Using your smartphone overseas and abroad

You don’t need an international phone plan or local SIM card to wring incredible benefits from your smartphone while traveling abroad. I just spent a month in Europe, and beyond using the camera and tapping into Wi-Fi, I relied on my phone to navigate, translate, and keep myself organized — without paying a single penny in extra phone charges.

Here are some offline smartphone tips and tricks I relied on throughout my trip.

GPS Still Works

Yes, GPS still works when you travel abroad — even while you are in airplane mode — so you’ll always know your whereabouts. This is incredibly useful, for example, when navigating winding city streets, tracking your progress along a bus route, or orienting yourself when you resurface at a subway stop. Sure, there are times when getting lost is part of the fun, but for every other time, GPS can be essential.

Download Maps for Offline Use

Before departing on your next trip, consider downloading an offline version of Google Maps for the city or region where you’ll be so that you can access it on the go. Use Wi-Fi to do this, as file sizes can be rather large. The offline version of Google Maps is nearly indistinguishable from the online version, except that it lacks real time traffic information and the ability to map walking routes to a destination. You can even search offline using keywords (e.g., gelato) and Google Maps will make recommendations and include basic information such as store ratings and hours of operation. If you want to plan even more elaborate itineraries, try the Google Trips app, which also has offline functionality.

Customize Google Maps for Your Trip

You will never get truly lost with GPS and a detailed offline map, and labeling and customization can make finding your way even easier. Before arriving in a new city or leaving the hotel room to explore, for example, take the time to label your hotel and highlight places of interest — museums, restaurants, tourist sites, etc. Doing so will make it easier to get your bearings, navigate, and understand where destinations are relative to one another.

Bridge the Language Barrier

If you have traveled abroad, chances are you can recall occasions where you deeply wished you knew how to understand and speak the local language. Perhaps you sat down to dinner and realized you couldn’t read the menu. Or, you had to resort to childish hand gestures and pointing just to make a purchase. Enter Google Translate to save the day. Download the Google Translate app in advance and download the languages you need for offline use. You will not need to use data to translate words and phrases.

It’s More Than Just a Dictionary

Google Translate is also more than just a digital dictionary. Because it can translate complete sentences and the interface makes it easy to toggle back and forth between languages, it’s entirely possible to have a written exchange with someone by passing your phone back and forth. You can even speak into the phone and the app will translate and repeat the phrase aloud, albeit in a robotic voice. Another handy but work-in-progress feature is the camera mode in which the app will (clumsily) translate foreign text in real time as you hover over it with your phone camera.

Keep Your Most Important Documents Accessible

When internet access is spotty, it can help to have key information and documents — your itinerary, travel insurance, directions — accessible on your phone offline. It’s easy to transfer files if you connect your phone to your laptop. Or, if you store your files in Google Drive, simply select “available offline” for each file you want to be able to access at any time.


About The Author

Jeff Rechler is a marketing communications professional whose travels have taken him across the globe to destinations as varied as Bolivia, Croatia, and Morocco.


  1. These tips are perfect! When I lived abroad for a year, I had to use my whole phone offline for a month while getting settled. I agree with all of these.

  2. Tip 7: When it comes to traveling and smartphones, I always suggest leaving them behind or at least hiding them deep and enjoying the travel.

  3. Awesome post! Handy tips especially about the customizable Google maps. Will note this down!

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