Cruising gear: what about the phone?

Ferry crossing Puget Sound in a smoky sunset

Ah, the freedom of cruising! No commute, no schedule, no phone ringing… WAIT A MINUTE THERE. Phones? We gave our cell phones up when we took off in 2008 for a blue horizon. But the world changed and they crept back in a few years later, and are now indispensable travelers tools. Used as a hotspot, a smartphone is our primary vehicle for getting online aboard Totem. Apps connect us to helpful tools from mapping to translation and a myriad of other tools. Necessary to keep up Totem’s Instagram! Can you use what you have? Do you get a local burner? What about international roaming? Here’s what works when you’re a border-hopping nomad. [Updates in March 2019, now that Project Fi has become Google Fi.]

Our current solution is to have two phones: one is a permanent US number (keeps us connected to folks at home and gets us online faster in a new place), and the other gets a new SIM card for whatever country we’re in (local rates are typically more affordable, and we may want to make local calls/texts).

Screenshot of Project Fi app saying Welcome to El Salvador

The US phone is part of Google Fi; it means we are instantly online when we pick up a new country’s cell tower, as long as it’s one of the 135 countries in their plan (newest awesome add for cruisers: French Polynesia, where data rates are otherwise sky-high!). We are easily reached on a single number for text or calls, and billing is scaled at transparent, affordable rates: free texts, international roaming calls at $.20/minute, and data metered at $10/gigabyte. [Update: there’s now also an unlimited plan. See T&Cs for details!]

It cracked me up as we sailed up the west side of central America this spring when Google Fi announcement on our phone was the first clue an international boundary line was crossed.

The local phone starts with any international-friendly unlocked phone.  Unlocked is essential for swapping out SIM cards when you’re in a new country, of course, so make sure that doesn’t require a trip to the Genius Bar first. Will your current phone will work internationally? Ask the carrier, try this map, or look up the device in Wikipedia. If you’re buying a new phone, look for phones that are GSM, or work on “quad band,” or work specifically on 850/900/1800/1900 MHz bands.

Why do you want a local number? If we only had one phone aboard, we’d probably choose this route. First, because this is our primary way to get online. Local carrier usually have cheaper data rates in Mexico, (Telcel in Mexico runs around $5/gb, and Google Fi is $10/gb).

Second, because we make and receive calls and texts in other countries, and a local contact isn’t going to place an international call to reach our US number. For example: local calls/texts to arrange inland travel or just to coordinate a ride with a taxi to get fuel. Getting around on the back of a motorcycle is common in Indonesia, and when I had a good driver I’d text to request them specifically. However, growing use of data-based texting with WhatsApp makes this less critical.

A teenage girls holds a chicken in front of a backyard coop
Mairen tries out suburban chicken farming

Want to keep your current US phone number? That’s possible but more complicated. If you stay with your current service, know that the international roaming data is likely to be throttled (T-mobile swore we’d have 4G in the Bahamas and Caribbean, but that was only possible with local plans; we were limited to 2G). Also, your service will be cut off with minimal notice if you use it for some months without being back in the USA. Harsh, right? It happens! The fine print in Terms & Conditions for US carriers limit international use (at their discretion); this roaming is intended for part-time only.

Really want to keep your old number? There’s a way to forwarding it to your phone with the local country SIM card. It requires paying for your US service and a VOIP phone number in the US, but that might be important for you. How does the magic happen? This is written up in detail by SV Liquid, check out the post.

I want to try Google Fi!

We think Google Fi kind of awesome. One cool feature is a referral link that credits $20 to the account of the new registrant AND the referrer. We’ve tapped our referral bonuses out (thank you!) – but you can benefit our friend Kelley (aka Sailing Chance), another Fan Of Fi! Use code ETT96Y, or link from  Two caveats: at this time, a US address is required to sign up for Google Fi, and the SIM card must be activated while in the USA as well.

