|Android is the
most popular operating system in the world today (see: Nearly nine out of 10 smartphones shipped run on Android) - used
by more people than Microsoft Windows, Apple's Macintosh or iOS. It's
developed by Google and used by a variety of smartphone and tablet
manufacturers for a huge variety of products. That's both a strength
and a weakness - it's a strength because it means you can get a phone
(or tablet) in a wide range of sizes - small, medium, large,
extra-large, styles, price-points, with keyboards and without, etc.
It's a weakness because there is a huge range of hardware and software
versions - manufacturers and phone companies are free to customize
Android as much as they want. This makes it difficult to distribute
Android updates - even vital security updates; while a majority of
Apple iPhone/iPad users are running either the latest iOS version or
the previous one, Android users are running a wide range of versions -
and even users of the same Android version will find that it looks and
works differently on, say, a Samsung phone from one from HTC.
You might want to take a look at the Wikipedia article discussing Android versions and history.
In this tutorial, we'll be looking at my Nexus 5X phone running Android
7.1.1 (Nougat) - your phone will almost certainly be different. Nexus
phones are sold by Google and run 'pure' Android - without additions
from manufacturers or cell phone services. As a result, they are the
first to receive security patches and new versions of Android. They are
also sold unlocked, and can be used with mobile phone providers
Before we start, you might want to be familiar with a few standard
smartphone actions and gestures:
a look at your phone
- Typically, we hold our smartphones vertically; turning them
90-degrees will rotate the contents of the screen. This can be handy if
you're watching a video - but it can also be a quick way to enlarge
text for easier reading. (You can
turn off screen rotation if you find it disconcerting or happening by
accident. Note that in some older versions of Android the home screen
does not rotate).
- In many apps, you can zoom in or out on the content of the screen
by touching the screen with two fingers (thumb and pointer perhaps) and
pulling them apart of pinching them together. In the Gmail or Chrome
web browser apps on my phone this can make it easier to read small
text. It can also be done in most graphics or photo apps - but not
every app supports this sort of action.
- Holding your finger down on the screen (a 'long press') is the
equivalent of right-clicking with a computer mouse - it can bring up
additional options. Some examples:
- long press on an unused bit of the Home Screen and you'll get
options to change the wallpaper, add widgets (more below) and more
- long press on an icon on the Home Screen and you'll have the
option to remove the icon from the Home Screen (and possibly to
uninstall the program) - note that removing the icon from the Home
Screen does not uninstall it from the phone; it's still available in
the 'App Drawer'
- long press on the [ . ] key in the keyboard brings up a set of
other punctuation characters and more. Long pressing on letters like
'e' or 'a' brings up a set of accented versions of the letter. Tap on
the character you want to have it appear where you're typing.
It will have a power button and a longer volume control - typically
pressing the top of the volume control makes the sounds louder,
pressing the bottom lowers the sound (some phones may have separate up
and down volume buttons). On some phones, these buttons are on opposite
edges, on others they are on the same edge. Note that when your phone's
running a quick press on the power button does not actually turn it off
- it just turns off the display. The phone continues running, going
online, and using battery power - eventually the battery can run itself
completely down if you leave your phone like this. If you want to
'really' shut your phone down - perhaps if you're not going to use it
for several days or longer, or if you want to restart it because it's
frozen or you're having other problems - hold the power button down
until you see a message asking if you want it to shut down.
On the bottom of most phones there's a small jack for a cable for
charging your phone, connecting it to a computer, and connecting other
devices. Most Android phones connect using a micro-USB plug which can
only be plugged in one way - if it doesn't want to go in don't try to
force it! Turn it 180-degrees and try again. You can use the cable and
charger from a different manufacturer without problem. Some recent
phones, however, (including my Nexus 5x) use a new style cord and
connector called USB-C - these charge faster and are symmetrical -
letting them be plugged in more easily - and have other advantages.
They're probably going to become increasingly common, but it means I
can't use older micro-USB cords (etc) without adaptors.
There's also (again on most phones) a headphone jack.
On the back, there a lens for the camera and (usually) a flash. Don't
put your finger over the lens when you're taking a picture! Less
obvious - the front 'selfie' camera.
