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.

Can you give me the basics of how a smartphone works and how they connect to data?

There are two aspects of how smartphones work that I want to talk about: the two types of data that smartphones access, and two ways that smartphones connect to the outside world. The two types of data that smartphones handle are voice and data. Voice is just like our old-fashioned hard line phones; they handle voice calls. Older voice networks were actually analog (data in waves, like a vinyl record player), and not digital (data in 1 and 0’s, like a CD or streaming music). Data is actual data, a digital stream of 1 and 0’s that is translated by your computer, which is what is allowing you to read this blog post. When you call someone using their cell phone number, or text them (not something like iOS Messages, but SMS text, more on this in a bit), you are utilizing voice. When you access the internet via a browser, Facebook, Instagram, or any other installed app on your phone, you are utilizing data. What gets complicated is that you can do voice calls using the data network, which is a newer technology that is becoming more and more common. For example, when you make a call on something like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, FaceTime, or Skype, you are actually utilizing what is called Voice over IP (VoIP), which uses data networks, not voice. That’s why you can make these calls from your laptop, most of which are NOT connected to voice networks. Furthermore, some cellular companies use VoIP even when you call a cell phone number. For example, T-Mobile phones will use voice over internet when it is connected to Wifi networks, even when I actually dial a cell phone number.

As an FYI, analog voice networks are pretty much gone in most countries; the voice networks are almost all digital. Furthermore, dedicated voice networks are also going away, and future network technologies will probably combine one network for voice and data.

As for how smartphones connect to the outside world, regardless of whether they are iOS or Android, they basically connect in two ways: the cellular data network, or Wifi. The cellular network is administered by the cellular carrier (T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, etc.) and consists of an infrastructure of what are essentially radio towers which your phone connects to. This is essentially what you pay for when you pay for a cellular carrier: access to their voice and data networks. You can ONLY access them if you have an account with your cellular carrier. This is how you connect your smartphone when you are driving, shopping, or otherwise not at home or a Wifi network. The issue is that most carriers are specific to countries, so that when you travel abroad, you are “roaming”, or using another company’s cellular network to access your home network. Many US carriers companies have roaming agreements with companies in other countries, so that you can use your phone with your phone number in those countries. The tricky part of this is that there is often a roaming fee that your US carrier will charge you for using your number in these countries. Some services allow unlimited international roaming for no (or little) fee, but it’s “throttled”, meaning the speeds aren’t very fast. Others give you fast data speeds, but often only a certain amount, and after using that allotment, you can only access the network at slower speeds. This all depends on your carrier and what plan you subscribe to. Many carriers now have international plans that you can purchase for a month or two (prices vary widely) so you don’t have to sign up for a completely different plan.

The other way you connect is via Wifi, a different technology altogether. I’m sure you are all familiar with Wifi. Most hotels that we stay at will have Wifi for guests, as will many restaurants, cafes, and other facilities. What is nice about Wifi is that it is typically free. So if you want to save your precious allotment of data through your cellular connection, connect to Wifi whenever possible, and only use the cellular network when you can’t access Wifi.

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 other note on technology: phones “know” their phone number and what carrier to connect to through a SIM card. Older phones have a physical SIM card that you can remove and replace. Newer phones are doing away with physical SIM cards in favor of eSIM cards. Either way, if you replace your SIM card, you can change the phone number and carrier that your phone connects to.

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 215 countries (including all the countries in Southeast Asia), 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 speeds) 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.

If I get a Thai SIM card, will I still be able to connect to my WhatsApp/Facebook/Instagram/etc.?

Changing a SIM card on your phone doesn’t mean you lose any of your settings, apps, data, or access to them. Because most apps use data, and not voice, you will still have access to your social network apps as well as messaging apps. Apps like FaceTime (iOS), Messages (iOS), Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, SnapChat, GroupMe, and most other social network and messaging apps will function as if nothing has changed. This includes the voice and video call capabilities of FaceTime, WhatsApp, and other social media apps with voice and video call features. What will change are calls made via your phone feature, which is connected to the phone number on the SIM card. You can of course call folks using your new Thai phone number, but it will be from a new number. Furthermore, older text messaging (SMS) apps, which are connected to your phone number, will also change. You sometimes see this when you have an iPhone and your friend uses an Android phone; you notice that the message is in green, and not blue, which indicates that the other person does not have iOS Messages. That text is coming through SMS text. So, if you have a Thai SIM card on your iPhone and you use iOS Messages to text your friend’s iPhone, nothing changes; your friend receives the text as normal. However, if your friend has an Android phone, the text will go though, but it will be from a different phone number.

What if I get a Thai SIM card, and I have to call my friend/family’s actual US phone number?

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.

One disadvantage of calling an actual US phone number from a Thai phone number is that it is subject to long distance fees. Luckily, it isn’t terribly expensive to make a call to the US from a Thai phone number.

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 actual phone number. This is a good option if the person you call doesn’t have the same app installed on their phone (or they don’t have a smart phone; I guess there are people like that still). 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. Just make sure that your friends/family have the same service set up on their phones.

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.






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