Spotlight ~ Roaming

How I disconnected from data and reconnected with what matters

Originally published on August 9, 2019


You can find plenty of blogs and websites that tout the benefits of living abroad. You’ll “expand your horizons,” meet all kinds of new people, and “discover yourself,” whatever that means.

For me, the most unexpected benefit of living abroad has been cancelling my U.S. phone plan.

When I moved to Spain, I intended not to get a new phone plan at all. I was going to be a new person: the guy on the train looking all around as the rest of the crowded car buried their heads in their phones, scrolling endlessly through inanity. I even told my roommate, who had volunteered to help me find the cheapest phone plan, “Thanks but no thanks … I’m enjoying only using my phone when I have WiFi.”

But after one Saturday night trying to meet up with friends who wanted to bar-hop, I decided it was impractical not to be able to text them. I wound up getting a phone plan and a new number. Soon, I was just another person on a crowded train, scrolling endlessly.

As time went on, though, I realized I was no longer getting calls from telemarketers, political candidates, debt collectors, and most importantly, the secretary at my dentist’s office who used to call me twice a month, asking if I wanted to schedule an appointment. It sounds ridiculous, but I felt liberated. When I came home for the summer, I even started smiling self-satisfied little smiles when my grandma, her ringer on full volume, would get a call, startle at the ear-splitting ringtone, and dig through her purse to find her phone, only to see an unrecognized number and scoff, “I’m not answering that.”

In my hometown, I had friends to catch up with and more bar-hopping Saturday nights on the way, so I looked for a cheap phone plan that would allow me to text and call here in the U.S. At one place, I would’ve had to pay $35 a month — which seemed like a lot, compared to my $10 plan in Spain. At another, the only plan in my price range would’ve required me to dig out and use my old flip-phone.

I said fuck it. I put my iPhone in airplane mode, turned on Wifi, and haven’t looked back.

I’ve had to get … creative, let’s say. After flying to Phoenix, I asked politely to borrow another passenger’s phone (“Hey there, I’m sorry to bother you … I don’t have data on my phone at the moment, would you mind if I sent a quick text from yours?”) and texted my aunt that I’d landed. I borrowed someone else’s phone when I got to the ground transportation area to tell my aunt I was at door 8A. The airport pickup—always a dicey proposition—went smoother than ever.

And that was before she got an iPhone. Now that she has one, it would’ve been easier still: I could’ve used the airport’s Wifi to text her (iPhones technically send iMessages to each other, not SMS text messages) or call her via FaceTime audio.

Luckily for me, most of my family and friends have iPhones. For those who don’t, Whatsapp is an easy solution. It’s how folks in Europe and pretty much the rest of the world send messages; it operates over the Internet, not solely via cell signal (like text messages do.) Even if you can’t convince your (American) friends and family to download Whatsapp, if you’re on Wifi, you can:

  • Contact them through Facebook messenger
  • Send a DM on Twitter
  • Send a message on GroupMe
  • Send an email

… none of which is fundamentally different from texting. You can also download Google Hangouts to make a free phone call, using Wifi on your end and cell signal on theirs. (The call will come from “Unlisted”, but you’ll let them know in advance that “Unlisted” is you.)

Getting on Wifi is usually easy — and when it’s not easy, it can be a fun challenge. For example, I’ve made sure to patronize a few coffee shops at strategic locations in my neighborhood—and made sure to log onto their Wifi. Now, I don’t even have to go inside or buy anything. I can stand near the door (even if it’s late at night and they’re closed), let my phone connect automatically, and call an Uber or receive my iMessages and Whatsapps. If I’m somewhere without Wifi—say, in the car—with a friend or relative, I can have them set up a hotspot.

The point is: Because I don’t have a phone plan, unless I consciously choose to connect to a Wifi network, my phone is nothing but a small brick in my back pocket. It can’t load Tweets; it can’t check email, sports scores, or the stock market. I’m not even tempted to try.

There are some drawbacks. These days, to sign up for just about anything—a Venmo account, Uber, even Whatsapp—those companies send you text messages to verify your phone number, which you won’t be able to receive if you don’t have a phone plan. It’s frustrating; I’m not sure why they can’t send a verification email instead. But it’s not hard to work around the nuisance.

You can use a free, “trash” phone number service to receive verification codes. Or, you can use a friend or relative’s phone number for apps they’re not likely to use. My brother, for example, doesn’t use TDBank, so it’s his number that’s on my account. My mom doesn’t use Whatsapp; my grandma doesn’t use Venmo. It’s only a minor, one-time inconvenience for them to receive a 6-digit code and forward it to you.

It’s also difficult to receive phone calls from non-iPhone users and companies that use landline phones. (Again, if you have an iPhone and the person calling has one, too, they can call you via FaceTime audio.) I recently had to deal with an agent from Progressive Insurance to settle a claim. She pestered my mom, whose number she had on file, with a few phone calls before I could get back to her. I used Google Hangouts to leave a message for the agent and said that I would have to call her, not the other way around. I mentioned a few, specific times I would be available and said I would call back then.

It took a few tries to get in touch, but still: The interaction was on my terms, at my convenience. In that way, not having a phone plan serves as a filter: My mom, grandma, and good friends are able to call me, or ask me to call them, at any time. But I don’t need to interrupt a meal, a workout, or a writing session to answer the phone whenever it happens to be convenient for some insurance agent.

In another instance, I was texting with my brother, setting up a time to meet for breakfast outside his office building. “Text me when you’re here,” he wrote, “and I’ll come down.” A minute later: “Oh, wait. You won’t be able to text, will you?”

“Nope,” I wrote back. “But Google Maps says my ETA right now is 10:55. So just trust that I’ll be there between 10:50 and 11:00.” It was refreshing, I thought, to have to be punctual. Once upon a time, people had to establish times and locations to meet and, get this: actually stick to them! There was no “Hey, I’m running late” text.

Finally, earlier this summer, I was at a bar with a friend and he decided to call it a night. With the bar’s Wifi, I sent an iMessage to my brother that I was on my way to the bowling alley where he was. “It’s about a 23-minute walk,” I wrote. I set out.

When I arrived, I saw my brother standing outside the bowling alley. “They’re closing,” he said. “I guess you didn’t see my text?”

I hadn’t, no. I suppose I lost 23 minutes at the next bar, or 23 minutes of sleep. But I gained 23 uninterrupted minutes of roaming quiet Chicago streets, on a cool, early-summer evening.

I’ll take that trade.

🎫 Trevor Kraus

Trevor Kraus is the author of Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together. It is available here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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