Our smartphones make our everyday lives much easier, providing us with a constant stream of communication and knowledge at our fingertips. Abroad, your phone can be an equally powerful tool to stay oriented and connected with loved ones back home.

However, you need to do a few things with it (and avoid doing a few others) to stay safe and stress free. Here are a few of our best pro tips on using your phone abroad smartly and effectively.

Using your phone abroad like a pro: Here’s what (and what not) to do

Your smartphone goes with you everywhere – you probably haven’t thought twice about bringing it along on your next adventure. However, once you set foot outside your country, the game changes when it comes to data and service. Make sure you’re prepared by following these smart tips (and avoiding these mistakes).

Do: Turn off data roaming and reset your data usage statistics

Before you get on that plane (or train) to leave the country, turn off both data roaming and cellular data on your phone. That prevents your device from connecting to towers or networks, leading to exorbitant charges from your carrier.

At least, in theory. Some third-party apps, particularly those with automatic data syncing (such as Google, iCloud, and Dropbox), can turn cellular data and data roaming on by themselves. Comb through your app list while you’re packing to make sure you don’t have any apps installed that will do that.

While you’re at it, reset your data usage statistics just before you leave and monitor the graph while you travel. If something is still using data even after you’ve turned everything off, it’ll show up right away.

Don’t rely on airplane mode. Airplane mode doesn’t actually turn off data roaming and cellular data. One family learned that the hard way, returning home to a $13,470 bill thanks to “offline” apps quietly updating software and refreshing ads in the background.

When you check your roaming bill...

Do: Research alternate data and SIM plans before you leave

Inveterate travelers typically opt for local SIM cards or else just remove their SIM cards and rely on WiFi hotspots, but better options exist. If your phone has eSIM support, you can access cheap, convenient mobile data plans on demand from a marketplace like Airalo.

Depending on where you’re going, a mobile data plan can be a godsend. Whether you need maps or to connect with local resources, a functioning phone may mean the difference between a frustrating and blissful trip.

If your phone was manufactured after 2018 and it’s not a cheap burner phone, there’s a chance it has eSIM support. Here’s a list of devices that have it.

Don’t hope that WiFi is available everywhere you go. Relying on WiFi for international travel is a common bit of advice for travelers on a budget, but only about 59 percent of the world has internet. While that number is substantially higher in the developed world and tourist hotspots, it also says nothing about connection stability or speed.

Do: Revisit and refresh your phone’s security

If there’s one thing you’re most likely to lose on your trip, it’s your phone. Research shows that smartphones are the most commonly misplaced and stolen devices during travel.

Prepare for this by revisiting your phone’s security measures. We recommend that you:

  • Update multi-factor authentication steps so they’re accessible if you can’t receive calls or texts.
  • Get a VPN for when you’re connected to public WiFi abroad.
  • Use a password manager.
  • Check for security patches or updates before leaving.
  • Set up a phone tracker app in the event that your phone goes missing.

Don’t leave home without a good case and possibly a screen protector. Electronic data security matters, but so does physical security. Protect your device on all fronts.

Do: Back up your phone and consider a factory reset before you leave (or after you return)

Backing up your phone to the cloud keeps your data safe while you’re abroad. To maintain your privacy, you should strongly consider performing a factory reset as well to remove your personal information from the device.

Two main reasons exist for this. First, border agents and customs can search your phone – both at the US border and abroad. Some reports suggest that certain countries, like China, may install tracking software on your phone that downloads your data, texts, and even your social media activity.

Second, airport WiFi is increasingly of interest to hackers, thanks to open (unsecured) WiFi and waiting crowds connecting to it. Even if you’re using a VPN, you have no idea who may be eavesdropping on your connection.

If you don’t want to perform a factory reset before you leave, then definitely perform one when you get back. You will likely encounter questionable WiFi connections while abroad, so assume your device has been compromised and take proactive steps to minimize that threat.

Don’t leave automatic WiFi connectivity on while you travel. It might seem obvious not to trust open connections in cafes or hotels, but you don’t even need to be knowingly connected to a network for malicious actors to steal your data.

To turn off automatic WiFi connection on an iPhone, first go to Settings, then WiFi. Choose Ask to Join Networks and turn it On.

On an Android, go to Settings, then Network & Internet, WiFi, and WiFi Preferences. Set Connect to Open Networks to Off.

Get the most out of using your phone abroad

Using your phone abroad to stay connected and on track is entirely possible with a few preparations. From knowing your options regarding mobile data to securing your device from hardware to operating system, make sure you’re laying the groundwork for a fun, connected, stress-free vacation.

Need mobile data? You’ve got options. Check them out in the Airalo marketplace now.