Mobile Phones and the Exchange Student: What’s the Answer?

The following blog post is an update from my blog post on this subject from last year. We get questions all the time on this subject, and I decided to do a quick update to reflect changes we have seen in technology and in student habits.
The information below may not be news for everyone, but I hope it gives direction to students who have not traveled extensively and to host families who have not previously had to address the issue. Options vary in different parts of the U.S. and with different cell providers, so make sure to check locally!

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

Many phones built for use in other countries do not work in the United States. It doesn’t make sense, but that is just how it is. This is happening less often than it used to, but it is still possible that your student’s phone won’t work.

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 causes confusion. (Moreover, it’s more complicated than many of us think anyway: see this article from August 2013 for more details, including some recent comments, and be ready to be even more confused!)

Sometimes students believe that they have confirmed that their phone is unlocked, and 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; students will fight with Sim cards and insist that their phone should work, so why doesn’t it?

Whether it’s because manufacturers design phones differently, whether it’s because cell providers define “locked” differently, or whether it’s something else entirely doesn’t really matter. Just expect that your student’s phone from home may well not work, so you may need to find an alternative.

Get a local phone number!

Even if the phone from your student’s home country does work, students need to get a local phone number. Some students feel that since they are “only” here for 10 months, why spend time and money on a local phone number? Can’t they just hand out their existing phone number, and use WhatsApp all the time?

This, too, is something we see less often than in the past. Teens are becoming more “tech savvy” every year and the exchange organizations continually update their student orientations. But it still does happen, especially with teens used to calling and communicating across country lines more often than here in the U.S.

479218942 dollar signsThe key thing to communicate is that using a phone from another country here in the U.S. abroad can be incredibly expensive. The price for each call and text message will be at high international “roaming” rates. See this article for information about roaming charges; it includes differences between the larger U.S. cellular providers and has links to other related articles.

The expense can be a shock if the student and his or her family are not prepared. If the phone also handles data, data costs using a foreign cellular provider can be astronomical. 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 a student’s attention (and their parents’ attention as well!).

Additionally, many people who exchange students meet in the U.S. may not be able to call them on their foreign phone since their U.S. friends’ phones may not have international service. Even if they do, a U.S. teen is going to have difficulty explaining why he or she is making expensive international calls and texts to a friend in the next classroom. This sometimes seems strange to exchange students who may cross borders on a regular basis back home and whose cellular calling plans may reflect that different reality.

Students may have limitations on Internet use

496619997 teen and gadgetsStudents who have smart phones with Internet capability (almost all students, these days) should check with their exchange program to learn about expectations for 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 and culture. It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for young people in this age group to have limits imposed on their Internet use. This is especially true with exchange students, since continual contact with friends and family back home can make it more difficult for students to form relationships with their host family and people they meet in the host country. It can cause difficulties in the student’s ability to fully integrate into the host culture; students who are reaching out to what’s comfortable and familiar are not learning how to deal with the unknown and establishing new relationships. As a result, limits on internet use are common. It’s a good idea for exchange students coming to the U.S. to understand these 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 have rules about texting and use of cell phones in the home. In many host families, common house rules include turning phones off at a certain hour, or leaving phones 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, as well as no texting, earphones, or calls in the car when parents are taking you somewhere. We work with our students to help them respect these rules and not to “fight” them; if they have questions about how it’s different from back home, students should get in touch with their local coordinator.
  • 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 finished homework, or may have limits on the amount of time a teen may use the Internet for personal use. Many families require teens to turn off all Internet devices by a certain hour. These limits may be difficult for a teen used to unrestricted Internet availability.
  • 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 (unless the student has purchased a data plan) to what is available in the host family home, school if available, and coffee shops, libraries, and other locations where it might be offered. Students also need to understand that they may need to pay their host family for use of the Internet in the host family home, depending on the kind of Internet service the host family has. While some families may have service that allows unlimited Internet use, many others do not, and we often receive panicky calls from host families asking us of advice because their exchange student has gone through an entire month’s worth of data usage in just a week or so.

cell phone 187625854So 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 for a recent (updated July 2015) comparison between different prepaid plans available in the U.S. If the student’s home phone is unlocked, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the student may be able to buy a U.S. Sim card with a pay-as-you-go option and insert that into his or her existing device.

In 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.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted
  • Karen Walker says:

    Just spoke with T-Mobile this evening. If there are homes with two students, they can share a plan, with no contract. $100 (split by each) unlimited text and calling, and each student gets 5 gigs of data. This is great as long as they pay on time. They have their own data so there is no problem with one using more then the other.