Your mobile phone provider will give (or sell) you a SIM card, needed
to connect to their network. Your phone will take one of three
different sizes of SIM card - these days, phone companies most often
distribute a single SIM than can be made into whatever size you need.
Where to plug the SIM card in varies with different phone models - some
have a removable back which lets you access the SIM (and in some cases
also provides access to a micro-SD memory card slot for adding storage
- a very good feature! and maybe also a removable battery). Other
models have a slot on the side where you can pop the SIM card - and
maybe a second slot for a memory card. (Don't get the two mixed up!).
Typically, you push the card in a bit and it pops out. It will only fit
right-side in. My Nexus 5x doesn't have a memory card slot; for the SIM
card, there's a little tray on the side with a tiny hole in it - push
in the hole with the end of a paper clip and the tray pops out,
allowing access to the SIM card.
You'll only need to access the SIM card if you're switching to a
different phone network - for instance when travelling.
Take a look at your phone's Home Screen
Here's my phone's Home Screen. Some things on it are standard and will
be similar on your phone - others are customized.
At the top is a row of small icons - the Notification Bar. Icons on the
left side are notifications of new information. Perhaps you got an
email message or a text message or a Facebook message. Maybe there's a
weather report. Or you have a calendar event. Maybe you missed a phone
On the right, you have other icons - the date & time, battery,
wi-fi, and mobile phone network status.
If you pull down from the top of the screen, you can access the
notifications. Clicking on a notification will (generally) take you to
the app that lets you access that email, text message, or phone call.
There's an option to clear the notifications - in Android 7 (Nougat) it
says 'Clear All'. In some versions, it may be an unclear symbol at the
bottom. Or an X at the top.
Pull down again (at least on my phone with this version of Android) and
there's a set of icons for often-done tasks: Quick Access Settings
- adjust the screen brightness, connect to a wi-fi network, turn on
Airplane Mode, turn Bluetooth or Location on or off, turn on the
flashlight (using the camera's flash and quickly burning through the
phone's battery), etc. Near the top, there's an icon of a gear - one of
many ways to enter Setup. (More below).
Below the notification bar, there's a Google Search item. Tap on it and
you can type a question for Google Search. Click on the microphone icon
and you can speak a question.
Below that, I've added the Transparent Clock
widget - a free (or paid) download from Google Play. Widgets are apps
that can be installed on a Home Screen that automatically run in the
background - in this case, showing a clock and auto-updating weather
reports. I like the transparency, letting me see the wallpaper image of
my grandchildren and dog.
As mentioned, both custom wallpaper and custom widgets can be added by
long-tapping on an unused piece of the Home Screen and following the
on-screen instructions. You need to have your desired image on your
phone (or installed the widget) prior to trying to set it up!
My screen also has two sets of icons - the lower set of icons (the
'Dock') appears on each Home Screen page (you can have multiple pages
and move between them). Above them, I've got 5 icons for apps I access
most often. I have another screen - to the right - with an additional
set of icons.
(If you long-press on an icon or
widget, you can remove it from the Home Screen (without uninstalling
it) or move it around the Home Screen. If you drop one icon on top of
another, a folder is created containing both icons. You can add
additional icons to the folder. Many phones, out of the box, come with
a folder of Google stuff... you can drag individual icons out of that
folder, remove them from the Home Screen entirely, as desired.)
difference between Android and iPhone/iPad (iOS) - Apple's mobile
products have the icons for all installed apps on a bunch of Home
Screens - in more or less random order. I find that cluttered and
confusing and prefer how Android lets me put the icons I most use in a
more easy to find location. Icons for all apps - whether on the Home
Screen or not - are in the App Drawer, accessed (on my phone) by
tapping the white circle with the six grey dots in the middle of the
lower row of app icons.
This gives me icons for all my apps in
alphabetical order (after the top row of most recently accessed apps) -
scroll down to see more. This lets me easily start up any app that I
want even if it's not on one of the Home Screens.)
I can uninstall an app from here - long-press on it, and the option to
uninstall it appears on the top of the screen. (If you change your
mind, you can always download and install it again from the Google Play
Store - if it's a paid-app you won't have to pay for it again). Note
that core apps for the operating system, some apps installed by the
manufacturer, and some apps from your cell phone company may not be
uninstallable in this way... but you certainly can uninstall anything
that you downloaded/installed from the Play Store.
