melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
melannen ([personal profile] melannen) wrote2018-09-14 12:49 pm

How to have a Smartphone with No Data Plan and Still Do All The Things

Last week I had the opportunity to tell two entirely different people who had no idea that actually, Google Maps works just fine on a phone with no service, and you don't need to burn data to navigate. And it occurred to me that I may actually have useful experience to share about conserving/avoiding data, after five years of having a smartphone with no data plan on it.
    There are a few situations where this might be useful:
  1. You have limited data, and you’re burning it faster than you’d like.

  2. You have voice and texts, but no data.

  3. You have no service at all.

  4. You’re going out of area for your plan, or into an area with limited service.

So my situation is that I have a smartphone with voice and text only, no data. It’s a fairly old Android that was cheap when new, and my experience is based on the US east of the Mississippi and Iceland, but most of this probably can be extended to other areas with good internet availability and other phones. I’ve also got an elderly iphone with no service that I’ve been using as a backup phone, and I’ve also done several extended overseas/backcountry trips without local cell service.

(My specific situation is that I could probably get a plan with very limited data for about the same price, but the problem is that I know I would just burn it up on Pokego immediately, so there’s no point unless I move to a very large data plan, and at this point, I can do nearly everything I want to do other than Pokego, endlessly scrolling tumblr, ending arguments in the car, and getting texts with pics of friends’ cats without needing data at all, and the only one of those that’s good for me is the cat pics. So it’s hard to justify that for myself. Especially since I’m probably actively happier without 24-7 social media access.)

So here, for anyone who’s facing having to cut down their data use or go without service for awhile, are things I have learned after about five years of this.

Most of the below will apply to any of the situations, but in particular:
  1. If you have data but want to conserve it, go through all your apps and if they have a “wifi only” option in settings, turn it on. Similarly, disable automatic updates/set them to wifi only. (If you have no data, you don't need to do this, they'll fall back to that mode automatically.)

  2. If you have texting but not data, note that group texts, multimedia texts and similar will only work under wifi, and they may not work quite as expected even then.

  3. If you have no service at all, remember that you can still call 911/emergency services. You should also look into getting a texting/VoIP app that works over wifi - I've only used whatsapp, but there are others that do a better job of mimicking a phone.

  4. If you’re going out of your service area, make sure you know how to turn off just data/cellular or just wifi, one at a time - searching for service uses a lot of battery fast. Also, especially if you’re in backcountry, have a backup plan in case you can’t connect at all, even if it’s just checking in with people in person at specific times, or providing an accurate itinerary in advance. And bring paper maps.

The rest of this should apply pretty much the same regardless of which situation.


A smartphone connected to wifi behaves pretty much exactly the same way as a smartphone with an unlimited data plan - I have yet to find anything that works on data but not wifi. The only difference is that if you leave the radius of the wifi, it stops being able to get new data.

So your goal is to get as much stuff downloaded as you can while on wifi, do the things that don't need a constant data feed while not on wifi, and be good at finding places where you can get on wifi. Most smartphones want you to depend on keeping data on the internet and only downloading it as needed, but they will let you keep your own data locally if you make them. This requires a phone with reasonable amounts of memory (some Android phones let you buy larger memory cards, play tricks with internal memory, or connect external USB drives. Not sure about iPhones) and a certain amount of shamelessness about leeching wifi.

You may need to be actively managing the memory, and you will likely be downloading and transferring things from other devices more than before. Learn how to upload to your phone via USB, and it’s probably worth getting a file system app that lets you navigate your phone’s storage the way you can on a desktop computer, and get familiar with how the filesystem works.

You will learn the places where it’s easy to get public wifi. There’s a lot of those places, though, and more every day. I keep expecting there to be less, as more people have data service, but I keep finding more. After four years with a no-data smartphone, two them playing pokego, I can walk into pretty much any population center and pinpoint the likely hotspots pretty quickly. (And I did not spent nearly as much time worrying about public wifi until I started playing pokego - most of the time, unless you're travelling or in an emergency, you can have one wifi homebase and mostly just depend on that.) But there's so much public wifi these days that it's worth using sometimes.

