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iPhone GPS Abroad

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circleWorried about iPhone international roaming charges while traveling abroad, but you want to use the phone’s GPS? If “abroad” means Canada or the US you can use MotionX maps. Also – information on using the iPhone GPS without incurring data charges.

I’ve had lots of people ask me about using their iPhone when traveling abroad. Specifically, they want to know if the GPS will work without the SIM card installed (yes) or while in Airplane Mode (no).

MotionX GPS updated their iPhone app a while back with an extremely useful feature: The ability to preload a map cache for selected geographic areas. You can also select a range of zoom levels you wish to cache. The interface is as simple as dragging a circle around the area to be cached. You can also drag an oval shape if your travels are more linear-inclined.oval

Before the update I preloaded map tiles into MotionX GPS by dragging maps around an area of interest in advance of my travels. That wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to repeat the procedure for every zoom level you might want to view while offline. Omissions were inevitable.

Of course as you select closer and closer zoom levels there will be far more tiles to download. The app lets you know how many megabytes you’re downloading and a progress bar lets you know when the cache has been built. You can also delete a cache when you don’t need it anymore.

tile_downloadCached maps improve performance while online as well, so maybe you’d download your home town. The maps will load faster when they’re already on your iPhone. Note that MotionX GPS works with Google and Bing map tiles but the preload cache feature only works with MotionX’s own maps. The MotionX maps have been fine for Murphy.

Your phone has a button to turn off data roaming, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t use the iPhone for voice or data. Instead of using Airplane Mode while in Toronto I removed my sim card to ensure I wouldn’t be charged international data rates. Airplane Mode turns off the GPS receiver. My hotel wifi connection gave the GPS enough information to get a fast fix on my location and from then on the GPS worked just fine. Without a cellular or indexed wifi connection it could take a very long time for the iPhone GPS to report its location.
Note: Turning on Airplane Mode turns off wifi too, but you can manually turn wifi back on while in Airplane Mode.oval

MotionX GPS isn’t primarily designed for tourists or finding restaurants. But to find your way around the streets in an unfamiliar city it’s more than adequate. The application is built for biking, hiking, running, etc. But the cache and other features make it useful in many situations. For $2.99 MotionX GPS is easily one of the best paid apps Murphy has purchased.

MotionX GPS ($2.99) has frequently been updated with useful new functionality since I purchased it. They also make a turn-by-turn direction product called Drive that Murphy hasn’t tried yet.

More on MotionX GPS:
Loading Google Directions into MotionX GPS
Intro to MotionX GPS

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12 comments to “iPhone GPS Abroad”

  1. This is excellent. I shall giving it a try and hopefully using it in Orlando in March.

  2. Thanks for this helpful information. Just one question, where is the sim card and how do you remove it?
    Thanks

  3. There’s a little hole at the top of the phone. Poke a paper clip in there or the little tool that came with your phone and it’ll pop out.

  4. Hey, thanks a lot Murphy. Never noticed the hole. I keep discovering new things about this device.
    I am going to Africa next Fall and really wanted to use the iphone gps with MotionX
    Thanks!

  5. If you are worried about intl. roaming charges and want a map app, this isn’t for you. Well, unless you only travel to Canada. Motion X maps are only for the USA and Canada.

  6. Thanks Don, I’ll update the post.

  7. I want to use my GPS while backpacking but want to maximize battery life by not having the phone look for a signal. I would assume that if the sim card is out, the phone will not attempt to search for the network. So, if I remove the sim card, will the battery last much longer while using GPS?
    I will not be looking at the screen much. Obviously that would drain the battery pretty quick.

  8. “Motion X maps are only for the USA and Canada.”

    Not correct. I have used them in Turkey and in the UK.

  9. I travel internationally often and have tried almost every map app on the iPhone that stores offline data. I have 4 apps that do this, including MotionX. My favorite is Offmaps by Felix L. The main reason it is the best is because it has a setting to disable wireless data usage by the app itself. This way even if you want to have data available for very limited usage such as email the app still works.

    Also it is more tailored to casual street mapping than motion x, which is more designed for outdoor usage. Have a look at it for your next trip!

  10. How do I turn off the MotionX on my Iphone? It keeps giving me spoken directions even after I arrive at my destination. Even when I turn the Iphone off, it speaks.
    I don’t see any off button on the menu

  11. DOUBLE click the physical button at the bottom of your phone.
    Press and hold one of the icons that shows up on the bottom row.
    The icons will start jiggling.
    If you don’t see Motion-X: slide that bottom row sideways until you see it.
    Click the red x on Motion-X
    Tap the physical button again.
    Those steps are how you force-quit an app on the iPhone.

  12. Take a look at NavFree as well – it is available for multiple countries and, like Nokia of old, includes the maps with the app.
    I have used in UK, France and USA.

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