Down on the very bottom -
Look at the bottom of the images of both my Home Screen and the App
Drawer - there are three symbols: a triangle (or an arrow pointing
left), a circle, and a square. Your phone may have a different set of
icons or may have a physical button. Samsung phones have similar icons,
but in reverse order. Android is wonderful that way!
These are virtual buttons - an advantage over physical buttons is that
if you turn the phone 90-degrees, the virtual buttons move to the new
bottom of the screen.... something that physical buttons won't do. If
you're watching a video or doing something else full-screen, the
virtual buttons may disappear - they'll reappear if you tap on the
lower portion of the screen.
The arrow is the back button - very handy (and something Apple's iOS
has only inconsistently). It moves from the current screen to the
previous one - either an earlier screen in the same app or the screen
of the previous app. A very useful way to move, for instance, from
reading an email message back to the list of messages. I probably use
this more than any other button.
The circle is the Home button (some phones have a physical Home
button). Tapping it moves out of whatever app your in and displays the
Home Screen. Note that it doesn't close the app you were using - that's
still running in the background - though if you're watching a YouTube
video, it won't continue to play.
The square brings up a screen showing you all the apps that are running
right now. You can scroll up or down through the list, and tap on one
to bring it up to the front. You can click on the X in the top-corner
of any of the displayed apps to close it - or pull it to the right to
shut it down. There's rarely much need to shut down all your apps in
this way - Android does a good job of managing memory and
multitasking... I would only start shutting stuff down if the phone
starts to misbehave or feel sluggish. And if that's the case, you may
be better off shutting the phone down (remember - press the power
button until you get a shut-down message) and then restarting it.
Not on the Home Screen or App Drawer, but there are a few more standard
interface items that will appear in lots of places:
- The 'Hamburger Menu' icon
looks like a stack of three horizontal lines - think the two pieces of
a hamburger bun with a patty in between - often appearing in the
top-left of an app's window. Tap it to open up a set of options. For
instance, the Gmail app has a hamburger menu beside the word Inbox on
the list of mail messages. Tapping it opens up a list - Sent Messages,
Spam, Trash, etc.
- Three vertical dots - typically at the top-right - indicates a
different list of menu items. In the image - a screen capture from the
Photos app - we see a hamburger menu on the left and a three-dot menu
on the right. Tapping the three dots offers items to create a new
and more within this photo album app. (The icon beside it is for Google
Cast - to send photos to a Chromecast device plugged into a TV).
- The center icon in the blue screen capture (also from the Photos
app) is the Send-To icon. It
will also appear in lots of apps.
It lets you send something - in this case a photo - to your choice of a
variety of places. If I tap it in the Photo app, I see:
I can, for instance,
tap on the Gmail icon which will open that app, create a new message,
and insert my photo in the body of the message. I just have to enter
the name or email address of my intended recipient, type a subject and
maybe a few words of text and tap 'Send'. Or I could tap an icon to
send my photo via Facebook Messenger or in the mail Facebook program -
the Send To options will vary depending on what apps are installed on
- There are other frequently-used icons - the trash can icon,
for instance may be self-explanatory. In the Photos app, for instance,
tapping it will ask if you want to delete the photo.
Apps and where to get them
Your phone comes with a bunch of apps already installed - Google's set
of standard apps, additional apps from your phone manufacturer, other
apps from your mobile provider - if you got your phone from them. This
may be confusing. You may have Google's Gmail app (which works with
other email accounts as well in many cases), Google's Email app
(designed for non-Gmail email accounts), and Samsung email app. You can
get other email apps as well. Pick one!
Apps can be a security problem, loading malware on your phone to steal
identity, charge card, or banking information. This is a real problem
in some parts of the world, but not a big concern (at least not now) in
North America. In general, if you limit your app acquisitions to to
Google's Play Store
you're pretty safe. You have a Play Store app on your phone already.
Even if you limit yourself to free apps, Google Play will want you to
enter credit card information.
When you think about getting an app, think about the business model.