Using Public Wifi

Most public wifi requires you to click through a TOS and then load the provider’s homepage before you can otherwise use it. Also, some public wifi has weird restrictions/limitations, and a lot of places that have it don’t know how to maintain it, so it may go down in strange ways, or look like it’s working when it’s not. There are also lots of things these days that look like open wifi but aren't - wireless printers, 'public' wifi that requires a pw anyway, and so on. You'll get very used to your connections manager and learn pretty quick what those look like. And if you have space on your phone, you might want to download Firefox, because it sometimes lets me click though badly-implemented TOS pages that Chrome won’t load. But in general, if you’re in any population center large enough to have at least one chain restaurant, you can find working public wifi somewhere.

Public wifi is not secure. Most wifi from places like Panera or a library is a medium level of risk, probably, but if you do this, you will at least once find yourself leaning against a wall, desperately trying every non-passworded connection you can find, just in case one lets you through. That is the exact opposite of safe.

So don’t do anything on your phone that would really screw up your life if a hacker got it. Someone who got into my phone could get my fannish email (with no financial or personally identifying data in it, and that I have fully backed up on my home computer) and my tumblr account, and my phone contacts that have no full names attached, and a few app games, and some photos of cats, and I guess my free Spotify account: that’s about it. (They could get my Google search and location data too, but I figure anything Google has is a lost cause anyway.) Everything else, I do on a browser that clears data when I close it, or on my laptop at home.

Do NOT keep your banking app or credit card info on a phone that you’re using with lots of public wifi, unless you have literally no other choice. When I want to spend money at the app store, I use a prepaid visa, not my credit card, and anything else that involves money or sensitive information, I wait until I’m on my laptop on a connection I trust.

If your phone is your only computer, and you need to do secure stuff on it, it might make sense to get a cheap used phone with no service plan at all as your home computer, only use it on trusted wifi, and keep your important data and money apps there rather than your main phone.

Most places with public wifi have at least a few spots where you can get on without going in the building, and leave it on 24 hours, even when the building is closed. You may have to get used to occasionally loitering outside closed coffeeshops or public libraries at odd hours. I find pokego still makes a reasonable excuse, at least for a white person. (All of this, of course, will be harder if you are not a harmless-looking white person.)

Where to find public wifi

  • Your friends’ and relations’ houses: Most people will happily give you the wifi password if you’re hanging out, and if they use only data, not wifi, they probably have a big enough data plan that they’d be okay with setting up a hotspot for you to use, at least once in awhile, if you’re visiting, or they know you're in financial hardship.

  • Public libraries: Once in awhile you’ll find one in a snooty area that limits wifi to cardholders only, but if you’re local you can usually get a card while they’re open, and they’ll also often have some kind of guest pass if you’re just passing through. (I went to a conference at one like this once; they were bragging about how great they were at bridging the digital divide, and meanwhile, we couldn’t get on their wifi because their guest pass kiosk was closed. Kind of embarrassing.) Most libraries have just plain public wifi for everyone, though.

  • Restaurants, coffeeshops: All Starbucks, and most other coffeeshops; all McDonalds, and most other fast food; all Panera, and most other national chains. Local non-coffeeshop places it’s about 50-50 around here, probably less in some areas. Some of them will want to you buy something if you’re sitting in the establishment, but you can totally loiter outside long enough to check your email or update your maps or load the next fanfic chapter without them caring. Some small local places will have their wifi password posted where only paying customers can see it, though. I have no idea about bars or clubs because I am a boring person.

  • Stores and malls: About half of big box stores will have free wifi at this point. A lot of cell phone places do (esp. Cricket and Boost.) Few smaller or non-chain shops do. Most malls do, although in my experience mall wifi tends to be very bad wifi. (However, most malls will have at least one store or restaurant with its own public wifi that spills into an open seating area.)

