Communicating while in Thailand

We take global communications for granted. We can call, email, text, message, and video chat. We can do it the old-fashioned way, on landlines, or on cell phones, satellite phones, smart phones, tablets, or computers. We can use Facebook, Twitter, Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, iMessage, and many more applications to communicate. While it may be a bit more challenging to communicate when traveling abroad, especially outside of North America, East Asia, and Western Europe, it has become much easier to take advantage of this brave new world of global communications, even in the most remote locations in the world.

So, how will be be communicating while in Thailand? How will you be able to call home to friends and family? Will there be Wifi access? Are there data plans available? I hope this post will answer some of these questions.

Should I use my wireless plan from home or get a sim card in Thailand? A few years ago, this would have been an easy answer: get a local sim card in the country you are traveling in, especially if you are staying as long as we are in one country (4 weeks). International plans through one of the US wireless companies were expensive and limited, with incredibly pricey roaming charges, so it made sense to get a local sim card, even with the inconvenience of having a Thai phone number instead of your own US number. Nowadays, this question is more difficult to answer, because many US carriers now have more generous international allowances. For example, with my T-Mobile Magenta MAX plan, I’m allowed unlimited texting and data at 256kbps in over 200 countries, which is not blazing fast but fine for very basic web browsing and audio calls on FaceTime or WhatsApp. It probably wouldn’t be good enough for video streaming, high quality audio streaming, or video calls. Calls are $0.25 per minute, but this is avoidable by using FaceTime or WhatsApp (more details below).

If I need more speed, I can buy 15GB of high-speed data (up to 5G) for $50, good for 30 days. As a reference, I used 5.5GB of data in March, and my daughter, who uses her phone a bit more, used 11GB, so 15GB should be plenty. Furthermore, you can minimize data use by logging into hotel or other public Wifi networks whenever possible (more on that below). You can check how much data you use by logging into your cell phone account. They will have records of your data use. But be careful: if you spend most of the time on campus or at home, where you have Wifi access, you are not accessing your data plan, so the data use numbers may be an underestimate, since most carriers don’t record how much data you access via wifi.

So, if you have good international features on your US plan, you may not need to get a Thai sim card. However, if your US carrier has less than optimal international features, or very high roaming charges, we will provide you with a Thai sim card and some minutes and data (you will have to purchase more when you run out). For this option, however, you HAVE to make sure your phone is unlocked by your carrier. Otherwise, a sim card from another carrier will not work on that phone. This is typical for phones that are on some sort of payment plan. If the phone is paid for, they have to unlock it. Sometimes they do this automatically, but you often have to request it through your carrier.

One final consideration: You do NOT want to just have access to communications through Wifi. There will be times when you need to contact someone and there is no Wifi access. So if you don’t have an international plan that is reasonably priced, then you definitely want to get a Thai sim card so you have internet and phone access without Wifi. If you have a locked phone, see if you can get a cheap unlocked phone, or see if you can get your phone unlocked. Otherwise, please contact me and we can see what we can do to help.

Using WhatsApp: We will be using WhatsApp to communicate with each other while in Thailand. WhatsApp is similar to Skype, Facebook Messenger, or other similar communications apps. What’s great about WhatsApp is that it is registered under your phone number, but it can be used on any device. This means that whether you decide to use your own carrier or get a Thai sim card, you can use the same account. Plus, it works on both Apple and Android phones, unlike Messenger or FaceTime.

Some of you may already have it, in which case you’re all set. Otherwise, please download it from the App Store (either Apple or Android) and set it up to your US phone number. As soon as you do that, I will be able to set up a group so that we can easily communicate either by voice call or text. We can send group messages, or communicate one-on-one, using one communications app.

Calls to and from the US: If you decide on a Thai sim card  with a local Thai phone number for use with your own unlocked smartphone, you will have to share your Thai phone number with your family and friends and instruct them on how to call you.

We will be providing you with a set number of baht on your account (usually around 200 baht or so), and you will be responsible for purchasing any additional minutes after that. Luckily, the phone will still receive calls even if you run out of minutes, but you will not be able to make any calls until you purchase minutes. You can purchase 1-2-Call cards to recharge your phone’s minutes at any 7-11 as well as many other outlets.

