For the digital nomad, the ability to communicate with the world is as important as immersing yourself into its most exotic places. But staying connected doesn't have to break your worcation budget. Living in Bali while working with people and companies across the globe, I speak from personal experience.
On a recent business call, I shocked the person I was talking to when I said I was based in Asia for the next few months. "How did I reach you on your old number," she asked. "Did you set up a Skype account with it?"
When I replied that I was in fact on my iPhone and that I could receive and make calls normally as if I were still in the U.S. (without any third-party service like Skype or Google Voice), she was still confused. And as a fellow American digital nomad, she wanted all the details. So I'll share with you what I told her: You need to pair T-Mobile's Simple Choice North America Plan with a specific model of the iPhone 5S, 6, or 6S that supports the most wireless bands. (This is not as daunting as it sounds, trust me.)
I was initially turned onto this travel-optimizing tip by Ben Trotter, who traveled with his iPhone 5S to 16 different countries in five months - without ever changing his SIM card or paying crazy roaming and data fees. And as someone who has lived on four continents and has traveled to over 40 countries myself, I'm convinced this is the way to go.
The Plan: T-Mobile's Simple Choice North America
Historically, T-Mobile doesn't have the best coverage across the 50 states, but hear me out. If you're outside of the U.S., I promise it's great.
For $50 per month, T-Mobile offers an unlimited talk, text and data (2GB of LTE speeds) no-contract plan called Simple Choice North America. It's the best for three reasons:
1. Unlimited 2G data in over 120 countries. This means you've got data coverage in just about every destination on your dream itinerary. (In fact, the only country I've been that didn't have coverage was Slovenia.) And although 2G data isn't the fastest, you can still check your emails, use Google Maps, and send texts as soon as you land in your exotic destination. Just turn on your phone when you land somewhere new, and it automatically connects to T-Mobile's local carrier. It's magic, trust me.
2. Unlimited calling and texting to any number in Mexico or Canada, plus 4G LTE data speeds in both of those countries. If you're planning to head to Tulum for a yoga retreat or Whistler for the winter ski season, then this is a big-time money saver. It's only available to Americans (sorry, Canadians!), and it means that you can use your iPhone in Mexico or Canada at no extra charge - just like you would in the U.S.
3. Free WiFi calling worldwide. Though calls made internationally on the plan do cost 20 cents per minute (which really isn't too much), the great thing about newer models of the iPhone is that you can take advantage of its native WiFi calling feature to connect in places where the cell coverage is poor. This helps make your calls crystal clear, even when you're somewhere remote. One thing to be aware of is that calls made abroad via WiFi do still cost you 20 cents per minute. I usually make calls via FaceTime to avoid the fee, which uses data instead of cell minutes.
The Phone: Band-Specific iPhone 5S, 6, or 6S
In order to take advantage of the native WiFi calling feature, an iPhone 5S or newer model is required. WiFi calling is only available on the iPhone 5S, 6, and 6S. If you've got an older model, it's worth upgrading for the calling and texting abilities via WiFi.
If you don't already have an iPhone, purchase one through T-Mobile or directly from the Apple Store. When you buy directly from Apple, it comes factory unlocked - so if you end up falling in love with a foreign city and decide to stay long term, you can always switch the SIM card out to a local plan.
Most important of all is the model of iPhone you get. Apple makes different models of the 5S, 6, and 6S for the various U.S. carriers - and you want the one with the highest band versatility. For the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, that is model A1586 and A1524. For the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, that is model A1688 and A1687. You can identify the particular model you're buying on the outside of your iPhone's box or on the back of the phone itself. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but getting an iPhone that covers the most bands raises your probability of connecting to more carriers in more countries (and at faster speeds).
Extras: International Data Pass + Tethering
If you go to countries where 2G data isn't fast enough, you have the option to purchase a 1-Day, 1-Week, or 2-Week International Data Pass that bumps you up to 4G speeds. On the 1-Week and 2-Week options, you can also tether your iPhone with your computer to use the faster 4G data as a personal hotspot for your laptop (your phone will need to be near your laptop to do this).
Recently, I landed in Singapore for a day trip and needed faster data. I purchased a 1-Day International Data Pass when I landed, expecting to immediately go from 2G to 4G speeds. However, it takes up to 24 hours for the purchase to be properly attributed to your account, so be sure to buy this ahead of time.
In my opinion, this is the best plan and phone combination out there. And as an American who travels frequently abroad, this is the best I've found that lets me keep my U.S. number and keeps me in touch with friends, family, mentors, and business contacts worldwide.