Most of the listed apps will claim to be free, others will have prices
- generally a few dollars or so. Some of the 'free' apps are genuinely
free, at least to you - PayByPhone
an app to use your phone to pay for Vancouver parking meters is free to
you - I suspect it gets money from the City of Vancouver every time you
use it to pay for parking. An app to call a cab or Uber will be free.
Google's apps are free - paid for by ads of Google search pages. Many
free apps, though, are free because they serve up ads, often with a
paid, ad-free version. Others are demo-ware - free but wanting you to
buy a more complete version. Personally, I try free apps - if I don't
care for them I uninstall them (remember how to
If I want to keep using an app - and it has a paid version - I try to
purchase that, getting rid of ads, often getting additional features,
and helping to support the app developer.
(Much of the Android malware is found
in hacked versions of paid apps - often games; users search for the app
name + the word free and find a link that claims to be a source for a
free version of an otherwise-paid app.... in order to save the cost of
a cup of coffee or two they expose their phone to malware. Bad choice!
Stay safer and limit your apps to downloads from Google's Play Store
Here are some of the Android apps that I find useful:
- Astro File Manager
- one of many apps to help stay on top of photos, music, videos,
downloads, and more on your phone. Only use if you feel comfortable
with file management on a standard desktop or laptop computer. (Free
with ads and an optional paid 'Pro' version)
- use your phone's camera to create clean PDF versions of documents in
place of a desktop scanner - send via email, etc. (Free with ads and an
optional paid version).
- print from your phone (Free)
- Device Manager
- a Google app to locate your phone if lost (Free)
- Duolingo -
language learning app (Free)
- attractive digital magazine; pick topics you're interested in and it
finds articles from around the web (Free)
- Google Trips
- new Google app to help plan your travels (Free)
- I'm Sleeping - set 'do not disturb' times
on your phone (Free - note - your version of Android may already
include this feature)
- Kindle -
download and read eBooks from Amazon (Free but you have to buy eBooks!)
- Netflix -
watch movies and TV shows online (Free but you need a Netflix account)
- enter the number on a bus stop and find when the next bus is due to
- reserve, download, and read eBooks from the public library (Free)
- PayByPhone - use your phone to pay for
Vancouver parking meters (Free - but you have to pay for parking!)
- Prisma -
add special effects to your photos and digital images (Free) Some good alternatives: Pixlr, Snapseed,
- make phone ring tones from music files (Free)
- make free or cheap phone calls and video chats over wi-fi (Free, but
you want to pre-pay a small amount of $$ to call land lines) A popular alternative: Whatsapp
- Google Translate can translate words, phrases, webpages and more.
Cool feature - it can use the camera to view a sign, menu, etc in one
language and display a translated version. (Free)
- Transparent Clock
& Weather - Home Screen widget to display time, weather,
and more in an attractive way (Free with ads and an optional paid
- VLC -
video player that will show almost any digital video file (Free)
Every year, PC Magazine publishes a list of The 100 Best Android Apps
Transfering media files between your
computer and phone
devices 'sync' with a desktop or laptop computer using Apple's iTunes
app; connect the device to the computer either using a cable or
wirelessly and you can transfer music, photos, videos, contacts,
calendar and more. Android devices use a different model - contacts and
calendar information is stored 'in the cloud' by your Google account,
and can be accessed from your phone's Calendar and Contacts (sometimes
called 'People') apps.
If you connect your Android device to your computer using the cable
from your charger (which has a USB plug on the end) ideally your phone
or tablet shows up on your computer just like a plug-in flash drive or
external hard drive - you should see that your mobile device has
folders for photos, videos and music and you can drag and drop the
files you want on your phone or from your phone to your computer.
That's the way it ought to work. It's rarely so straightforward,
however... for instance:
- If your computer is a Mac, you need to install the free Android File Transfer (AFT -
illustrated to the left) or Handshaker
app on your Mac - afterwards, when you plug in your device, AFT (or
Handshaker) will open up, showing you the folders on the device and
letting you drag and drop media files into the appropriate folder.
(Handshaker has a more 'user friendly' interface)
- On a Windows computer, your Android device should just show up as
an external drive - no extra software needed.
