Unlocked, no-contract iPhone + Skype + Google Voice = good solution for digital nomads

As I was preparing for living in Mexico for six months, I began to research the options for using my iPhone there, without paying astronomical fees.

It took a lot of research, but I finally found a solution that works well for me. Since many of you have asked, I’ll write about it here. This solution may not work for everyone, but some aspects of it may be useful for you, depending on your situation.

(Warning: Long, detailed post! Feel free to ignore if you don’t care about these things :)

Here’s my situation:

  • In 2013 I planned to spend 4 months in Boston, 6 months in Mexico, then a few weeks in California, then Boston and Vermont for the last 6 weeks of the year. I wanted to use my iPhone in all these locations.
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  • Before all the research I was paying between $70 and 75/month to AT&T for my plan. I had unlimited data (grandfathered). I had a 32GB iPhone 4s and I wanted to upgrade to an iPhone 5, but wasn’t even close to the end of my contract.
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  • Since I teach online courses about mobile apps I like to have the latest iPhone and iPad when possible. I need a lot of storage space for all the apps that I keep on my devices, so that’s why I use a 32GB iPhone. 

Part 1: Switching from AT&T to Straight Talk and getting a contract-free iPhone 5

  • At the beginning of 2013 I began a house-sitting situation in the South End of Boston. AT&T coverage had been great for me in Somerville, but in this neighborhood of tall, historic houses, the coverage was non-existent. When I called AT&T about it, they sent me a microcell device (for free) that extended the coverage inside the house, using my broadband internet connection. This worked well to solve the immediate problem. A friend of mine in San Francisco had the same problem with AT&T in his neighborhood.
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    AT&T microcell

    AT&T microcell extends coverage inside your house

  • After a bit of research, I found out about Straight Talk. They are an alternative provider that offers unlimited calling and data for only $45/month. They are a mobile virtual network operator” (MVNO) on the Verizon network. They were offering the iPhone 5 with NO CONTRACT on Walmart.com. Since Verizon worked well where I was living and since I wanted to upgrade my phone, I was curious to find out more.
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  • I found out that the iPhone 5 that Walmart was selling with the Straight Talk plan was a Verizon model (which runs on different bands than the AT&T iPhone). This was good news because that model works on the cell phone networks in Mexico. And, best of all, the Verizon iPhones come unlocked by default, which means you can insert a different SIM card from another carrier (such as Telcel in Mexico).
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  • Next I found out from AT&T that my “early termination fee” would be a little over $200. I also found out that I could easily get money for my iPhone 4s using the Amazon Electronics Trade-In program. I like the convenience of using that program, rather than trying to sell my phone to a stranger on Craigslist. The price I got for it more than covered the termination fee. Amazon doesn’t pay cash, but instead gives you store credit. That was fine with me because I knew I would eventually use the credit since I buy lots of Kindle ebooks in addition to the many other things that Amazon sells. (See my post about the travel router and bluetooth speaker, both purchased from Amazon).
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    Amazon electronics trade-in

    Amazon electronics trade-in

  • The new iPhone 5 (32GB) would cost almost $800, but I would be contract-free from now on. Yay! No more subsidized phones. The money I would save by paying only $45 instead of $70 per month helped to offset that upfront cost. Also, I knew I could get a good price for this phone later when I sell it to upgrade to the next iPhone.
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  • So I bought the iPhone 5 with Straight Talk from Walmart.com. When I called Straight Talk to activate it, they immediately ported my number from the AT&T phone, which cancelled my plan with them. I got billed by AT&T a month later for the early termination fee, which I paid for using my Chase Ink Mastercard, getting points for travel. The Chase Ink card gives five Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on purchases of cell phone, land-line, Internet, and cable TV services. (see my post about Travel Hacking) Of course, I always pay the credit card bill in full each month (so no interest).
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  • I was very happy with Straight Talk service! It worked great in Boston’s South End (unlinke AT&T). I no longer needed the microcell from AT&T and since it was mine to keep but now useless, I sold it on Craigslist for $100. (new ones are $200). This also helped pay for the new iPhone.
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  • One thing that I lost was the unlimited data plan that I had with AT&T. I read many stories about how Straight Talk’s “unlimited data” was not actually unlimited. In my experience this was not a problem, since I never managed to hit their unknown cap of data use. (See Straight Talk’s response to the criticism). I did however, get a pre-recorded phone call from them warning me about using too much data. This was upsetting of course, but when I called and spoke to a their rep, they looked at my usage and said not to worry, I wasn’t using too much data and the call was in error, I was fine. I googled for more info about this and it seems their bots call from time to time, but if you call them and they check, nothing happens. Weird, but OK.
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  • Long story short, I’m happy with Straight Talk and love not being tied to a contract! I can cancel it when I leave the country and start it up again when I return. $45 is a much better price point!
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Part 2: Ending Straight Talk while out of the U.S. and porting my number to Google Voice