  • Hotels: The cheaper the chain hotel, the more likely it is that they have public wifi accessible to non-guests. Cheap non-chain hotels or mid-range hotels may have a guest wifi password posted in the lobby, if they don’t have fully public wifi, and won’t care if you wander in long enough to get it (especially if they have a restaurant or bar.) Expensive hotels you probably need to pay or rent a room to use the wifi, although if you’re there for an event (convention, reception, etc.) they may have an event wifi password you can use for free.

  • Churches & houses of worship: Some churches have public wifi. The bigger the church, the better the chance their wifi is public. Many churches - even large ones - are completely deserted during the day on weekdays, so you can loiter outside pretty invisibly. If you are a regular attendee at a house of worship that doesn’t have public wifi, enough that they know you, you can probably get the password if you know who to ask.

  • Schools/universities: Some schools and universities have public wifi; others lock it down to students. If you’re on campus for a legitimate reason (conference, tour, etc.) they may have guest wifi you can use, or if you’re a regular visitor you can sometimes get a guest account that’s valid for awhile. Community colleges seem to be the best bet for truly public wifi, no account needed; they often have small satellite locations in shopping centers and business parks, so keep an eye out for that.

  • Doctors offices, local government offices, etc.: Many of the sorts of places where you have to wait for an appointment have either public wifi or a password you can get at the reception desk. Also try places like funeral homes, event venues, etc. - it’s not guaranteed, but it’s a chance. And if you have a membership somewhere, as if they have wifi.

  • Transit: Whether your busses, trains, and stops and stations have public wifi depends heavily on how gentrified your area is. Baltimore does not have wifi at its bus stops, Rockville and Reykjavik do. But it’s worth trying. Nearly all airports do, although they may have tiered service where the free wifi is limited. Coach/charter busses almost always do, and if you’re super desperate and see a parked but running coach bus, you can usually stand near it long enough to send an email.

  • Work: Your place of employment probably has employee wifi available somewhere. It’s probably on all the time, even when the building’s closed, and some places that have multiple locations will have the same password for the employee wifi everywhere. Depending on your job title/location, they might not have thought to give you the password, but you can probably get it if you ask. (Also, they probably didn’t change it when you quit, if you want to risk that.) I wouldn't torrent porn on this, but nobody would look twice at reading webpages or downloading apps when you're off the clock.

  • Museums, visitor centers, etc: some of these will have public wifi; some of these will have a password you can get at the reception desk. Sports stadiums often have public wifi in spots, but not full coverage.

  • Public spaces: If you are really lucky, you will find a town that has free municipal wifi. Failing that, you will occasionally find a park or public square that does.

  • Other hotspots: Many of the high-end contract cell service providers, like xfinity and verizon, have wifi hotspots available wherever they have cell towers, and these are theoretically available to anyone who has a plan with them, presumably even if it’s a low data plan. I’ve never had such a plan, so I have no experience with this. Some cable-broadband providers also theoretically have hotspots for customers, though I’ve never had success trying this - if you have home broadband or know someone who will give you their broadband password, you can try.

  • Portable wifi: Some public libraries have portable wifi hotspots you can check out. These are usually in enough demand that you can’t rely on being able to get one on short notice, but they can be good to cover a gap, take on a trip, or just give you a week or two of not worrying about it. You can also buy/rent these - at one time, this was cheaper than getting an equivalent phone data plan + separate home broadband, but these days I suspect you're better off just getting it over your phone.

  • On the one hand, it can feel kind of frustrating and limiting to have to look around for public wifi, especially if you're used to data. On the other hand, I find it helps me pay attention to the world around me, and I'm motivated to go places I would just overlook otherwise.

How to do things while not on wifi

First off, if you know you’ll be offline for awhile, turn off wifi. It’s amazing how much battery that saves. (If you don’t have service at all, then stay in airplane mode all the time.)

