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Guide to Cell Phones as a Digital Nomad: Stay Connected with Google Voice and Airalo

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Let's talk about cell phones as a digital nomad. Are you tired of searching for SIM cards every time you land in a new country, constantly searching for Wi-Fi hotspots, or dealing with expensive international data plans? Is your cell phone number tied to your existing banking and online accounts (or are you just emotionally attached to the number you've had for 10 years)?

cell phone use

Potential Problems for Cell Phones as a Digital Nomad

Let me explain the potential problems you could run into regarding cell phones during extended travel and how I solved them with two awesome services: Airalo and Google Voice.

Let me start by explaining some of the problems you are likely to run into when traveling overseas for an extended period (>90 days). First, nearly all cell phone plans, including international-friendly carriers, like Google Fi, will shut off after 90 days. We found this out the hard way after thinking Google Fi would solve all of our problems. Second, because your phone plan won't last throughout your travels, you're at risk of losing your phone number. As someone who's fought tooth and nail to keep his first phone number (and the prided area code), I understand the dread you feel even reading this. Most of us have dozens of accounts that use our phone number for MFA and changing your number would leave your technically-challenged relatives unable to contact you. Third, most nomads solve the above problems by buying SIM cards in each country they visit, but this causes issues in the airport (i.e. you can't load visa info, reservations, etc. when going through customs, looking for your hotel's address, or finding info about your airport shuttle). Physical SIMs almost never work outside the country you buy them in (despite what the person selling it to you says. Trust me, I'm batting .000% with this). Fourth, constantly changing SIMs (and eSIMs) wreaks havoc on your group chats (even if they're iMessage chats). Each (e)SIM has a unique number associated with it so text messages will no longer reach your phone. WhatsApp is a great workaround, but good luck convincing your friends to join it if they aren't already. After months of trial and error, I finally landed on an easy solution to the problems above with Google Voice and Airalo. I'll tell you how I did it below, but first, let me explain what these services are.

What is Google Voice?

For those of you who aren't familiar, Google Voice is a communication service that allows you to make and receive calls and texts from any device with internet access. This means you can use it on your laptop, tablet, or even your smartwatch - no need to lug around a bunch of different gadgets.

What is Airalo?

Airalo is an eSIM marketplace that allows you to purchase data packages for your travels. They support over 100 countries in the world and also offer regional and worldwide packages, so you can stay connected no matter where you are. They support just about any device that uses eSIM, including cell phones, tablets, and cellular-connected laptops.

How Google Voice and Airalo Solve These Problems

Let's talk about how Airalo and Google Voice can help you avoid the problems I listed above. First step, cancel your phone plan. This process will be easiest to do while you are still in your home country, so I recommend doing it 2-3 weeks before your travels commence.

Google Voice Setup Next, create a Google Voice account and port your phone number to Google Voice. This keeps your phone number safely in your possession during your travels and allows you to receive and make phone calls, texts, and voicemails. Simply download the Google Voice smartphone app and you'll receive all of your texts. There's also a web version that can be used from your computer.

digital nomad

Phone calls are free to any US phone number. International calls are charged a nominal rate, depending on the country. There are some limitations as to which countries Google Voice works in, so make sure to check the availability before you travel.

ONE MAJOR CAVEAT: The smartphone app only supports texting and listening to voicemails when you are not in the US. Phone calls can only be made from your computer. This causes some headaches, but I've yet to find a workaround. Nearly all SIM cards have the same limitation. Facetime, WhatsApp, and other data-based calls WILL work on your phone through your data eSIM.

Airalo Setup Now let's talk about how to keep your phone and other devices connected with Airalo. Sign up for an Airalo account and download their smartphone app. There are several similar services, but I found Airalo to be the easiest to use, have the widest coverage, and have reasonable prices. eSIMs are relatively new, so setup takes some technical know-how (for reference, I wouldn't recommend it for your grandparents, but even your parents should be able to set it up). What's an ESIM? This topic deserves an article of its own, but in a nutshell, it is just a software-based SIM, minus the card. Rather than buying a new SIM card, you just need to download the eSIMand install it on your phone. Remember this term, because many major phone manufacturers have stopped including SIM card slots, instead switching completely to eSIM. Once you have the Airalo app installed, simply select a data plan that works for your travels. I recommend the regional plans if you move often, but it's cheapest to buy individual country plans. Speaking of cheap... if you're used to US phone plan costs, you'll love the price of Airalo data plans. I'm spending half of what I was in the US. They also offer a worldwide plan. Plans are based on total data and time frame. Select the plan that works for you and follow their instructions to download it to your phone. Pre-load SIM cards to your phone the day before travel so you can get connected right upon landing and roll through the airport like a pro.

cell phone

I have just two complaints about Airalo. First, you have to manually renew your plan and the expiration notifications aren't great. Renewal is just a simple click in the app, but I wish their notifications were more timely. Second, they do not offer any plans that include voice; only data plans.

Texting, Group Chats, and Contacts Group chats will work perfectly fine in your Google Voice app, but if you don't want to be the green-message pariah, there's a way to keep iMessage-only chats working. It's a bit of a headache but solves the problem for good: - Determine your Apple ID (this is usually your email address, but replace everything after the @ with "") - Have the owner of each iMessage group chat replace your phone number with your Apple ID - Repeat for each group chat. Now your group chat messages will go to your Messenger app. Contacts may also cause some headaches. You may find that when you switch to an international SIM or ESIM, you'll have issues with many of your contacts. Contacts you've had for years will be replaced with their phone number as if they're not a contact in your phone. This happens when you do not have the country code (+1 for the US) listed in the phone number for their contact. To solve this, add the country code to all contacts. That's it! Hopefully, the tips above save you some time and trouble. If anyone finds an ESIM service that offers voice calling, please add it to the comments. Let me know if you have any questions! Happy travels.

TLDR: If you're traveling overseas for more than 90 days, sign up for Google Voice and Airalo before your travels to avoid some issues.


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