  • At first I was planning just to cancel Straight Talk, get a SIM card in Mexico for one of their networks (Telcel), and use Skype for international calls (while on wifi). But when I found out that Straight Talk could not reserve my phone number for 6 months while away, I started looking for a solution that would allow me to keep my phone number.
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  • I’ve been using Google Voice for years as my “home” number (since my iPhone is my only phone). It’s a virtual number that rings through on my iPhone (when I want it to). It’s convenient to give my real mobile number only to friends and family (no junk calls!) and use the Google Voice number for everything else (banks, doctors, dentists, etc.). Since I’ve had these two numbers for years (one virtual, one real), I thought it would be nice to keep them both, so I wouldn’t have to notify anyone of new numbers.
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    Google Voice

  • Another factor I almost forgot about was this: if I no longer had a phone of any kind in the U.S., there would be no number to send Google Voice calls to (you have to have some kind of phone to forward Google Voice calls to, and they don’t forward to numbers outside the U.S.).
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  • Luckily, it turns out that you can have Google Voice send calls to a Skype number (which you can purchase for $60 per year). This helpful article gave me the idea: How to make Skype play nicely with Google Voice. Also, you can port your cell phone number to Google Voice (I didn’t know that at first). These two ideas together turned out to be a good solution for me.
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  • So I purchased a Skype number. I could have used my existing Google Voice number for this scheme, but I wanted to keep my two existing phone numbers. So I signed up for a second Google Voice number to port my cell phone number to. You can have one for each Google account that you have (and you can have as many Google accounts as you like). I routinely already used two Gmail accounts.
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    Get a Skype number

    Get a Skype number

  • Is your head spinning yet? :) Mine was. At this point I drew a diagram to help me sort out my plan.
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    Google voice with Skype

    Google voice with Skype

  • So here’s the setup: GV line #1 (my existing one) — now sends calls to my new Skype number instead of my iPhone’s number. GV line #2 (new one) — now sends calls to the same new Skype number. I don’t give the Skype number to anyone, it’s just there behind the scenes. If I happen to have Skype running (while in Mexico) I can pick up calls directly. Otherwise, I’ve set up Skype to send voicemail back to the GV account it came from. That’s because I like the way Google Voice sends you an email with a transcript and an audio recording of each voicemail. Very handy!
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  • When I was in the airport, waiting for my flight to Mexico, I made the changes to my existing Google Voice number (forwarding to new Skype number instead of my iPhone). I also filled out the form on Google Voice to port my iPhone’s number to the new Google Voice account (which automatically cancelled Straight Talk). I called Straight Talk first to verify the details of how this would work. I waited until my day of travel so I could still send and receive texts and do Foursquare checkins while in the airport (using my existing setup).
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  • By the way, there is a one-time fee of $20 to port your number to Google Voice. It all worked out smoothly and I was able to do it all while waiting for my flight.
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  • Another advantage of turning my number into a Google Voice number is that in the future, I can point it to any phone or phones I like. It’s now a “virtual number” with all the flexibility that provides. Google Voice has loads of filtering features too, so you can send certain calls directly to voicemail, let others ring through, and set up different outgoing voicemail messages for particular people or groups of people.
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  • When I arrived in Mexico, I waited a few days before buying a SIM card. (I chose Telcel over Movistar because it covers more of Mexico). I could still do everything on wifi except make calls, so it was like having an iPod Touch for a few days. I used my phone mainly as a camera and ebook reader with the Kindle app. I was able to buy a nano-SIM in a local Telcel store (for about $18) and put it into the phone myself. The guy working there didn’t have a SIM eject tool or even a paper clip, so I took it home to do it myself. I lost my SIM eject tool that came with the iPhone, but a paper clip worked fine. This YouTube video showed me what to do: How to install nano-SIM into an iPhone 5.
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    How to remove the iPhone SIM card

    How to remove the iPhone SIM card

  • As a next step I had to go to Telcel’s larger service center to get the phone activated. You need to show your passport and visa and fill out forms and pay in cash. It took quite a while and was tricky given my low level of Spanish-speaking ability, but I managed to get it done, thanks to the helpful young Telcel guy who spoke a little bit of English. I chose a plan that includes 3 GB of data per month. The cost is about $32 per month (Straight Talk was $45). In addition, Telcel allows you to tether your laptop or iPad to the iPhone, which is a nice option to have (Straight Talk doesn’t allow tethering). 3GB seems to be enough for me. I’m halfway through my billing cycle and I’ve used about a third of the data so far. I use the handy Dataman app on my iPhone to track my data use. I can also view it on Telcel’s web site.
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    At the Telcel office

