Don’t Forget Your iPhone! Why the iPhone Is My Favorite Study Abroad Research Tool

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

Map of Cádiz, Spain, courtesy of Google Maps.

One of the aggravations of traveling abroad for research or study abroad is dealing with getting a cell phone working outside the US. Most of our faculty members and students just end up buying a cheap cellphone to use while traveling, but if you’re like me and you have an iPhone or other smartphone in the US, you’ve grown really dependent on your smartphone, and ditching it for a junky standard cellphone while abroad (just when you need your smartphone the most) is a real disappointment.

Well, if you’re attached to your iPhone the way I am, my suggestion is to bring it with you. I just returned from a two-week research trip to Spain, and if I could have only brought one tool with me, the iPhone was that tool. When traveling abroad, with a little forethought, your smartphone is almost just as useful when it isn’t a phone. Here’s what I did to make the iPhone my essential research assistant.

Disable the Phone Part of Your iPhone

First thing, if you’re not going to pay an arm and a leg for international phone service, make very sure that the phone part of your iPhone is disabled. Here’s the quick and dirty for disabling your phone:

  1. Go to Settings > General > Cellular and turn off Cellular Data and Roaming.
  2. Just to make sure your phone isn’t transmitting data behind your back, go to Settings > General > Usage > Cellular Usage and Reset Statistics. This will set your Cellular Usage (Sent and Received) to zero, and you can then check every once in a while to ensure that those numbers stay at zero while you’re traveling.

Okay, now that your iPhone is just the “i” without the “Phone,” the next step is to make sure you have all the apps you’ll need to make it a really useful companion on your trip.


Since you probably won’t have a wifi connection wherever you’re heading, you can download maps to your iPhone for the places you’ll be staying, which can be really convenient (City Maps 2Go Offline Map and Travel Guide is a good, inexpensive choice, but there are others. If you’re too cheap to pay for maps, you can find a wifi connection, open the Maps app that comes with the iPhone, look at all the areas you will be visiting extensively, and even when you have no wifi connection, you should at least be able to get a fairly good detailed map of where you are.

In fact, you can keep wifi turned on when you don’t have a real signal, and you will most likely be able to find your current location on the map. You just won’t be able to search for places like restaurants or street names. Make sure you have Location Services turned on for this to work: Settings > Privacy > Location Services > On.

Making Calls with Skype

This is a biggie. Skype for the iPhone is a great tool, and if you buy credits and shell out for a Skype phone number for your account, then all you need is a wifi connection and your iPhone becomes a fully functional cell phone again through the Skype app. Call other Skype contacts, call cell phones, home phones, etc. all over the world. And the pay-as-you-go phone rates are incredibly cheap.

With a Skype phone number, you can even have people call you from cell phones and landlines. Remember, this only works when you’re in range of a wifi connection, so for me in Cádiz this summer, it was very hit or miss. One of the main plazas had free wifi, as did a few cafes, but for the most part, Cádiz, and Spain in general, is a wifi desert unless you want to drink coffee all day long (cafes usually offer free wifi for patrons).

Foreign Language Dictionary

If you’re fluent in the language of the country you’re going to, I guess this isn’t an issue, but my Spanish is only marginally passable, so I really need the backup of a good dictionary. At home, I use Google Translate, which I love, but it doesn’t work offline, so I shelled out for a really good downloadable dictionary for the iPhone. If you need a Spanish-English dictionary, I highly recommend the Ultralingua dictionary app. Since it’s all downloaded to your phone, there’s no problem finding the translation you need when you need it. Ultralingua is a little pricey (I think I paid $29 for it) and there are cheaper options out there, but in this case, you get what you pay for. I’ve tried the cheap and free options in the past and have been disappointed.

Alarm Clock

Okay, for me, this is a big one, since I was renting an apartment, so I couldn’t just call down to the front desk for a wake-up call. The iPhone’s built-in clock has a perfectly acceptable alarm clock, but there are others you can download from the app store if you need something fancier.

Camera & Geotagging

My research trip in Spain had a very specific photography and mapping component, which may not be the case for your own situation, but it’s always nice to have a camera with you when traveling abroad, and the iPhone’s camera is particularly good for a point and shoot camera. It can even do panoramic shots. While I mainly relied on my digital SLR for the important photography, I didn’t always have the SLR with me, and having the iPhone camera is a great backup. The iPhone will even geotag your images for you, so you know exactly where the photo was taken. I used this feature to great effect when our research group was in the field and I needed to be able to map our locations. When we would get to a certain spot, I would take a single photo with the iPhone and then the rest of the photos with my digital SLR to be able to map all my photos later on.

To make sure your camera’s geotagging feature is activated, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > On. There are a couple of worthwhile apps that you might consider when using the iPhone’s built-in camera and the geotagging feature. The first is called NightCap ($0.99), which allows you to take much better nighttime and low light photos than you could otherwise take with the built-in camera app. The other is called Exif Wizard, which accesses the hidden data in each of your photos, including the geotagging data. One really great feature in Exif Wizard is the mapping function, which will actually allow you to click on your image and then place it in a Google map. Another nice app is called MapMyHike, which isn’t for geotagging photos, but instead, it will map a route that you take and place it on a shareable website for you.

Audio Recording

I had a digital audio recorder with me on our research trip, but as a backup, I always had the iPhone ready to capture audio from interviews. The app I really like for audio recording is called Instant Audio Recorder, but there are plenty of others to choose from.

There are a ton of other uses for your iPhone when abroad on a research or study abroad trip, so I hope you take it along with you next time you need to travel and share your favorite apps and uses with us. Just remember to bring a charger and power adapter!

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College