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By The Way
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So you lost your phone abroad. Now what?

A lost device can be a traveler’s worst nightmare

(Kyle Ellingson/Illustration for The Washington Post)

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

Our smartphones act as everything from hotel room keys to the key to avoiding covid quarantine in a foreign country. Traveling can be a serious challenge without that device. A lost phone abroad isn’t just an embarrassing (and expensive) inconvenience; it can completely disrupt a trip and become a major safety concern.

That’s what happened to me on a recent solo trip in Guatemala. In the minute between shutting my Uber door and walking into my hotel, I realized I left my iPhone behind in the back seat of my ride.

How to use your phone abroard

My driver was already long gone, and I was left to my own devices (without a device). But I made it through the rest of the trip, even reentering the United States phone-free. Here’s what I did — and what security experts say you should do if this happens to you.

Precautions to take before you leave

Before departing for a trip, it’s important to take necessary precautions should the unexpected occur. “Only bring devices you need during travel and remove any unnecessary data,” said Bahman Hayat, a cybersecurity expert. “I highly recommend signing out of or deleting apps that you don’t anticipate using when traveling.” This makes it harder for someone to access platforms without your consent, if they can even get into your phone in the first place.

Besides limiting what is physically with you, securely manage passwords and back up data on the devices you do have. This isn’t only advice for traveling; it’s good security hygiene no matter where you are.

According to Hayat, a password manager protects you from “credential stuffing attacks.” Essentially, if an attacker gets 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 travel mode. “Use a password manager to generate a unique password for each account,” Hayat said.

Let By The Way help you navigate travel dilemmas

“Make sure you have backed up your data, either locally at home or onto the cloud,” Hayat said. If you do lose your device, backing up your data will give you access to your recent contacts, messages and all-important travel photos.

Finally, if the option is available on your phone, Hayat recommended using an eSIM. An eSIM is an electronic SIM card that’s embedded into your phone at the time of manufacturing. Popular devices, like the latest iPhones and Androids, include eSIMs automatically. From a security perspective, eSIMs are better than physical SIM cards because they can’t be removed and placed in another device.

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

You lost your device. Now start tracking it.

After the momentary panic, I quickly sprung into action.

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

But the phone couldn’t be located. My $1,000 iPhone was traveling farther away, and since I didn’t have an international data plan activated, I had no idea where it was going. My phone was in airplane mode and on a joyride somewhere in the country.

Alas, I ultimately came to terms that I wasn’t getting my phone back anytime soon. I filed a lost item claim through Uber’s website — and it was time to sit back and wait.

How to protect your data while traveling

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

Meanwhile, on my work laptop, I tried to log in to social media accounts and iMessage — my usual modes of communication. But since I wasn’t logged into any Apple accounts, I hit a snag. With two-factor authentication turned on for most platforms requiring a text 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 turned on.

Back up your data — and then wipe it

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

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

“Set your remote wipe system (both Android and iPhone have them these days) to delete everything the moment it’s connected,” said James Bore, director of Bores Consultancy and a security professional.

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

Leveraging credit card benefits or insurance

Not all may be lost when you lose a device. If you have insurance on your phone, travel insurance or certain credit cards, you may be in luck.

First, the not-so-good news: Most travel insurance plans specifically exclude phones from their coverage. For those plans that do cover devices, it’s important to understand that they are covered up to a maximum limit and often subject to a deductible. The limits vary widely, and you will typically find the coverage for phones listed in the “baggage coverage” section.

A beginner's guide to travel insurance

Meanwhile, cellphone insurance may sometimes cover the cost of another device, with a deductible. However, you must ensure that the plan you signed up for specifically covers theft and loss. For instance, for iPhones, Apple’s standard AppleCare coverage does not include theft or loss (but AppleCare Plus with Theft and Loss does). And you typically can only sign up for such plans in the days following getting a new device.

Finally, some credit cards will include phone protection, including theft and loss. In 2019, Mastercard added cellphone insurance to most World and World Elite designated cards. And in early 2021, American Express added this benefit to several 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 leverage card benefits or insurance, you may not even have to wait until you return to home to acquire a new device. Or if you’re willing to pay out of pocket for a temporary or replacement phone, that’s an option, too.

But as I discovered, the cost of a new iPhone in Guatemala was prohibitive (we’re talking nearly 50 percent more than in the United States for a similar model). It’s certainly possible to get a low-cost Android device to help you get by in the interim, but I decided to wait until arriving back home before acquiring a new phone.

Be resourceful with what is available

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

That meant I didn’t need my phone for tasks like navigating Google Maps or messaging my Airbnb host — two things that I frequently did throughout the prior week.

Instead, I could leverage the hotel’s printer for a physical copy of my negative coronavirus test to reenter 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 out important documents (like visas, itineraries, etc.) before leaving home. Of course, that wouldn’t help with the coronavirus test, but many testing locations 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 to entertain me while in the air.

Two weeks after I returned to the United States, I finally heard back from Uber. The driver had recovered my phone but between the language barrier, distance and the fact I already got a new device, I gave up on getting it back.

At the end of the day, a lost phone is a significant hindrance in our modern era. But it’s certainly possible to navigate the world device-free — and perhaps get a whole new perspective on your travels.