Signing up with Google Fi used to mean you probably needed a new phone, as only select models were compatible. That’s changed! You can still buy a Fi-optimized from Google, but you can also bring your own phone: see compatibility list on their site. The SIM is free, and phones start under $200 – of course, you can spend hundreds more for schmancier models. Nice to know: Fi-friendly Motorola models when we purchased (February 2017) have meaningful water resistance, so wet dinghy rides (and even a dunking) aren’t going to kill your device…a feature I have definitely put into practice!

Overcast skies and the silhouette of boats in a Puget Sound evening
Long twilight and gray days in the Pacific Northwest summer

Other tips

Apps not direct dial! Despite these two phone numbers we now carry around, what we use most for calls is an app: usually Whatsapp or Skype. Whatsapp is widely used (not just in the USA), and means I can use my US-number-phone to “call” the Costa Rican taxi driver on his phone. Skype is useful because you can use Skype to call a physical phone (landline or mobile), and the rates are much cheaper than Project Fi (a couple of cents per minute, instead of $0.20/minute; it adds up over an hourlong call!).

We added a mobile signal booster to Totem’s kit in 2016. The Wilson WeBoost works by amplifying an existing cellular signal; pick that up with a phone/device on board the boat. Unit pricing varies by how many devices can connect at once, and start around $150. They don’t work everywhere and international benefit is unclear, but we definitely felt the boost in the Bahamas, and again in Mexico… retaining a signal in areas we were told there was none on our way up the Sea of Cortez.

Staying in touch, taking snapshots of your adventures, getting online, growing your Instagram, whatever it is: a phone is indispensable. Got a question about use as a cruiser I didn’t cover? Ask in the comments and I’ll follow up!

Puget Sound denizens, join us in September!

Come find us at the Annapolis Boat Show, starting October 4!

It’s about seven weeks until we return to Totem, but who’s counting? The Pacific Northwest summer is fading an it appears There Will Be Socks before we can return to Mexico. Enjoy these snapshots of our summer and wish us warmth! 

Two women talk gaily in Adirondack chairs on a dock, a sailboat anchored in the distance
lazy summer days with old friends
A large family groups together in a lush backyard for a reunion portrait
Reunion time for Behan’s family

7 Responses

  1. You left out google voice. Google has been improving Google voice and it integrates almost seamless on Android phones.And it has free phonecalls to any nr in the US or Canada. I can’t even tell the difference anymore when my phone uses google voice (over IP) or regular cellular.

    1. It’s true! I actually had some references and then pulled them, because they didn’t add anything except possible confusion. Google Voice is baked in with Project Fi; your SIM is for a GV number. And, if you use the method linked for forwarding a US number to an international phone, GV is part of the process (you still need a phone with a SIM from somewhere, Project Fi or US carrier or international carrier). Our GV number is our Whatsapp, too. But GV isn’t a standalone solution for world cruising. You still need something getting you connected locally, unless you’re ONLY going to use wifi (which… isn’t having a phone, really). Did I sum that up about right? The sound quality really is great!

      1. Sounds about right. Google voice gives you a ton of options when it comes to forwarding recording and even transcribing your voicemail to you and get notified in various ways.

      2. I’ve got to second Ren’s Google Voice suggestion. We have unlocked iPhones that we with a local SIM when we’re in another country and then use Google Voice for our US text and phone communications. Works great and we only have one device to deal with.

        In any event, this is a great write-up. We hope to run into you guys in the Sea of Cortez sometime this year.

        1. Ren, Scott, I’m convinced! GV needs a shoutout and this is incomplete without it. Thanks for all your input. Scott, we’ll look out for Juniper in MX!

  2. Google Voice only works in the USA with other USA numbers as far as I know, even if you have loaded a credit on your account. The best option I think is to get a Skype number to phone any number from anywhere in the world to anywhere. All you need is an internet connection. Thanks for sharing Behan.

    1. No Google voice works over the internet as well. Works anywhere you have a data connection.Been using it for a while.

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