- With both Mac and Windows, if things are not working correctly,
look in your notifications - Tap the USB
for... notification. Then tap Transfer
that photos taken with your cell phone camera will be in the DCIM
folder - just as they would on a standard digital camera.
- Any files/folders that are added to the Movies, Music or Pictures
folders should immediately show up in the appropriate applications on
- Problems connecting your Android phone to a Windows PC or a Mac? See the article: Is your PC not recognising your Android smartphone? Here’s how to fix it
Beef up your log-in screen
at home or on a computer or mobile device there is always a trade-off
between convenience and security - it would be more convenient to never
lock my front door and not have to find a key in my pocket when I come
back from walking my dog with a bag of groceries in my hand. Many of
our phones (and computers) are set to go straight to our home pages
without asking us to verify our identity with some sort of log-in
password. Bad idea! Children play with our phones (and computers) and
phones in particular get lost or stolen in large numbers. You can help
keep children, thieves, or just random strangers from having access to
your email, Facebook account, and credit card information by adding
some sort of log-in control to your phone. It adds a few seconds of
inconvenience when your phone starts up (or wakes up) but it's worth it
in a big way.
Two things you
really should do
- Require some sort of log-in - open the Settings app and scroll down to Security. Pick the top option - Screen Lock. Pick one of the options
other than None. Try them all.
I tend to pick PIN
- entering a 4-digit number of your choice. From then on, you'll have
to enter that number to log into your phone, protecting it from casual
Go back to the Settings/Security page - you may see a little Gear icon
beside the words Screen Lock
- if you tap on it, you'll get some options for the screen lock page.
For instance, on my phone, it's set to automatically lock 5 seconds
after the phone goes to sleep - leaving me a tiny bit of time to change
my mind and wake up the phone without needing to enter my PIN. The
option that pressing the power button instantly locks the phone is
turned on. The third option lets me enter a custom Lock Screen Message
Tap that and you're able to type a line that will appear on your lock
screen. I've added my email address and my drivers licence number. You
might prefer to add a different phone number that someone finding the
phone could call - it's up to you!
(I've found four cell phones over the past few years - typically, the
owner tries to call their phone (which of course will only work if the
phone's battery is charged). Hopefully if you lose your phone, someone
will answer it and let you get it back. If you've installed Google's Device Manager
app, you can try to locate your phone, or remotely ring it (handy if
the phone is under the couch), lock it, or even erase it. See instructions
the settings app
It's worthwhile taking the time to explore the large number of
settings on your phone and spend some time making the phone truly yours.
There are a number of ways to access the settings app - the icon is a
gear. You may have an icon for it on one of your Home Screens (though
since there are several other easy ways to get there, I always remove
the icon from the Home Screen). Alternatively, you can find the
Settings icon in your App Drawer
Or pull down the Notifications Shade then pull it down again to get to
the various fast-settings icons - there's a gear icon there too. Any
way you do it, you'll see a long list of settings, organized into
categories. We're not going to look at all of them but feel free to
explore - you'll find that there is a lot there. As always, the details
of your phone may differ from mine.
The first section is labeled Wireless
The first item, Wi-Fi lets you turn your Wi-Fi radio off or on and
shows a list of nearby Wi-Fi networks. The ones that require a password
to connect show a tiny padlock beside the 'fan' icon - the colouring of
the 'fan' gives a rough indication of the signal strength. Once you
enter a password and connect to a Wi-Fi network, your phone should
remember the password for subsequent connections.
You may want to turn off Wi-Fi if you're not going to be accessing
Wi-Fi networks for some long period - a long flight, a hike in the
country, etc. Otherwise, your phone will waste battery power searching
- and failing to find - any accessible Wi-Fi.
Next is Bluetooth
radio, in this case for connecting to nearby Bluetooth gadgets -
speakers and headsets, hands-free phone devices, wireless keyboards and
mice, and more. If you're not connecting to any Bluetooth devices, turn
it off to save battery power.
