Cell phones abroad: a cheap, easy option

When Bill and I decided to travel to Mexico City for three months, we wondered if we should pack the cell phones. What we read about using cell phones abroad seemed overly complicated and expensive – two things we really wanted to avoid. Once we got to Mexico, wouldn’t it just be simpler to buy throwaway cell phones?

In the end, despite limited backpack space, we brought along the cell phones. What we’ve experienced follows. But let’s start at the beginning.

Earlier this year, we wrote about getting rid of our traditional, pricey cell phone contract in favor of an innovative, contract-free alternative offered by a young U.S. company, Republic Wireless.

The basic premise is this: people spend lots of time online, and Republic’s cell phones use inexpensive and readily available WiFi, too. Cellular data is optional. Of course, while in the States, we always opted to purchase a plan that included cellular data for whenever WiFi wasn’t available.

Republic doesn’t yet offer international cellular service; and customers can’t use their cell phones to make non-U.S. international calls (unless relying on an app, keep reading for details).

Bill and I each have a Moto X, a pretty basic Android smartphone. Back home, the functionality of Google’s ecosystem won us over right away. I got used to having an array of apps at my fingertips. Also, the phone served as my laptop substitute on the go.

While traveling, I didn’t want to give up any of that.

Logistics

After our plane landed in Mexico, one of the first things we did was change our cell phone plans – using the Internet in our Airbnb apartment and each Moto X – to Wifi only (unlimited talk, text, and data over WiFi).

Ok, so we admit it felt a little weird disconnecting from cellular data, after years of dependency.

But, when we went out, I quickly got used to asking at every new cafe, Tiene WiFi? (Do you have WiFi?). The answer is nearly always . If not, we just wait until we’re back in our apartment to check email. Or say we get a phone call when out of WiFi range, once WiFi is available again, the phone displays a missed call alert, and we retrieve the voicemail if applicable.

On one of our WiFi excursions, we discovered cute and creative Cafe B, a small cafe in Colonia Hipódromo around the corner from our apartment. Cafe B has exceptional coffee and food, friendly service (even when you don’t know much Spanish), and, of course, speedy and reliable WiFi. Since we came to this neighborhood, we’ve been grateful to be regulars here – with our cell phones – almost every day.

A photo collage of Cafe B in Colonia Hipódromo, Mexico City; (clockwise) the welcoming entrance; seating at the bar; the creative, vegetarian-friendly menu and desserts; and the back wall with hand-drawn mural

What we love

Our cell phone numbers stay the same, whether we’re in Mexico or anywhere else overseas. This means that family, friends, and colleagues in the States can call us, and we can call them, as usual (no international rates either way). The first few times we did this, people admitted being a little disconcerted to see our numbers pop up on the caller ID as though we were still in Washington, DC.

We also depend on apps like Skype or Google Hangouts for free video calls.

Speaking of apps, we can’t say enough good things about using Google Maps on the cell phones. The map features and GPS locator work even without WiFi, which has been immensely helpful as we explore the streets. Instead of dealing with unwieldy and possibly outdated paper maps – and advertising ourselves as tourists – we just pull out our cell phones, and we look like all the other locals busily checking screens.

The only thing we have to remember is that if we need to search Google Maps for a particular destination, we must plan ahead and do so while we’re on WiFi. Then we simply save the destination, and it’s always there for our reference, even away from WiFi.

Finally, in our opinion, the best part of this whole arrangement is that we’re only paying $10 total per month for both cell phones.

Workarounds

But, what will we do if we need to call a Mexican number? Good question.

After researching some options, we’re in the process of trying the Google Voice app, which allows users to call internationally for very low rates. Using a credit card, we’ve loaded $10 on this service to be prepared. The money is refundable if we don’t use it.

Note: making international calls with Google Voice can be a bit temperamental. We’re still experimenting.

Some American friends who are living in Mexico suggested an app called WhatsApp. WhatsApp allows users to text internationally for free for the first year (99 cents a year after that.) By accessing your contact list, WhatsApp let’s you know who else is also using the app. We were surprised at how many people, inside and outside Mexico, populated our list!

What about when travel is over?

We think that coming back to the States with our cell phones will be even easier than leaving. At the airport, we’ll use the WiFi to upgrade our plans to include cellular data.

Customers can switch plans up to twice each month for free, making it easy to accommodate any future travel.