Traveling internationally with only an Apple Watch and no phone

Traveling internationally with only an Apple Watch and no phone

A forced experiment in living like the ancestors did.

Last week I found myself outside of the United States without a functioning phone. "Let's descend under three feet of water and take a photo with my phone", I suggested to the dive master. "I'm not really comfortable with that. I'm afraid I will drop it in the lake. I will take a photo of you on the surface", he replied. One minute and three splashes later, I had a memorable photo of me and my friends scuba diving at 5,000ft (1,520 m) and a camera module filled with water. I quickly copied the photos off my phone onto my iPad and then my phone got painfully hot and shut off. Odd considering I washed it with soap and water under a faucet the week before.

I was 2,000 mi (3,200 km) from home and my only working technology was a Wi-Fi-only iPad and a 3 year old cellular Apple Watch Series 5 whose cellular function didn't work in Latin America. Three days later I flew back home like my ancestors did--paper boarding passes, streaming HBO to my own 11-inch screen on the plane, and navigating the airport and public transit via the light of the stars--err turn-by-turn instructions.

When I bought the very first Apple Watch in 2015 I was excited to keep my phone in my pocket more, or leave it at home. Unfortunately the first four years of Watch ownership taught me that if I wanted to do anything, I should do it on my phone first. The impression I maintained as an early adopter was that the Apple Watch was too slow and the 3rd party apps were too limited to do much of anything except glance at notifications and track my heart rate. Finally in 2019 Apple released both the hardware and software necessary to make the Apple Watch a stand-alone device: a larger screen, better battery life, faster chips, and yearly updates to an operating system (that gave 3rd party apps the ability to do app-y things like make network requests directly without the phone to chaperone it). But despite paying $15 a month (!!) for cellular service I treated my watch's independant capabilities solely as an emergency device in case my phone was unavailable.

That perception changed pretty quickly last week. Of all the years to live without a phone for a couple weeks, 2022 is a fantastic time to do so. Although my watch's cellular plan didn't work in Latin America, as soon as I got back to Wi-Fi I was able to stay in touch with friends and family via text or "phone" calls. Once I was back in the states, a flurry of iMessages came in the moment I turned off Airplane mode. Before taking public transit from the airport to the Amtrak station, Apple Maps told me what station to get off at. Driving to the certified Apple Repair Center and then running further errands was incredibly easy thanks to turn-by-turn directions and a responsive search experience ("Hey Siri, driving directions to CostCo"). I paid for food and fares using Apple Pay and never pulled out my wallet. I learned that all the UPS store near me were closed for the weekend. In fact, relying on just an Apple Watch while away from home went so smoothly that I barely missed my phone.

In fact, the only frustrations I had were needing to charge my (three year-old) watch 4 times a day, poor cellular signal (in areas where my phone worked fine), the inability to take pictures, SMS texts not being forwarded to my watch, Slack and other iPhone-centric apps not showing me notifications, and the inability to look up certain information on the go. As I rushed off my plane and took Chicago's L-Train to Union Station I arrived just in time for an earlier train home--only to find out upon arriving that the earlier train had been canceled.

As Apple makes it easier and easier with SwiftUI to share code and UI between the iPhone and Apple Watch, I hope more developers will make simplified interactions for Apple Watch and advertise them loudly. Most of the non-Apple apps on my Watch are useless without the iPhone to hold its hand. While some watchOS limitations make this a necessity, not all apps need to give up the minute the phone disappears from the equation. Amtrak could have let me search for train schedules, Slack could tell me someone messaged me, Parcel could inform me of deliveries, and my 2-factor SMS codes ought to be forwarded to my watch (thankfully many companies still allow for "landline" phone call's where a robot dictates codes).

I occasionally miss having a phone, and I regret not learning about Express Replacement before dropping off my phone for "3-10 business days", but in the grand scheme of things, if you want to "digital detox" or just remove distractions without unplugging entirely, a cellular Apple Watch is a surprisingly viable option for our modern life style. And if you don't believe me, here's a list of everything I could do with just my Apple Watch:

  • Scribble or dictate text messages to friends and family.
  • Phone friends and family.
  • Navigate unfamiliar parts of the city by foot, public transit and car.
  • Build a grocery shopping list and check off items as I put them in my cart.
  • Pay for gas, food, and transit fares.
  • Join Wi-Fi networks when cellular was unavailable.
  • Look up business closing hours.
  • Listen to podcasts and music.
  • Convert currencies and calculate tips.
  • Verify my identity when financing a purchase.
  • Check email.
  • Unlock doors and turn on/off lights. #smarthome
  • Find missing TV remotes.
  • Be notified when I've left my wallet, iPad, or keys at unfamiliar locations.
  • Search the web for various facts and questions. (Eg: "show pictures of wolf spiders")

So is traveling and living without a phone similar to what our ancestors experienced? Not really. I followed more signs than usual, asked a local for directions (once) and never used a CD/cassette, book, physical map or a payphone (I never saw one and didn't have any coins even if I needed one). Unlike the ancestors, I stayed connected. I looked up transit instructions, and communicated long-distance with people pretty much at all times.

While I wouldn't recommend international travel without a phone, it's quite doable in 2022 with just a laptop/iPad and a cellular watch (international roaming will roll out later in 2022). Just bring a camera to document your trip!

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