Thousands of Canadians travel every year to parts of the world with different languages, culture and modes of transportation. Recently, I spent a week in Berlin as a tourist, and took advantage of a few essential tools, tricks and apps to ensure my stay was trouble-free and plenty of fun.
Here’s a few things you’ll need to get started.
1) An Android smartphone running Android 4.0+
I specify an Android phone here because it is the most versatile among the top mobile operating systems, both in terms of availability of SIM unlock capabilities and top apps.
I used a Rogers HTC One which is compatible with Europe’s 2100Mhz 3G networks as well as their 800/1900Mhz 2G networks. I found an unlock code from cellunlocker.net for around $15, which is far cheaper than going through Rogers itself. Telus and Bell versions are a bit more expensive, but shouldn’t top $30.
How to unlock a phone:
a) First, know why you’re unlocking your phone. This is not the same as unlocking a bootloader; SIM unlocking refers specifically to the ability to use the phone on a cellphone provider other than the one you bought it from. Some devices come unlocked, such as the Google Nexus 4, but 99% of devices purchased from a provider will be locked to one (or in the case of Rogers, two) networks.
b) Obtain your IMEI#. This is usually a 15-digit number that is unique to your specific device, and is stored in a database, either from the manufacturer or carrier, that can be cross-referenced to create an unlock code.
To obtain your IMEI number, go into your phone’s dialer app and type *#06#
Copy down that number and keep it safe.
c) Now, you have a choice. You can use one of many unofficial means of obtaining an unlock code, such as cellunlocker.net, or you can go through your carrier. Most carriers will unlock a phone for a $35-50 fee as long as you own your phone outright. This is set to change in December with the implementation of the CRTC’s Wireless Code of Conduct, but until then, these are your options.
d) Once you’ve received your unlock code, you’ll need to find a SIM card from another provider. This shouldn’t be too hard: find a friend or family member who uses a phone from a different provider but the same sized SIM (usually microSIM) and insert it into your soon-to-be-unlocked device.
Once the phone is restarted, the device should ask you for a network unlock code. This is the one provided by your service/carrier and is usually eight digits. If it’s correct, the phone should say something like, “Network Unlock Successful” and attempt to connect to that person’s SIM card.
When a phone is network unlocked once, it is unlocked for life. No amount of reboots, system resets or software alterations will change this.
e) There is one more thing: you’ll need to ensure that your phone is compatible with the 3G network of the country you’re visiting. Most phones nowadays are quad-band or even pentaband, which means they are compatible with four or five HSPA+ frequencies.
If you’re not sure, grab the phone’s box or visit your carrier’s splash page and double check. It should say something like, “HSPA+/UMTS 850/1800/1900/2100Mhz” which means it’s compatible with most worldwide 3G networks. We’re not worrying about LTE here — even if your phone supports it — so just make sure you’re looking at the right information.
2) A prepaid SIM Card with data
if you’ve read my piece on the availability of data-only SIM cards, you’d know that while in Germany I was able to purchase a microSIM with 1GB of HSPA+-speed data for around €20 ($27). This proved absolutely invaluable throughout my stay, from finding places to eat to making calls back home.
You could rely on WiFi at coffee shops dotted around the city or back at the hostel, but you never know how fast, and for how long, the network will be.
3) Essential Apps
OK, now you have an unlocked Android running Android 4.0+. Why is that version so important? Because many of the apps we’re going to be using — the Google ones specifically — require Ice Cream Sandwich and above.
This a small list of apps on which I relied daily:
a) Google Translate – Absolutely essential for translating small phrases and longer sentences. The app’s recent update brought a few amazing features, including offline support (which, as I learned, you’ll want to download before you leave — the databases are upwards of 250MB, which in many cases is more than your week’s data allotment) and photo-based translation.
The second feature is most intriguing, though it seldom worked perfectly. You take a photo of, say, a poster, and highlight the area that the app should translate. As long as the photo is clear, Google’s OCR abilities should be able to catch the gist of what’s being said.
b) Google Maps – An obvious choice, and one that comes preloaded on many Android phones. Google Maps provides driving, walking and transit directions for many major cities, and Street View lets you peek at storefronts to see if you’ve arrived at the right place.
c) Yelp – I wouldn’t have found a decent meal without Yelp which, in Berlin, contained the most comprehensive list of English-written reviews for nearby restaurants I found. The updated Google Maps integration lets you pivot and zoom easily, or switch directly to the Maps app itself.
d) Twitter – I barely tweeted while away, but found Twitter to be the best source for news updates. With bandwidth at a premium, it acted as a de facto RSS reader, especially when combined with the lists I’d already made for various topics and themes.
e) Aviary/Pixlr Express – I spent most of the trip taking photos with my phone, and the ones I really wanted to keep were edited with one of these two apps. The latter is a bit more versatile, but both do the job of cropping, straightening, colour correcting and fixing the often-candid shots I took from the built-in camera app.
f) Instagram – Yes, yes, I know. But Instagram proved to be the best place to store decent-quality photos that I really didn’t want to lose. You can’t take for granted that WiFi will be ubiquitous or even available where you’re staying, so backing up photos to Dropbox/Google+ isn’t necessarily an option. Sure, you can transfer photos manually to your PC/Android tablet, but who wants to do that while time is of the essence?
g) Google Hangouts/Skype/Viber/TextPlus/Vonage/Facebook -All of these apps provide messaging and VoiP capabilities that, combined with a data-only SIM card, mimics a traditional cellphone experience back in Canada.
With Vonage or TextPlus, you can have a phone number (though the prepaid SIM should allow for incoming calls and texts), while Facebook, Skype and Viber provide free subscriber-to-subscriber VoiP calls.
Google Hangouts, Kik, etc., are great ways to keep in touch via instant message.
4) An extended battery pack
I used a Mophie juice pack for the HTC One (which we reviewed and loved) but there are many options here depending which phone you have.
For most users, I’d recommend something like the myCharge line, which goes as high as 9000mAh and can be thrown in a bag or purse before you leave for the day. While not having a charged phone isn’t the worst outcome of a long day touring the sites, it’s worth keeping your phone alive on the off chance you’ll need to find somewhere to eat, or to wend your way home.
5) A good case
At home you’re fastidious, and your routine doesn’t change. Your phone is safe, as are its contents (you do have a passcode, right?).
While on vacation, things are unpredictable, and your phone may find itself the victim of being thrown in the same pocket as a pair of keys or a metal camera. For these moments, a good quality case, preferably one that covers all sides of the phone, including the front (see Otterbox’s Defender series), is ideal.
6) A passcode
Android devices have quick-action pattern unlock codes that take barely a second to input but could be the difference between merely a phone being lost/stolen and all of its content going with it.
Good luck, and have fun on your travels this summer!