  • Navigation: Google maps works really well in offline mode. You have to download the area(s) you’ll be navigating in as “offline areas” while you’re on wifi, and if you have data but want to save it, use the “wifi only” slider. While offline it doesn’t have full search functions - you have to know exactly where you want to go - and it obviously can’t do traffic updates. But if you give it an address, it will navigate you there, and you can use most of the navigation options. The offline maps do take up a fair amount of phone memory, though. There are also some independent map/navigation apps that are designed for offline use, and some of them are more space-efficient, if you have less memory - I used to use, and it worked fine.
    Most local transit apps also have an offline mode; they won’t live-track your bus or know about delays without internet, but they’ll be able to tell you where the stops are and what the scheduled times are.

  • Write: Google Docs app has a pretty good offline mode! You tell it while on wifi which docs you want to make available offline, and it keeps them editable and available whether you have internet or not; it syncs when you get back online. I haven’t used this with any docs that are being frequently edited by multiple users/devices, but it works fine to sync a wip or two between my phone and laptop. There are also various other free notetaking/word processing apps that have good offline modes.

  • Audio/Video: Most of the streaming/media store services will let you store a certain number of tracks offline if you pay, although I’ve never tried that. Most of them are terrible at letting you play tracks you’ve stored locally in other ways. The VLC player app is great for music files, though. Local video eats memory fast, but it’s doable. And any podcast app worth its salt will let you automatically download new podcast episodes to listen offline. Also, many Android phones have a built-in FM radio receiver, so if you download a radio tuner app, you can always stream music, news, and entertainment the old-fashioned way.

  • Play: Some phone games work fine offline, others need data; others don’t, in any reasonable world, need data, but require it anyway. I have a few recs for twiddly android games that work offline, but if you include “offline” in your app store searches, you’ll usually get quite a few options. You may not be able to play your current favorite games, but you won’t be bored. Neko Atsume works offline; so does Magikarp Jump!

  • Email: You can’t get new mail while offline, obviously. The Yahoo and Gmail apps will let you designate folders for offline access, so you can read email while offline, and I think they make the inbox available by default. Most others probably have similar capability. You can also usually write drafts, and sometimes even set them to go out as soon as you have signal again. Basically, you can do anything except send and receive.

  • Read: If you’re a reader, it’s worth getting an offline-friendly ebook app and filling it with AO3 longfic, public domain stuff you’ve been meaning to get to, and DRM-free purchased ebooks. (I think a lot of DRM stuff will also work offline once you’ve dealt with the DRM, but most of the smartphone apps that go with the DRM-heavy services are fairly unfriendly to offline reading. I have never run out of non-DRM stuff, though). Most library ebook apps have a read offline option as well, if you want to read library books. For the Web, Chrome has a built-in option to download a weppage to read while offline, and I think most other mobile browsers also do. (You can also just open tabs, although they may try to reload and get lost depending on the page and the browser and the connection.) There’s also apps specifically for saving stuff from the web/rss to read offline, but I haven’t tried any because I haven’t ever run out of stuff in the ebook reader.

  • Social Media: Okay, you can’t do much in social media while offline. Most of the social media apps are really terrible if you don’t have an internet connection. I can write blog posts in Google Docs and read a dashboard or post I already had open when I lost signal, and that’s about it. But you spend too much time on social media anyway, right? You’ll be happier with signal-enforced breaks.

  • Other: There’s lots of other stuff I’ve tried or worked out a way to do; if there’s anything specific you’re curious about, or that you would need access to, ask, and I might have some experience. Apps tend to fall into:
    • Obviously need connection for basic function (like messenger apps)

    • Work OK offline (like a surprising number of Google apps)

    • Don’t work offline, but there are workarounds to do similar things (like exporting my goodreads data from the website to a pdf, and using the pdf)

    • Should work offline but don’t. (MEMRISE.) These I usually end up going “well I don’t need to use such an inefficient badly-written app anyway” and delete in high dudgeon, so no loss there.

Pokemon GO Gets its own section!

Even if you don’t care about Pokemon GO, this is a good example of how the availability of public wifi makes it possible to work around an app that is very much designed not to work offline.

    What you can do in Pokemon GO when offline:
  • IF the app was already open when you went offline, you can continue to walk around the currently-loaded map, and it will show you where you, roads, gyms, and pokestops are, although you can’t do anything at the gyms and pokestops, and it doesn’t track your distance walked, and the map’s only about a mile square.

