Preparing a Smartphone for Travel

Apps, Security, and Prepping a Phone for International Travel

Portable travel charger smartphone
Suparat Malipoom / EyeEm / Getty Images

Preparing a smartphone for travel in Asia doesn’t take long, and the peace of mind is well worth the extra security effort if your phone gets lost. Our phones have become intertwined with our identities — in more ways than one.

Smartphones are an indispensable tool on the road when used correctly. Hint: don’t spend every solo meal choosing the best Instagram filter for your food choice — talk to someone instead!

The road can prove to be a tough environment for delicate devices better suited for the office. Unless you’re looking for an excuse to upgrade as soon as you return home, take a few steps to increase your phone’s survivability in hostile conditions.

Decide How you Want to Use the Phone

Will you be using your smartphone solely as an internet device? Or will you use the phone with a SIM card to make local calls to businesses and newly met friends? If you intend to buy SIM cards in each country to get a local phone number, you’ll need to have your phone “unlocked” to use it internationally.

Note: Using local SIM cards only works with GSM phones. For Americans, phones purchased through T-Mobile or AT&T should be GSM capable.

Get Your Phone Unlocked

If you’re committed to a monthly contract or purchased a phone in the United States, there’s a good chance that it may be locked to one particular network. Getting a phone unlocked is more an issue of policy; actually unlocking it is as simple as entering a code. Providers who signed onto the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service are obligated to unlock your phone, assuming it has already been paid off in full.

Your smartphone may already be unlocked, but you’ll need to confirm if you plan to use foreign SIM cards. The easiest way to do so is to contact support at your provider.  You may need to provide the IMEI number of your device.

Tip: Improvise a way (plastic SD card cases work well) for safely storing your old SIM card until you return home — they are easy to lose!

Set up Security Measures

Losing an expensive smartphone is unfortunate, but don’t let the incident spiral into a much more serious problem: identity theft. Prep your phone for the unthinkable by sacrificing convenience in exchange for security.

Begin with the most basic of security measures: enable the lock screen. Set the screen to time out and lock after a reasonable amount of time.

Enable encryption on the removable SD card (remember: going forward, you’ll only be able to get to data on the SD card by using the same phone).

Enable passwords, PINs, fingerprint access, or swipe codes on individual apps when possible. The Android app AppLock will allow you to lock programs on an app-by-app basis. For banking and other important apps, turn off the option to always stay signed in.

Important: If you’ve enabled two-step login verification (a code is sent to you via text for each login) on important websites, you may want to consider disabling it temporarily. Although two-step verification provides greater security, you may not be able to receive those authorization codes in text messages sent to your home number.

Security applications such as Lookout and GadgetTrak will allow you to lock, track, or wipe your smartphone from remote in the event that it is stolen.

Update factory and downloaded applications that may contain security vulnerabilities. Unless needed, turn off Wi-Fi and bluetooth when taking public transportation.

Have a Backup Plan

Back up all the current data and photos on your phone. Lots of phone manufacturers offer their own cloud-based storage services, or you can sign up for free storage available from Dropbox, Google Drive, or Amazon.

If you’ll be using your phone for trip photos and videos, have a good plan for backing them up regularly. Experienced travelers have all met someone who lost their phone or camera right at the end of a long trip — all cared more about the lost memories than the lost hardware.

Note: Although you should have a backup-to-cloud service, turn off the automatic uploads that occur whenever your phone connects to Wi-Fi. Plan to do deliberate backups at night. It’s bad karma to leave a wake of terribly slow Wi-Fi everywhere that you go!

Get an External Power Pack

If you’re depending on your phone to document the trip, consider purchasing a portable power pack. Don’t skimp; get something reliable with a large capacity. Not only will it provide a handy second or third charge while taking long-haul transportation, an external power pack can act as a handy “middleman” when you’re forced to charge the phone in places with risky power.

Some places in developing countries, especially small islands, suffer from “unclean” power. Generator starts and failovers create sags and surges on the line that aren’t good for sensitive devices. Instead of risking damage to your phone, you can charge the power pack and then use that to pass the charge along to your phone. Let the cheaper device take the hit if things turn ugly on the grid.

