Traveling abroad with your smartphone: You can take it with you

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why you can breathe a sigh of relief when taking your phone abroad.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

For some of us, going anywhere without our smartphone is like walking out of the house without clothes. We feel naked.

So it makes perfect sense that people traveling abroad expect to be able to take their smartphones with them and get all the same services. Do we still need to worry about which devices are compatible where? Will you have to buy or rent a phone while traveling?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain what you need to know to make sure you stay connected.

Dear Maggie,

My daughter will be studying abroad in Norway this spring semester, and I am wondering what kind of smartphone would be best for her. She currently has an iPhone 6 from Verizon. I've read about unlocked phones and GSM phones, as well as Verizon-GSM phones, and it's all so confusing to me. Will I need to buy her a new phone? I hope not, since we can't justify spending a lot of money on another one.

I'd appreciate any advice you could give. We want to ensure she has a way to stay in contact with her friends and, more importantly, her family, as this is her first time traveling anywhere alone.

Thank you,

Dear Vicky,

You're in luck. Most of the headaches surrounding which smartphones can be used where have disappeared, especially for folks who own popular devices like the Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy devices.

Enlarge Image

The iPhone 6 and 6S are among a growing number of smartphones ideal for globe-trotters, since they can be used almost anywhere in the world.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Your daughter will be able to use her existing iPhone 6 in Norway. She's likely to get full-speed 4G LTE access as well, since the iPhone 6 supports the necessary radio frequencies that local carriers, such as Telenor, use to offer their 4G LTE wireless service.

Because she bought her iPhone 6 from Verizon, she won't even have to unlock the device if she decides to use a local carrier while living abroad. Verizon is the only US carrier that doesn't put a software lock in its 4G LTE smartphones. Other carriers require customers to get a special code to unlock their devices so they can use a local service while traveling instead of roaming from their Verizon service, which can get pricey over several weeks or months.

Because your daughter will be in Norway for several months, she should get a SIM card from a local carrier so she doesn't have to pay the high international roaming fees on Verizon's service. This will give her a new local number she can use to call friends within Norway. She can use Wi-Fi calling services like Apple's FaceTime or Skype to stay connected with family and friends in the US. And you'll still be able to call her Norwegian number in case of an emergency.

The fact that your daughter's phone can be easily used in most countries around the globe is a huge change. A few years ago, figuring out if or how your phone might work abroad was tricky. This was especially problematic for customers of Verizon and Sprint, which based their original voice networks on technology that's not widely used around the world. This made it impossible for Sprint and Verizon customers to use their devices in Europe or most other parts of the world. Instead, these customers had to buy or rent phones when they traveled.

Several years ago, Verizon and Sprint began selling "world phones" or devices that also included GSM radios, which allowed phones built for Verizon and Sprint service to be used globally. Verizon made sure it didn't make the same mistake twice when it came time to upgrade to a new generation of network technology. It adopted 4G LTE, the same technology every major wireless carrier in the world is using to deploy high-speed wireless data service.

There are still compatibility issues, however. Not every wireless provider uses the same radio frequency for 4G LTE. And devices that don't support those frequencies won't be able to take advantage of the 4G LTE network in a foreign country.

Lucky for you, the iPhone 6 and 6S are among the best devices for world travelers because Apple has made sure to include as many network technologies and radio frequencies in those phones as possible.

The bottom line

Customers with newer iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices no longer have to worry about whether their phones will work when they travel to a foreign land. Basic services will almost always work. Even if you aren't getting top 4G LTE speeds when accessing the Internet, you'll still likely experience 3G service. If you want to use a local provider, just make sure your phone is unlocked before you leave so that you can slip in a new SIM card when you land at your destination.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.