I've been back and forth between the Boston and Montréal metro areas recently for work and roller derby, which has given me a whole new appreciation to the difficulties of phone roaming and carrier fees. Now, I currently have a great plan from AT&T (opens in new tab) that lets me use my domestic data at no additional cost while roaming, but my Series 3 Apple Watch isn't quite so lucky: When I cross the border, its cellular antenna turns off, rendering my watch LTE-less until I return.
This is because the Apple Watch can't currently roam on foreign networks. There are several credible theories as to why — like poor battery life performance, and the fact that each watch model has an incredibly limited number of LTE bands so you would only be able to roam in some countries and not others — but the fact remains: Your Apple Watch works with your iPhone, in your home country. Period.
... Well, that sounds like a challenge.
A primer for using your Apple Watch in a foreign country
As I mentioned, the Apple Watch has a limited number of LTE bands in comparison to the iPhone: Whereas your U.S.-based smartphone can jump onto a different LTE band to roam on a U.K. network when visiting Europe, the U.S. version of the Apple Watch Series 3 doesn't have space for those bands — and as a result, couldn't connect to that network even if roaming were supported.
But if you're traveling to a country that does use bands built for your region's Apple Watch (like moving from the U.S. to Canada), it can theoretically communicate with those networks — Apple's just chosen not to provide roaming support.
Tip: You can check which LTE bands are supported by your region's Apple Watch on Apple's website (opens in new tab).
So how can you convince your Apple Watch to connect to those preinstalled LTE bands? Simply put, you have to buy a cellular plan for your iPhone on a compatible carrier in that country. What kind of plan depends on the country you visit — right now, most carriers are only offering the watch as a post-paid device. (If you have to sign up for a post-paid device, you may also need a local mailing address on your account — you can try your hotel, a friend's house, or worst-case a local fast food chain.)
To test this theory — and, let's be honest, get my Apple Watch back up and running in Canada — we set my iPhone up as a second device on iMore editor-at-large Rene Ritchie's existing Bell plan, and authorized it for a wearable plan, too. In theory, all I needed to do was swap SIM cards, turn off my AT&T plan in the Watch app, and start using my watch.
Reality, of course, had other plans.
When I first popped my new Bell SIM into my iPhone 8 Plus, I was able to get online immediately, thanks to Rene setting up the account in advance. But when I went to the Watch app's Cellular section, I was less lucky.
So we packed up and paid a visit to Rene's local Bell store, where he chatted with the salesperson and I gazed in horror at the size of the Gear S3.
Verdict: "Nothing you can do on our end. Go ask Apple."
A visit to the Apple Store didn't initially yield success, though a smart comment from one of the specialists led me to force a carrier software update by resetting my network settings; after running the update, the Watch app immediately offered me the option for setting up the device.
Once I pressed a few buttons and confirmed my emergency address, we were ready to go: I toggled my iPhone 8 Plus into Airplane mode and put the Seriess 3 GPS + Cellular model to work.
How to use your Apple Watch in a foreign country
Before following these steps, I highly encourage you to consider the following three factors:
- Did you check Apple's website (opens in new tab) to make sure your Apple Watch model can work in the foreign country you want to visit?
- Can you pay for a phone and watch plan in the foreign country that doesn't cost an arm and a leg? (For reference, getting added to Rene's plan cost $60/month; a brand new Apple-Watch-supported Bell plan runs more like $100.)
- How long do you need to have this plan? Can you disable it when you leave?
If the answer to all three of these questions is "yes", proceed.
- Open the Watch app from your home screen.
- Tap on the My Watch tab.
- Select the Cellular option
- Tap the Info button.
- Tap Remove [carrier] Plan to untie your Apple Watch's eSIM from your current terrestrial wireless provider.Keep in mind: This won't cancel your plan; you'll have to go to your carrier directly if you'd like to do that. It's the equivalent of taking out a SIM card to add a new one.
- Set up an Apple Watch-compatible wireless plan with your foreign carrier. (You may need an address in that country to do so.)
- Get a nano-SIM card from the new carrier.
- Switch the SIM cards in your iPhone between your current carrier and your new foreign carrier.
- Confirm that you can access the internet with your new SIM card.
- Open the Watch app.
- Tap on the My Watch tab.
- Select the Cellular option.
- Tap Set Up Cellular to set up a watch plan with your foreign carrier.Note: If this setting is greyed out, you may need to update your carrier settings: You can do so by forcing a network reset on your iPhone: Settings > General > Reset > Reset Network Settings.
Bottom line: This is a great tip for snowbirds and other dual-country enthusiasts, but if you're only visiting a country for a few days this is currently more hassle than it's worth. There's also the inconvenience of having a different number when on your foreign SIM: While I've gotten around this by having iMessage and FaceTime identify as my email address, it's still a pain if you want to place non-FaceTime Audio phone calls.
This may change as additional carriers offer support for the watch and expand their plan types (i.e. offering watch support with pay-as-you-go plans), but until they do, I'm reticent to recommend this option to someone unless they can afford the time and monthly cost.
Let me know below.
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Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.
While this awful unapple-like experience might be acceptable in a large country like USA or China, for many in Europe and those in really small territories like Hong Kong or Singapore, where changing country is a regular occurrence, not being able to roam is going to severely limit the usefulness of the product. Serenity, thanks for making the effort to try to see how you could workaround the limitations, but it would be really interesting if you were able to get to the bottom of where the limitations are. There seem to three regional hardware configurations, but beyond that, is it apples software or the carriers plans which are blocking the watches ability to roam to areas with compatible LTE bands ?
What about emergency calls in non-home countries? Can I make an emergency call - without the presence of an iPhone - with a German Apple Watch when travelling abroad, e.g. in France, or is that blocked too?
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