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What to do if you lose your phone abroad

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It’s one of travelers’ worst nightmares: losing a phone while you’re away from home.

Our smartphones act like everything from hotel room keys to key to avoid covid quarantine in a foreign country. Traveling can be a serious challenge without this device. A lost phone abroad isn’t just an annoying (and costly) inconvenience; this can completely disrupt a trip and become a major security issue.

This happened to me on a recent solo trip to Guatemala. In the minute between closing my Uber door and entering my hotel, I realized that I forgot my iPhone in the back seat of my ride.

How to use your phone abroad

My driver was already long gone and I was left on my own (without a device). But I made it through the rest of the trip, even returning to the US without a phone. Here’s what I did – and what security experts say you should do if this happens to you.

Precautions to take before leaving

Before leaving on a trip, it is important to take the necessary precautions in case of unforeseen events. “Bring only the devices you need during the trip and delete all unnecessary data,” said Bahman Hayat, a cybersecurity expert who works for tech company Stripe. “I highly recommend logging out or deleting apps that you don’t plan to use on the go.” This makes it harder for someone to access platforms without your consent, if they can even access your phone in the first place.

In addition to limiting what is physically with you, securely manage passwords and back up data on the devices you do have. These aren’t just tips for traveling; it’s good safety hygiene wherever you are.

According to Hayat, a password manager protects you from “credential stuffing attacks.” Essentially, if an attacker gains access to one of your passwords, they won’t be able to access all of your accounts. Some password managers, like 1Password, even have a specific move mode. “Use a password manager to generate a unique password for each account,” Hayat said.

Let By The Way help you overcome travel dilemmas

“Make sure you’ve backed up your data, either locally at home or in the cloud,” Hayat said. If you lose your device, backing up your data will give you access to your recent contacts, messages, and your most important travel photos.

Finally, if the option is available on your phone, Hayat recommends using an eSIM. An eSIM is an electronic SIM card built into your phone when it was made. Popular devices, like the latest iPhones and Androids, automatically include eSIMs. From a security perspective, eSIMs are better than physical SIM cards because they cannot be removed and placed in another device.

“That way, whoever has your phone can’t remove the physical SIM card and start using your phone number,” Hayat noted.

You have lost your device. Now start following it.

After the momentary panic, I quickly sprang into action.

First, I attempted to contact the driver directly through Uber on my work laptop. When that failed, I tracked my iPhone through the Find My app.

But the phone could not be located. My $1,000 iPhone was traveling further, and since I hadn’t activated an international data plan, I had no idea where it was going. My phone was on airplane mode and on a ride somewhere in the country.

Alas, I ended up accepting that I wouldn’t be getting my phone back anytime soon. I filed a lost item claim through Uber’s website – and it was time to sit and wait.

How to protect your data while traveling

Fortunately, I knew my phone was probably locked. If you lose yours and it doesn’t, you can lock it with Android’s Secure Device feature or Apple’s Lost Mode.

Meanwhile, on my work laptop, I tried logging into social media accounts and iMessage – my usual modes of communication. But since I was not logged into any Apple account, I ran into a problem. With two-factor authentication enabled for most platforms that required texting to a now-lost phone, I could only access one app: Twitter. What you can access will obviously depend on where you have two-factor authentication enabled.

Back up your data, then erase it

While my modes of communication were limited – aside from Twitter and the carrier pigeon – there were some steps I could take to protect myself. When I got home, my data and photos could be easily recovered thanks to iCloud automatic backups. Also, I could erase data from my missing phone.

What to do if you lose your phone and can’t access your accounts

“Set up your remote wipe system (Android and iPhone have these these days) to wipe everything as soon as it’s connected,” said James Bore, director of Bores Consultancy and security professional.

“If someone has physical access to a device, you should assume they can access anything on it,” Bore noted.

Take advantage of credit card or insurance benefits

Not everything can be lost when you lose a device. If you have insurance on your phone, travel insurance, or some credit cards, you might be in luck.

First, the bad news: Most travel insurance plans specifically exclude phones from their coverage. For plans that cover devices, it’s important to understand that they are covered up to a maximum limit and often subject to a deductible. Limits vary widely and you’ll usually find phone coverage listed in the ‘baggage coverage’ section.

Beginner’s guide to travel insurance

Meanwhile, cell phone insurance can sometimes cover the cost of another device, with a deductible. However, you must ensure that the plan you have purchased specifically covers theft and loss. For example, for iPhones, Apple’s standard AppleCare coverage does not not include theft or loss (but AppleCare Plus with Theft and Loss does). And you can usually only sign up for such plans within days of purchasing a new device.

Finally, some credit cards will include phone protection, especially against theft and loss. In 2019, Mastercard added cell phone insurance to most World and World Elite designated cards. And in early 2021, American Express added this benefit to many of its premium products. However, eligibility and deductibles depend on your card, so check your benefits guide for the fine print.

Long story short: if you’re able to take advantage of card or insurance benefits, you might not even have to wait until you get home to get a new device. Or if you’re willing to pay out of pocket for a temporary or replacement phone, that’s also an option.

But as I discovered, the cost of a new iPhone in Guatemala was prohibitive (we’re talking almost 50% more than in the United States for a similar model). It’s certainly possible to get a cheap Android device to help you get by in the meantime, but I decided to wait until I got home before getting a new phone.

Be resourceful with what’s available

The saving grace for my lost phone saga? I was almost at the end of my trip. As I had already spent a week in Guatemala, I was only checking into a hotel in the capital to be closer to the airport for a flight the next morning.

It meant that I didn’t have need my phone for things like browsing Google Maps or messaging my Airbnb host — two things I’ve done frequently over the past week.

Instead, I could take advantage of the hotel printer to get a physical copy of my negative coronavirus test to get back to the United States. I asked the front desk to arrange a car to the airport instead of calling an Uber.

However, travelers should consider printing important documents (like visas, itineraries, etc.) before leave the house. Of course, that wouldn’t help with the coronavirus test, but many testing sites will provide a physical copy of your results.

At my connecting airport in Dallas-Fort Worth International, I relied on terminal monitors for gate and flight information and used my laptop for entertainment in the air.

Two weeks after returning to the US, I finally got a response from Uber. The driver had picked up my phone but between the language barrier, the distance and the fact that I already had a new device, I gave up on picking it up.

Ultimately, a lost phone is a significant hindrance in our modern times. But it’s certainly possible to navigate the world without a device and perhaps gain a whole new perspective on your travels.

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