Mobile Phones and Exchange Students: Some Useful Tips 

 July 24, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

Last week I posted a summary of what to expect regarding students getting a drivers’ license while on their exchange year. Today I address cell phones, as part of this periodic series on “things students and host families might want to know.” What’s posted below may not be news for everyone, but hopefully it gives some direction to students who have not traveled extensively before and to host families who have not had to address the issue of what to do for young people who cannot sign a contract. Options vary in different parts of the U.S. and with different cell providers, so make sure to check locally for more precise information.

There is a good chance that phones from another country will not work in the U.S.

Before they leave their home country, we try to explain to students the difference between “locked” and “unlocked” phones, and ask them to check if their current phone can be “unlocked” before they leave. If it’s locked, it won’t work in another country with another cell provider. More students understand the basics of this than in past years, but it still does cause confusion. (And it’s more complicated than many of us think anyway: see this article from August 2013 for more details and be ready to be even more confused!)

Quite often students and their families will say they have confirmed that the student’s phone is unlocked, and thus believe it should be able to send and receive signals from any cell service provider. Yet the phone simply does not work once the student arrives. This, too, causes confusion and distress every year, as students will fight with Sim cards and insist that their phone is supposed to work, so why doesn’t it? Whether it’s because phones manufactured for sale and use elsewhere are designed differently, whether it’s because cell providers define “locked” differently, or whether it’s something else entirely doesn’t really matter. Just anticipate that your phone from home may well not work.

Even if the phone from home does work, students need to get a local phone number. Many students feel that since they are “only” here for 10 months, why spend time and money on a local phone number? For one thing, using a phone from another country here in the U.S. abroad can be incredibly expensive, since the price for each call and text message will be at high international rates. This can be a shock! If the phone also handles data, data costs using a foreign cellular provider can be astronomical. Second, many people who exchange students meet in the U.S. may not be able to call them on their foreign phone since their own phones may not have international service (not to mention the problem of having to explain expensive international calls that you’ve made to a friend in the next classroom). This often seems strange to the exchange students, but U.S. host families should keep in mind that the students may come from smaller countries where crossing a border can be something one does easily and often.

Even if a student brings a smart phone, students may have limitations on use of the Internet

Students who have smart phones with Internet capability should check with their exchange program to learn about expectations regarding use of the Internet. What’s normal in one country for teens between the ages of 15-18 may not be normal in another country an477922035 no phoned culture. It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for young people in this age group to have limits imposed on their Internet use. We do pay attention to this with exchange students, since it’s a normal culture shock reaction to want to stay in close contact friends and family back home. This continual contact can make it more difficult for students to form relationships with their host family and people they meet in the host country and can cause difficulties in the student’s ability to fully integrate into the host culture; basically, students are reaching out to what’s comfortable and familiar and not learning how to deal with the unknown and establishing new relationships. As a result, limits on internet use are common and it’s a good idea for exchange students coming to the U.S. to understand the expectations and guidelines.

Examples of what high school students coming to the U.S. may find to be different from their home country when it comes to cell phones and other communication technologies:

* Many families have rules about texting and use of cell phones.  A student’s host family may not allow use of cell phones in the home after a certain hour or in certain circumstances. In many host families in our area, for example, a common house rule is that all cell phones must be turned off and left in a common area by a certain hour in the evening (no midnight texting!). Other common rules include no cell phone use in the mornings as students are getting ready for school, or no texting, earphones, or calls in the car when parents are taking you somewhere.

* Students may find they have limits on amount and timing of Internet use. Many families may not allow personal use of the Internet until students have shown that they have finished homework, or may have limits on the amount of time a teen may have to send personal emails or get on Facebook or other social media. Many families require teens to turn off all Internet devices by a certain hour. These limits may be difficult to get used to if a teen is used to using the Internet without restriction.

* Many U.S. high schools do not allow use of cell phones during school hours, either for calls/texts or for use of the Internet.

* Wi-fi is not available everywhere, limiting use of the Internet to what is available in the host family home, school if available, and coffee shops, libraries, and other locations where it might be offered.

So what’s the answer? I need a phone!

The easiest way for students to make sure they are able to communicate effectively is usually to buy a “pay as you go” (also called “prepaid”) cheap phone and phone/text plan. This “pay as you go” option avoids the need to sign a contract, which most exchange students cannot do. Costs vary depending on the cell provider, and may vary in different geographic areas, but tend to be $25-50/month for phone calls and text messages (more if a data plan is included); see this article here for a recent (updated July 2014) comparison between different prepaid plans available in the U.S. If the student’s home phone is truly unlocked, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the student may be able to simply buy a U.S. Sim card with a pay-as-you-go option and insert that into his or her existing device.

460495493 cell phone chatIn today’s world, the “phone” may also contain a student’s photos and useful applications, so we know that many students will choose to bring their mobile phone with them even if it’s not likely to work in the U.S. A key piece of advice we give to all who do want to bring their phones with them is to make sure to turn off all cellular service, data service, and roaming service before students leave their home country, and to only leave on the wi-fi function. There are many free messaging options available now, too, so that one can avoid the costs and use wi-fi communication options.

Be informed and be prepared!

If you’ve traveled internationally, this warning won’t come as a surprise to you. But many, many teens don’t have that experience under their belt. Every year, a few weeks or month after the students have arrived, we hear from them, or sometimes directly from their parents. That first huge phone bill with its long list of international calls, dozens of text messages at international rates ($0.20 – 0.50 per message), and a few hundred dollars for data sent and received usually gets their attention! Be wise, and plan for your international communications in advance so that you can avoid these unnecessary charges (and spend your money on much more worthwhile and fun things during your exchange year).

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted
  • Hi there! Do host parents have a right to set a rule that they can look at the exchange student’s cell phones texts, (to monitor them)? I know you can do that with your own kid but can you do that with your exchange student?

    • Generally, we do tell host parents to try and treat their exchange student as one of their own, as much as possible. Some families monitor text messages as you note for their own children and they do the same for their exchange students. It can be a challenge, though, because there are cultural differences, and your student might be upset at what he or she views as a violation of privacy. You might want to check with your local contact coordinator to see if your exchange organization has any particular rules regarding this issue. If your program says it’s OK I would sit down with your student and explain that this is something that is considered normal here, and that it’s a rule in your family.

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