How to make calls to and from Thailand: We should be in cell phone range most of the time there. Each student will be given a local Thai phone number. They all start with a 0, and go something like this:

08 0601 7778

That’s the number you would call if you were in Thailand and wanted to call that number in Thailand. The “8″ in the “08″ signifies a cell phone number.

To call from the US, you need to

  • drop the 0
  • add the exit code (011)
  • add the country code (66)
  • add the rest of the number

Therefore, to call this number from the US, you would dial:

011 66 8 0601 7778

That’s not too confusing, is it? Make sure you drop that first 0, and add 011 66. That’s it.

To call the US from Thailand, you simply have to dial the exit code (which varies, anything from 001 to 009, each of which is associated with a different cellular company; I will let you know the cheapest one), then the country code (1), then the number. So to call a US phone number from Thailand, you would dial:

009 1 801 555 5555

Please remember that Thailand is 13 hours ahead of Salt Lake City, so if it’s 8:00 pm here, it is 9:00 am in Thailand. Also, incoming calls on a cell phone in Thailand is free for those receiving the call, but it isn’t free for the caller. International rates to Thailand depend on the service that you’re using (cellular vs. land line, etc.)

Free Phone Services: You may also consider a Voice Over IP service like Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or another phone service. Skype has a service called Skype Out that allows you to call from your computer (or smartphone / tablet) to an outside line. You can get a monthly subscription or just buy credits that you use as you call. To call a mobile number in Thailand on Skype, it is $0.03/minute using credits, or as little as $0.012/minute if you get a monthly subscription. If you don’t like using your tablet or laptop as a phone, just download the Android or iOS version of Skype, and it’s just like using a phone. More information can be found on the Skype site. You can also use Skype, FaceTime, or Facebook Messenger for free when both sender and receiver have access to the internet.

Internet Access: Internet access within Thailand has greatly expanded since we first started May Term Thailand. Just about every mall, supermarket, hotel, and government building have internet available. That said, very few of these are truly public. Airports and government buildings, as well as a few malls, are most likely to have free, safe, public Wifi. The hotels we stay at do have Wifi for their guests; you just have to ask the front desk for a code. Be aware that not every network will have the bandwidth you’re used to, so if you’re planning on streaming HD video, you may be out of luck.

You can also get a data plan for your SIM card, which will give you internet access just about anywhere you can get a phone signal. Just keep in mind that you can rack up a lot of data in very little time!

With Wifi access, you can communicate via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp, or any other internet-enabled communications medium. This is a great time to update your Facebook feed, upload Instagram photos, and so on.

Making calls over a VOIP program or sending messages over an internet-enabled message system when you have access to Wifi is a great way to minimize using your limited data. Applications like Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and even Facebook Messenger allow calls using internet protocols like VOIP. However, you are limited to calling someone who also has the application that you are using (so if you’re calling on Skype, for example, the person you are calling must also be on Skype). As described above, Skype also allows you to call an actual phone number, either a landline or a cellular number.

Video conferencing over Skype, FaceTime, or Facebook Messenger are also a great way to communicate. Again, both parties must have the application, and video conferencing is often bandwidth intensive, so it may not be great for networks with limited bandwidth.

Keep in mind, that to communicate through a specific application like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Snapchat, the party that you’re communicating with must also have the same application. Unfortunately, we still do not have a universal internet messaging program, so make sure the people you want to communicate with have the same messaging applications that you have, other than SMS texting.

One note: if you’re on the Apple universe, and you use FaceTime and iMessage, it doesn’t matter where you access the internet, everything is the same. You can still text, FaceTime, or email and your identity is the same. This is also true with Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. I can’t say for certain that this is the case with the Android/Google universe, but I imagine it is similar.

One final note: be careful of free public internet connections that you find when searching for Wifi networks. Many of these are fake networks set up specifically to hack your internet-enabled device. You can read a bit more about this here. One way to protect yourself is to use https:// encrypted websites, rather than the unencrypted http:// sites.






One response to “Communicating while in Thailand”

  1. What to Bring – Electronics | Service Learning in Thailand Avatar

    […] If you really want constant internet access, check with your cellular provider to see how much an international plan is. I use T-Mobile, mainly for the generous international plans. The other option is to get a Thai SIM card with a data plan, which tend to be pretty cheap. Just make sure that your phone is unlocked, meaning it will accept SIM cards from other cellular providers. I have a more detailed post on this here. […]


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