Going abroad means leaving home, making friends with Lukas Novak from Cross Club, learning to scream “Brûle en enfer” in Gare du Nord, eating Jollof rice, drinking before, during and after class, and calling Mom and Dad in the middle of Sensation with an urgent question about the meaning of life and the spaceship you have accidentally boarded.
But how will you call them? How will you stay in contact with all of the beautiful people that raised you, the friends that took you to your first club or the guy in your Foundations lecture that sends you Snapchats when you’re feeling down? Do not fear, lucky abroad kids, for we’ve been there and know how to help. Listen to us and you’ll never get FOMO.
And if you’re not abroad now, better bookmark this; NYU sends more students abroad than any other university, so there’s a good chance you will be soon.
You can use your iPhone.
Remember when you called your mobile provider and they offered that sweet international plan for your iPhone or whatever anti-iPhone device you have? You know, $150/minute and the price of a very, very small diamond for each Tweet? Hopefully you didn’t fall for it. It’s a well-kept secret that many US providers will internationally unlock your iPhone for free. Yes, it’s legal, and yes, fo’ free. (In this case you can only give out your SIM slot in other countries. This ain’t the same as a true global unlock, in which you’d be able to use your phone with any US network as well.)
There are two catches: one, you’ll still have to pay your monthly cell bill in the US, although you may opt to pay a lower monthly fee to keep your US number and go on standby. (This will usually push your contract so you’ll have to wait another 5 months for your next phone.) Two, in many cases you need to have the phone internationally unlocked while still in the US. The good news is that you can jailbreak your phone, and compared to the confusing laws in America, the ones abroad are like banana peels on the sidewalk.
Get a SIM card
If you managed to unlock your phone or you buy an unlocked iPhone, Android or Nokia somewhere (eBay? Back alley?), congratulations; the hard part is done. Now you just need a carrier shop in your new country. Look for off-contract, pay-as-you-go plans. Don’t expect the literature to be in English, and be assertive about having an English-speaking manager help you make sense of their offerings. Most pay-as-you-go plans work on a credit system: a month of internet, a roaming plan, a phone call to the taxi and a text are all worth a different number of credits. Recharge and reuse.
You can have calls forwarded to your international phone whether you’ve got a smartphone or a crappy rental (which you will lose or destroy, multiple times). For the cheapest, most seamless experience, use Skype:
1. Have your US number forward to your Skype number. (Or you could just give out your Skype number.)
2. Have your Skype number forward to your international number.
To pull this off, you’ll need to have Skype credit in your account; you are, in essence, paying to connect their call. For example, if you’re studying in London, you’ll pay $21 for 120 minutes or $40 for unlimited minutes.
You can also setup your US number to forward unanswered calls to Google Voice and just manage who’s trying to reach you through their web or mobile app.
Making calls from your phone without data
There are so many ways to make cheap or free international calls from your international phone, but it’s far better to rely on incoming calls because they are usually free or cheaper. If you’re using the system above, tell the person to call you. If you can’t do that, use a service like Google Voice that will ring your US number (which eventually forwards to your abroad phone, remember?) before connecting the call. That way you can initiate the conversation without making an outgoing call.
Making calls from your phone with data or WiFi
Most of the time you’ll have access to WiFi (or data, if you have a data plan), which makes it easy to call the US. To call actual phone numbers, use the Skype app ($3 per month for unlimited calls to the US) or a free VOIP app like Talkatone, which seamlessly uses your Google Voice number as caller ID.
Even better, try standout Viber, which lets you easily make calls to other Viber users on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Nokia and even Samsung’s Bada. Just get your friends and family to install Viber and they can receive calls from you through the app. There’s also a knock-off feature in Facebook Messenger but nobody seems to care.
You’ll never receive text messages sent to your US number unless your carrier offers a website for viewing texts or you’ve ported your number to Google Voice, which will let you access texts, missed calls and voicemails from your US number.
If you’re just bringing your iPhone as a WiFi-only device to use abroad, messages sent from other iPhones will still arrive via iMessage. But if you activate your iPhone abroad, your US number will no longer be associated with your Apple ID so your friends’ phones will just send a traditional SMS that you won’t get. To remedy this, ask them to use your email address as a recipient rather than your phone number and set your iMessage caller ID to your email so new conversations still appear as you when received by friends.
Even better, use a cross-platform messaging app like WhatsApp.
Or, don’t do anything
Just because you can call and text from abroad doesn’t mean you should. This is your chance to break free, to eliminate distractions and take in the world outside of America. To be truly abroad, you can’t hold onto every connection to home, and you certainly can’t waste your time replaying stories for each family member and friend.
Instead, keep a blog where you post occasional photos and stories and share the link with those who care. You’ll end the semester with a meaningful scrapbook of memories and eliminate the chore of updating everyone all the time.
Also, you could send a postcard. Just saying.