The Data Usage
item shows you
how many MB (megabytes) or GB (gigabytes) of cellular data your phone
has used so far on this billing period. Lower down the page, it shows
how much data has been accessed over Wi-Fi for the same period. My
phone says I used 151 MB of cellular data between September 5 and today
(September 22) - handy if I'm trying to figure out how much data I need
to buy when travelling (see below).
offers a few more
useful items: I can turn Airplane Mode
off or on (yes, I can get here quicker by pulling down the Notification
Shade) or turning the NFC
radio off - you're probably not using this! The Tethering and HotSpot
lets you share your device's cell phone data connection with other
computers, tablets, etc over Wi-Fi - I've used that when travelling;
I've often had hotel rooms with crappy (or no) Wi-Fi. Setting up a
temporary Wi-Fi hotspot let my wife go online on her (Wi-Fi only) iPad,
sharing my phone's data connection.
Tap on the Cellular Networks
item and you'll have an option to turn Data
on or off - if it's off you won't accidentally access cellular data
while outside your mobile provider's call area, keeping you safer from
unexpected charges. (You can still get data using Wi-Fi).
Next section is labelled Device
- the first item is Display
which has a number of useful settings:
- Adaptive Brightness
automatically adjusts the screen brightness depending on the amount of
- Wallpaper lets you set
the Home Screen wallpaper; Sleep
sets the time before your screen automatically turns off
- Screen Saver (some times
called 'Day Dream') lets
you set the phone to display a clock instead of a blank screen - I use
it in place of a travel clock. There's a trick though - just choosing
the clock doesn't do what I'd expect. Click the three little dots in
the top-right corner to get some menu options then pick When to start screen saver. The
default it for it to start when your device is 'docked'. (Who does
that?) Instead, pick While charging
- now if you charge your phone overnight, the clock will display.
useful if you'd like to turn off notifications from some apps.
Otherwise, you can probably ignore it.
item lets you set
separate volumes for 'Media', 'Alarms', and phone 'Ring' sounds, and
whether to turn vibration on or off. You can change the default phone
ringtone (or add a musical ringtone using the Ringdroid
app, and select different sounds for notifications and alarms. (You can
change the default sounds of specific apps in the settings for some of
those apps in the following section).
section lists all the
installed apps - I have 75. Mostly, I ignore this section, but it lets
you disable or force-stop a misbehaving app, and lets you view
information about each app, modify its notifications, and more.
, and Memory
sections are pretty
self-explanatory... the Users
section lets you add a user - useful if multiple people are using your
phone and you want each to have their own set of apps, contacts, email,
- whether you
have it turned on (which uses the GPS
radio) or off, and which apps have recently made use of your location
information. There are valid reasons for turning location off if you
aren't needing mapping information and you don't want apps (Facebook,
for instance) to be tracking you.
We've looked at the Screen Lock
item in the Security
already - also worth thinking about in that section - much further down
that list, Unknown Sources
allows or disables the installation of apps from sources other than the
Google Play Store. By default, it's turned off - it's a good idea to
leave it that way unless you have a really good reason to install
something from another source - and know it's safe and secure.
Skipping down to the Backup &
item - I think it's worthwhile to enable backing up data to my Google
account and setting the phone to automatically restore - Google gives
free storage for each installed app on its cloud servers. If you get a
new phone, when you log into the same Google account, you'll get the
option to restore apps and settings, which can be a real time saver in
setting up the new phone. The Network
can be helpful if you're having persisten trouble connecting to Wi-Fi
or cellular networks, but not that it will erase all your saved network
passwords. Finally, using the Factory
item erases everything you've added to your phone - apps, photos,
music, email, etc. Use it if you're selling or passing on your phone to
another user - they get a phone that acts like it's just been taken out
of the box.
The final section, System
doesn't have much that you need to bother with. The final About Phone
item can be used to
check for updates, though unless you have a Nexus phone, you probably
won't get updates regularly.
Optimizing Battery Life -
Hopefully your smartphone battery lasts you through a whole day or more
if that's the case, you're probably okay and can just recharge your
phone every night while you sleep. (Yes, it's okay to charge your phone
before the battery is fully discharged - modern batteries no longer
suffer from a 'memory effect' where charging a partially dis-charged
battery will affect the battery's life).