  • That’s it, nothing else works.

  • How to use it anyway:
  • A large proportion of Pokestops and gyms are at places with public wifi: churches, libraries, stadiums, museums, malls, Starbucks and Boost Mobile to start. If you have a reasonable concentration of pokestuff around you, there is probably at least one pokestop and one gym where you can get on the wifi, and that’s really all you need to play. I am a regular at the church in my neighborhood, the church I attend, the two nearest libraries, and the town square that has a community college extension near it. (I would be a regular at the Starbucks, but they put the pokestop on the other side of the shopping center by mistake, so I can’t actually get to it.)

  • Most pokestops have a lot of spawn points near them, so if you park at a pokestop with a cup of coffee, you can catch plenty of pokemon.

  • Most “housekeeping” stuff (like evolving pokemon, spending coins, making friends, etc.) can be done anywhere you have signal.

  • The only tough part is anything that requires walking. It does not record distance when offline, even though there’s no reason it couldn’t, and it does not record distance when you are walking back and forth in a confined area. So here’s the ways I’ve figured out to hatch eggs/get buddy candy/use incense:
    • The perimeter of a standard wifi router is about .1 km, and if you walk that perimeter in circles, you usually get at least half the distance you walked logged, if you’re lucky.

    • If you walk between two places where you have wifi, and they’re less than half a kilometer apart, it will usually log most of that distance, as long as you connect at both ends.

    • Sometimes you will luck out and log distance while sitting still due to glitchy gps. It happens less than it used to, but once in awhile it still works.

    • If you go to organized pokego walks, there will often be someone who has unlimited data and can hotspot you, especially if you ask in advance.

    • Sometimes you will find a park, mall, campus that has good public wifi coverage over a large area, and you exploit it mercilessly.

    • If you have a friend visiting who will hotspot you, or you get a wifi hotspot from the library, you walk a lot while you have it.

So playing without data is a very different experience, but it’s still absolutely doable. Most things that you “need data” for are like that. Remember you lived just fine without data ten years ago, and there was a lot less public wifi around then!
stellar_dust: Stylized comic-book drawing of Scully at her laptop in the pilot. (Default)

[personal profile] stellar_dust 2018-09-14 06:12 pm (UTC)(link)
to add to the school wifi section: if you're affiliated with a school/college/university, check and see if they are a member of eduroam. If they are, you should be able to log on to any institution's wifi worldwide that is also a member - you'll see the "eduroam" network everywhere that you also see the campus wifi. You might need to sign up for a special login through your institution or you might just automatically have access with some of your existing uni credentials. eduroam is available on most college campuses and can also sometimes be found at libraries, archives, labs, museums, hospitals, conference centers, other types of schools or research facilities -- any place that academics hang out. if your institution is not a member, ask them to join.
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[personal profile] ambyr 2018-09-14 06:47 pm (UTC)(link)
I like that we're living sort of opposite lives! I could write the reverse guide: how to do things when your only source of Internet is your cell phone data plan, and you have no broadband Internet.
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[personal profile] alexseanchai 2018-09-14 07:27 pm (UTC)(link)
*takes notes*


(Ten years ago I didn't have a smartphone, either. And I was very bored on buses.)
loligo: Scully with blue glasses (Default)

[personal profile] loligo 2018-09-15 01:51 am (UTC)(link)
ending arguments in the car

One of my absolute favorite uses of cell data. On pretty much every family road trip, our kids get a lecture on how back in the day, that question that I just answered in 30 seconds on my phone would have taken us 30 minutes of frustrated speculation plus a trip to the library later on. And then sometimes my husband and I start waxing nostalgic about the lost art of bullshitting…
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[personal profile] eleanorjane 2018-09-15 03:05 pm (UTC)(link)
This isn't something I'd ever contemplated as I'm not even sure you can get plans with no data here, and Australia doesn't have any region-specific mobile phone networks. (edit, because I meant to add before I posted: this is a very interesting list, and seeing how widespread the options are overseas gives me hope for here, too. :))