Note: An external power pack is especially handy while trekking in Nepal. Charging a phone at lodges in the Himalayas can cost $10-20 on the incredibly slow solar systems.

Physical Protection

The case you choose for travel should be more rugged than what you use at home. Think about potential drops in hostile environments. Screen protection is a must for times when your phone will be hastily put back into a purse, pocket, or bag.

Have a plan for waterproofing your phone, particularly if traveling during the rainy seasons in Asia. Newer smartphones such as the iPhone7 and the Samsung Galaxy S7 are already splash resistant. For older phones, choose a case, box, or bag that allows for protection from the elements in a pinch.

Selfie Sticks

The selfie stick phenomenon doesn’t show any signs of slowing down in Asia; deciding to join the stick-wielding masses is a personal choice. But keep in mind that snatch-and-run thieves in Southeast Asia — especially the ones on motorbike — have never had life easier.

T-Mobile Users May Be All Set

T-Mobile users from the United States can take advantage of free international data roaming, albeit slow, in many countries around the world. This may be enough to meet your internet and calling needs while abroad. T-Mobile phones are GSM ready and can be easily unlocked for international use once they are paid off.

Free international roaming may not yet be activated on your account. You can turn it on yourself through T-Mobile’s account management website or contact customer support.

Other Ways to Prep a Smartphone for Travel

  • Phone chargers are often left behind in hotels and guesthouses by travelers who move around a lot. Come up with a good system for not forgetting to grab yours.
  • Lost phones aren’t always due to theft. Someone with good intentions may want to return your phone to you but will have no idea how to get in touch. Consider putting a waterproof sticker printed with your email on the outside of the phone. Alternatively, you can go a step further by signing up for a global recovery service such as ReturnMe.
  • Write down the serial number and IMEI number for your phone; keep them in a separate place. If the phone is stolen, you may need the serial number, purchase receipt (have it handy in PDF format), and a police report to make a timely claim for insurance. Have your travel insurance contact information available in hard copy in case you can’t get online.
  • You may want to consider downloading Google maps for the cities you’ll be visiting. Having maps available offline saves data and makes them faster, although you won’t be able to use the directions feature. Note: downloaded maps can be huge, depending on the amount of area you save. Opt to store them on the SD card.

    Restrict Data Use

    Smartphones, by default, are data connection hungry. If you’re prepaying for phone credit in Asia, some background updates, backups, or scheduled syncs can cost you money! Begin by checking the data usage for individual applications. Does that weather app really need to update every 10 minutes?

    Begin by turning off or setting apps to only sync with a Wi-Fi connection. On Android devices, turn off automatic updates for apps under the “settings” menu in the Google Playstore. For iPhones, disable automatic app updates by changing the setting in the iTunes/Apple Store. Video ads are a trend; if possible, disable autoplay in your browser.

    Think through other automatic functions on your smartphone that use data. Do you automatically retrieve WhatsApp and Snapchat videos? Podcasts? Audibles? Email notifications?

    Useful Travel Apps to Consider

    • Google Translate: Google Translate has an impressive range of features, including the ability to translate text on the fly simply by pointing your phone at it.
    • Ridesharing Apps: Taking a taxi in some countries can be more stressful than it should be. From offers of prostitution to classic scams, you can avoid a lot of the hassle by using Uber or Lyft. Grab is a popular ridesharing app in Southeast Asia.
    • Accommodation Apps: The hotels.com app has a useful map feature for travelers. Backpackers enjoy the hostelworld.com app for finding cheaper accommodation. The AirBnb app is a great way to find spots slightly off the tourist strip.
    • Get Recommendations: Triposo is an impressive app for finding local recommendations. TripAdvisor is the old tried-and-true solution.
    • Finding Internet Access: Travelers who need reliable Wi-Fi while on the road may consider installing some network tools for finding and joining the best networks. WiFi Analyzer by farproc works well for choosing the strongest signals. Fing is an even more powerful tool for technical analysis.