The biggest drain on your battery is the screen - that's part of the
reason why modern smartphones, with big bright screens, tend to have
shorter battery life than older feature phones with small screens. (As
well, we're more likely to use a smartphone more and in more different
ways than we used older, less capable styles of phones). So what can
make the biggest difference in battery life is turning down your screen
brightness. That's a trade-off though - a dimmer screen is harder to
view. Find a balance - not too bright, not too dim. Your phone may want
to automatically make your screen brighter or dimmer depending on the
level of outside light. Experiment with having this setting on or off -
see if you notice a difference in battery life.
Turn off radios that you aren't using - no Bluetooth devices? Turn off
Bluetooth (there may be a Quick Settings icon for that - see above).
Not using location? Turn it off. Going a while without connecting to
Wi-Fi? You get the picture.
and myths about extending smartphone battery life
to see which apps are draining your battery
with your phone
Smartphones can be very useful when travelling - see: 30 ways to use your smartphone while travelling
Lots of us now take our phone with us on trips. Note that you cell
phone charger can be used in foreign countries though you may need a
cheap adaptor (not an expensive voltage converter) to plug into a
foreign electric outlet.
If you have an older phone sitting in a drawer, you may want to take it
instead, so that if it gets lost or damaged it's not as big a deal -
however, while most current models can connect to international phone
networks, that may not be the case with your older model.
There are a number of ways to use a phone when you're outside your
mobile provider's coverage area without getting surprised by a huge
phone bill when you get home. There's no single best answer for
everyone. Some things you could do:
- Take our the phone's SIM card to make sure you won't incur
and then simply use your phone with no mobile phone connection. You can
go online whenever there's Wi-Fi - in your hotel, in many public
places, in many bars, restaurants, and cafes. (Watch out for public
Wi-Fi networks that want you to pay for service, however!) You can use
apps like Skype or Whatsapp
to make 'calls' to friends and family (and even to other phones) when
you're connected on Wi-Fi. Make sure
you don't lose your SIM card! You'll need it when you get back home.
- Check with your mobile network about US or International roaming
(see the 2016 article - The best roaming options for Canadians
- though the information may change). You may decide that this is a
simple and affordable way to keep using your phone - with your current
phone number - while travelling. Pay attention to the amount of data
including, however - and check your data usage (Tap Settings/Wireless
& Networks/Data Usage to see how much mobile data you're using at
home and see whether this is in line with what your mobile provider is
offering - often their roaming plans charge a lot if you use more than
the allotted amount of data).
- If you're travelling to a single country, it may make the most
sense to go a mobile phone company store in that country and purchase
service for the time you're travelling - you'll get a new SIM card and
a new phone number which can be inconvenient if anyone at home wants to
phone you (but how often do you want that to happen when you're
travelling?). On the other hand it can be more convenient if you're
wanting to phone or text in the other country - hotels, restaurants,
etc. I've dealt with three or four different mobile companies in Italy
- all were happy to provide a SIM card with a month's phone, text, and
data service (typically with 2 or 3 GB of data - far more than Canadian
companies offer with their roaming plans) for 20-30 Euro. I've gotten
service in the US from T-Mobile for $2 per day. Note that you should
bring your passport when you're signing up for this sort of service.
Note that to be able to make use of a SIM card from a different mobile
provider, your phone needs to be unlocked. If you bought your phone
from your provider, it is probably locked to only work with that
company's service. (Some phones are sold already unlocked - a very good
feature). Your mobile provider may offer to unlock it for you -
typically charging $50 or so for the privilege. There are also lots of
small local businesses that will unlock your phone - in Vancouver, I've
had good experiences with Foreign Electronics
- I just checked with them and they still charge $25 for the service).
Google offers a number of apps that can be useful when travelling. The
new Google Trips
helps plan trips
and offers restaurant and site-seeing advice for your location. Google Translate
can be helpful for translating words, phrases and more - it can even
use your phone's camera... point it at a sign and watch the sign
magically reappear in English. Very cool! (If you'll be using it where
you won't have Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity you can download the
foreign language data to it before leaving home). Google Maps
can be very useful for providing maps and directions - you can also
download maps in advance so that you can use it even if you have no
connectivity. (See How to download Google Maps
). Popular travel
author Rick Steves has a series of free audio guides
to European cities and attractions (including a number of museums) -
you might want to install his app and download the guides for the
places you plan to visit.