via live work anywhere
      When iMessage or other data isn’t turned on or isn’t going through, then the carrier will default to SMS. But, it doesn’t seem like you should incur any additional charges for that. Only for data. So, you may want to make sure that you use SMS on your passport plan for images, pictures, and videos via SMS and all else for data (including turning iMessage off). The data plan via AT&T doesn’t give you a lot of data and is expensive compared to a T-Mobile Simple Choice plan. So, if you plan to use data, I would buy a local SIM or hotspot / mi-fi device strictly to connect to data.

  20. Shawn

    Hi thank you for this blog. I am going to be moving to Japan for 3 years for a military move. I have a business here in the US. majority of my business is done through my cell phone(phone calls,texts, emails).. Is there anyway I can continue to use my cell phone number and phone just like I would be doing while in the US?

    1. Libby Tucker

      Great question, Shawn, thanks for your comment. Who is your current cell phone provider? You need both a cellular plan (phone calls) and a data plan (text and email). At this point in time, in order to keep your number, you have a few options.
      1) switch to a T-Mobile Simple Plan and keep your existing number (note: they have free data and texting in 115 countries, including Japan but it can be slow and calls cost $.20/minute or more)
      2) Get a google voice account and forward all calls to your computer
      3) Get a Skype number
      4) Get Grasshopper virtual phone service and transfer your number

      For #1, you will pay by the minute for phone calls and for increases in data, or a separate data plan. For #’s 2 & 3 you need to let your clients know that your number has changed, which can cause a loss in business. But, to keep your existing number, and especially if you’re running a business, you likely want to go with Grasshopper. You can get $75 off if you’re a member of AnyPass.co, but here’s the link in case you go with that option. Grasshopper allows you to set up virtual numbers, mailboxes, and forwarding, and has an option to get voicemails translated to email.

  21. Winkfone

    Winkfone is a great new app which is perfect for travellers and people regularly making international calls.

    Low Cost International Calls + Talk & Chat for Free, choose local numbers in the places that matter to you, Out of Wi-Fi coverage, no problem.

    Download the Winkfone App at http://www.winkfone.com/getwink

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