    • Laura the Exchange Mom says:

      That sounds like a great plan! Definitely sounds worth checking into for homes with two students!

  • Julie Martin says:

    Great post Laura, and so relevant for us right now (even though we are Australian based, the issues are the same). We had an exchange student who was supposed to be with us for 5 months, but she only lasted 5 weeks. She just couldn’t settle. And a big part of the reason, I believe, was that she was constantly in touch with home. She was always using her phone! We tried to put some boundaries on the phone use, but in the end it was just too hard.

    • Laura the Exchange Mom says:

      Hello Julie,
      Fascinating for me, to know that the issues are the same – in a way, that’s encouraging for me to hear. I often hear from host families in other countries (and sometimes students and parents back home), and I often caution them that issues may be different based on the host culture. I’m sorry to hear about your experience, and hope it doesn’t turn you “off” to the concept. Some teens have more difficulty than others, and sometimes it’s hard to know for sure what the “right” solution is that is going to work for this teen in this family in this environment. Although I touched on the “too much communication” in this blog post, I didn’t focus on it. But it’s a difficult topic. Technology can be a huge benefit in many ways, and it has made communications with our students’ families so much easier for them and their host families. When we need a quick answer, it’s great. But it’s a real problem for students who need to adjust to their host culture and host family — too much communication does exactly what you experienced.

      • Julie Martin says:

        While it may dampen our enthusiasm for hosting another student, our own son is currently on exchange in Colorado and loving it! He could see the mistakes that our student made, and is working hard not to repeat them. Reading your blog in the lead up to his departure gave us so much great information – thank you!

        • Laura the Exchange Mom says:

          Glad to hear he is having a good experience. Our own son went on an exchange to Ghana a couple of years ago, and he, too, benefited from the experiences of the students we hosted. (Of course, he also had to put up with us saying “now, what would your local coordinator suggest you do about this problem you are having?…..)

          Thank you for the positive feedback, I’m glad some of my thoughts have helped someone else in their own exchange.

  • Bluebonnet says:

    We have parental restrictions on our own children’s phones and computers. Is it appropriate to also enable parental restrictions on those of our exchange student?

    • Laura the Exchange Mom says:

      Yes, that would be appropriate. Keep in mind that an exchange student should always have the opportunity to contact their program representative if they want to, and certainly have reasonable access to contact family back home. But reasonable limits that are normal in U.S. culture should be alright — indeed, most exchange programs encourage normal and reasonable parent rules.

      In our own home, for example, we generally require that all electronic devices be turned off and put in a central “charging area” in the living room at night — no phones or laptops in bedrooms. Some homes turn off Internet at a certain hour. I’m sure you can come up with other examples from your own home rules or those of friends.

  • EPickle says:

    We’re having all sorts of issues with our student’s need for constant Internet or cell phone usage. We initially put a limit on Internet with exception to school work and being mindful of too much texting, social media, etc. in our Welcome letter/house guidelines upon arrival. All of which has been ignored. Now its to the point where the other kids in the house are irritated and resentful about the excessive use. She says she understands the expectations but now she’s staying in the bathroom for long periods always coming out with phone in hand, hiding it under the dining table. It’s honestly a snowball effect. She’s never “here”, she’s running late to things or she’s putting things off (hw, chores). Almost 3 mos in and we don’t really know her at all. It’s not our first hosting experience but our kids don’t want us to host anyone again because of how things are going. We’re going to try one more discussion and will now be requiring the phone to be downstairs by 10 as well as a daily WiFi password change for a bit. Crossing our fingers.

    • Laura the Exchange Mom says:

      The constant connection to technology can be a challenge for today’s exchange students. I’m glad you set out your guidelines from the start. Having the 10 pm “phone curfew” is a good idea; we do that ourselves. We also sometimes require that students put their phones away while in the house or when we are in the car as a family, to avoid having them be tempted to answer any messages that might pop up while we’re trying to have family activities.

      If you haven’t yet, you might want to consider consequences: take away the cell phone for a day or two if your student doesn’t follow family rules, much as you would for your own children. Don’t treat her as a guest, but try to think of her as a member of the family. I also would urge you to talk to your local contact person. Your local coordinator should be trained in how to deal with teens, and (hopefully) can have a conversation with your student about the importance of following family rules. Maybe you can all sit down together and talk about these issues; you would be surprised how helpful that can be!

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