    Getting my iPhone activated at the Telcel office

    Dataman iPhone app

    Dataman iPhone app

     

  • I use the Mexican number only for local calls, I don’t give it out to my friends back home. If someone from the U.S. calls me, I can pick it up with Skype on my iPhone (works best in wifi zones). If I don’t pick up it goes to Google Voice and sends me an email with the message. I then call back on Skype (best sound quality is from my iPhone, not from Skype on my Macbook Air). I bought a few credits so I can also call from Skype to any phone number (for when I needed to call my bank, for example). The cost of that is very cheap and it takes a long time to use up my credit.
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    Skype for iPhone

    Skype for iPhone

  • So how does texting work? Luckily, the people I text most often (in the U.S.) also have iPhones. So when we are both at home or on wifi anywhere, the texts go via the internet, immediately. Just the same as they always have… it doesn’t matter that I’m out of the country. If they text me while they are not on wifi, it gets routed to Google Voice and sometimes the text is delayed. One text didn’t come until the next day! I think it’s because I need to keep the Google Voice app running in the background on my iPhone, and I hadn’t opened it in a while. If I send a text to a friend back home who doesn’t have an iPhone, they receive it as a international text directly from my Mexican number. The first time I did this, my friend didn’t know who was texting him, so he asked me. (since I never gave out the Mexican number). Of course we could decide to use one of the many mobile apps that offer free texting over the internet, but we would have to agree in advance and have it installed on our phones. I’ve heard that What’s App is one of the best cross-platform apps for this. I have it, but haven’t tried it yet. Maybe I’ll ask him to install it so I won’t use up texts on my Telcel plan.
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  • The thing I missed most during those first few days without data on my iPhone was Google maps! Of course when you’re in a new place it’s great to have maps on your phone that show you where you are. So I resorted to printed maps (with tiny print!) and asking people for directions (in my basic Spanish). I love having my phone back to its fully functioning state now. I use it all the time.
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    Print map & Google map of Oaxaca

  • When I go back to the U.S. for a while, I’ll remove the Telcel SIM card and sign up for Straight Talk again (or other discount plans that may be available). Then I’ll switch the Google Voice settings to let my friends and family ring through to my new iPhone number. I won’t give out that new number because now I can just keep using the same virtual Google Voice number that used to belong to my iPhone. I can point it to any number or numbers in the future.
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  • By the way, I haven’t yet figured out how to reload my Telcel month-to-month plan when my first month of data is used up (June 9) or make it auto-charge my credit card. Their web site seemed to take my credit card (and a pending charge of .08 cents came through), but then it gave an error and said my card wasn’t registered. I may have to pay in cash each month with pesos at a local store, but I’d prefer the credit card method. My Chase Ink Plus card has no international transaction fees (they reimburse them all), and I get lots of travel points for charges from cell phone providers!
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  • I hope something here will be helpful to you, dear readers! Let me know.

More information

5 thoughts on “Unlocked, no-contract iPhone + Skype + Google Voice = good solution for digital nomads

  1. Little did I know what you knew. Amazing. I am thinking of ditching ATT IPhone when the contract runs out, in November, and converting my cell phone to google Voice, through my Nexus 7, where if I miss calls, no big deal, but I can use the Nexus as my phone. I have a landline, for a number of reasons, that I am going to keep. Can you point me in the right directions, and warn me of potential pitfalls? (aside from the necessity of being connected to wifi for the new phone to be activated.)

    • If you port your cell number to Google Voice, it cancels your contract, so a good time to do it is when the contract has run out anyway. I think that if you’re keeping your phone when you port the number your cell phone provider will give you a new number. Set up Google Voice to forward calls to that number if you want to receive calls on that same phone. See the link to the Google Voice FAQ above for more info. I think it’s a good solution!

  2. Oh dear, my head is swimming. What a lot of info! Well done, NIcole. I’m heading to England for a 10-day trip in July and don’t know what to do about phone calling, but this has inspired me to look into Skype and Google Voice, to begin with. I guess I’ll have to figure out the SIM card thing. At least I’ll speak the same language as the people who’ll be selling me the card. More or less!

    • You could also just get an international roaming plan if you’re only going to be there for 10 days. That’s a lot simpler. You can still use “Skype out” to make calls to any number from abroad. Buy a few minutes… they last a long time. Then use Skype as an app on your phone or on your computer to make outgoing calls. If the person you’re calling also has Skype, it’s free!

  3. Pingback: Living in Oaxaca: what it’s like for me | A Location-Flexible Life

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