For the info of any travellers, a lot of the public wifi options you listed aren't options here.
* The big fast food chains, yes, major shopping malls yes (although they usually require you to accept a lot of third party tracking cookie bullshit), libraries often yes, and some municipal areas (e.g. the CBD of my city has free wifi, albeit very terrible).
* Eduroam yes (for universities; most if not all are on this, but you have to have a valid account identity from a participating institution).
* I'm honestly not sure about schools these days, but I suspect it's almost certainly student-only.
* But chain shops, doctors, government offices etc, transit, almost always not; coffee shops and eateries are probably about one in three.
Edited 2018-09-15 15:06 (UTC)
landofnowhere: (Default)

[personal profile] landofnowhere 2018-09-15 08:14 pm (UTC)(link)
I have an old-school flip phone + a wifi-only tablet that I bring along if I need navigation/e-mail on the go, and I agree with all of this (+ the advice about eduroam as suggested by others).

jesse_the_k: Front of Gillig 40-pax bus rounding Madison's Capital Square (Metro Bus rt 6)


[personal profile] jesse_the_k 2018-09-15 09:08 pm (UTC)(link)
One more possibility: If one has broadband at home, that provider also offers wi-fi in public locations. Our internet access is provided by Spectrum (aka Charter). I can use my account credentials to login at Spectrum Wi-Fi where ever it pops up on my Networks panel.

I don't drive, so I treasure the transit information my iPhone's wee data plan offers. Neither Transit App (#1) nor Google Maps include transit schedules offline.

The HERE We Go transit app does offer downloaded bus schedules, and it's free.
umadoshi: text: "Witch! Get over here!" + "Hey! That's DOCTOR Witch to you!" (AGAHF - doctor witch)

[personal profile] umadoshi 2018-09-16 06:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Would it be okay for me to link to this?
stellar_dust: Stylized comic-book drawing of Scully at her laptop in the pilot. (Default)

[personal profile] stellar_dust 2018-09-17 02:23 am (UTC)(link)
Also: bars are reasonably likely to have wifi especially if they cater to tourists/students/hipsters/etc. i get the impression that almost all pubs in the uk have wifi these days?

Can’t speak to clubs though.
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[personal profile] ironed_orchid 2018-09-30 01:56 am (UTC)(link)
This is really great. (Here via [personal profile] umadoshi.)

I happily use my data plan at home, but when travelling on a pre-paid sim, I try to do everything I could to limit my data use. (Good tip for travellers: budget accommodation tends to have free password protected wifi, big fancy hotels do not as they expect guests to have expense accounts. this is something many people staying in hotels for a con have learned the hard way.)

One place I would definitely add to the list of reliable free wifi is Apple Stores, I have used their wifi on non-Apple devices with no problem.
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[personal profile] silveradept 2018-10-01 04:15 pm (UTC)(link)
This is a fabulous list, and I very much like that you've included PoGo as your example of how to still make something work that wouldn't otherwise seem to work. Sometimes you get lucky and one of your public buildings ends up being big enough that you can do some walking while staying within the range of the WiFi.

While I have a data plan of unlimited nature, it's still good to have a guide on how to do things when there isn't data available from your provider.
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[personal profile] momijizukamori 2018-10-11 12:56 pm (UTC)(link)
Love this! I have a tiered pay-by-usage plan, so I take steps to limit my data usage. I think day-to-day, Maps and Firefox are the only two things I'm likely to use without wifi - I've got wifi at work and at home, and that's where I am most of the time. I've mostly eschewed streaming services on my phone, and instead loaded music I already have as files, plus a podcast app that syncs while I sleep.

Some region-specific travel notes - in Japan, free wifi is a little less common than NA (though I think that's slowly changing). There's an app one of the telecos puts out that helps find networks - - and you can also register with Softbank to get free temporary access to a number of Softbank hotspots -

In addition, there are usually free networks at JR stations, conbini, and international chain restaurants like Starbucks and McDonalds.