Most of us depend on cell phones for making plans and to have handy in case of an emergency. When traveling abroad it is also convenient to have an international cell phone or even a roadpost iridium phone (if you're traveling off the grid) to stay in touch with family and friends, conduct business and make and confirm travel reservations.
There are basically three options for obtaining cell phone service for outside the United States; roaming with your US carrier, renting a phone at the airport or through a car rental company and using the same cell phone service the locals use. Each option is discussed below.
Roam with Your US Phone Number
The major advantage to roaming internationally with your US carrier is that you will maintain your US phone number (usually). This is ideal for people who don’t want to miss a single call and those who are not comfortable asking people to call them on an overseas phone number.
Your US cell phone carrier will likely need to ship you a rental cell phone that will work with the technology used outside the US. Typically there are rental and shipping charges for that overseas handset.
On top of the handset rental and shipping options, the US carrier will charge roaming charges while you are on the overseas cell phone network.
Another thing to consider is whether you really want to receive and pay roaming charges on all the incoming calls you normally get while overseas on vacation or for business.
Not only might this result in paying for a lot for incoming calls that could have waited, but each of those incoming calls will incur roaming charges on your cell phone bill. Because the overseas charges go on your next cell phone bill, this makes it very hard to know how much you are spending in time to adjust your use in order to lower the final charges.
Rent a Phone at the Airport or through a Car Rental Agency
Many international airports and some car rental companies offer cell phone rentals and these last-minute options are ideal for those who didn’t think about a cell phone before going abroad. While the handset rental rates often seem attractive, sometimes they are even free, it is the per-minute charges that should be carefully evaluated.
These companies make money by marking up the per-minute rate charges, sometimes up to several dollars a minute. Because their money is made on the per-minute charges, they often impose daily minimum charges, even if you don’t make a single call.
For example, one cell phone company charges $2.75 a minute from Costa Rica and imposes a 5-minute per day minimum charge. If the phone is for emergency use only, the rental can still add up to a big bill whether or not the phone is ever used.
These rental options are normally billed to a credit card so final charges are not known until the end of the rental period when the credit card bill arrives. Like roaming with your US carrier, there is no chance to lessen your use in time to lower your final bill.
The third option for international cell phone service is to become a customer of the local phone company in the country or countries you visit. Under this option you will pay the same rates the locals pay in the countries you visit. This is the least expensive option because there are no roaming charges and no marked-up per minute rates or daily minimum charges.
First, you have the number and service in hand before your trip. Second, the instructions and information is in English and third, you are dealing with a company whose language you can speak. Cellular Abroad is also the only company in the world who rents the National Geographic Talk Abroad Travel Phone, a solution that works in over 100 of the world's top destination.
Pay-as-You-Go System and FREE Incoming Calls
In addition to the better rates, most cell phone users outside North America use their cell phones on a pay-as-you-go basis meaning you never come home to a big cell phone bill at the end of a trip abroad. The system works similar to a debit card and a bank account. Calls made on the cell phone are deducted from the balance on the account. It is a free call to check the remaining balance and when the balance gets low, simply go to the store and add more money to the phone through a local merchant and keep talking.
When it is time to add more money to the account, simply go to any newsstand, tobacconist, convenience store or gas station to purchase a recharge voucher worth more credit. The recharge vouchers look like calling cards (a small cardboard card enclosed in cellophane) and are sold in various denominations. To apply the credit, you call an access number from the cell phone and enter the code number from the back of the recharge voucher. This adds
How to Access the Local System
First, your average US-based cell phone will not work outside of the United States. Most US companies do not use the same technology used in the rest of the world so the handsets from the US are incompatible on foreign networks. The technology used in Asia, Europe and Africa is called GSM (Global Services for Mobile Communications) and GSM phones operate with little chips in them called SIM cards or SIM chips (SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module).
The SIM card is about half the size of a postage stamp and slides in to an indentation under the battery (usually) of a GSM phone. The SIM is what determines which company the phone has service through, the calling rates (set by that phone company) and the cell phone number.
Will a US GSM Cell Phone Work?
In the US, T Mobile, AT&T and Cingular use SIM cards and GSM technology, but the GSM frequencies used in the US are 1900 MHz and 850 MHz and the overseas GSM networks operate on the 900 and 1800 MHz GSM frequencies (or bands), therefore your average US based cell phone will not work on the GSM networks in other countries. For example, if you're in Afghanistan, you wouldn't be able to access the Afghan Wireless network with your US GSM phone because Afghan Wireless broadcasts at 900 MHz and your US GSM phone would be searching at 850 MHz. And while those companies do offer “tri-band” or “quad-band” phones that work on all GSM frequencies, if you roam with your tri-band GSM phone with the SIM from a US carrier you will pay roaming rates while abroad (as discussed above).
Locked versus Unlocked GSM Phones
Although AT&T, T Mobile and Cingular use SIM cards and offer world phones that operate on all frequencies, the phones they provide are usually “locked” to prevent the user from removing their SIM card in order to bypass their service and use the local overseas phone company. With a locked phone, the SIM can still be physically removed from the phone, but when a different SIM is inserted the phone won’t recognize it. There are some companies on the internet that offer to unlock locked phones, and often this is successful but be aware that not all phone models can be unlocked.
While this may seem unfair, the truth is that the US cell phone companies subsidize the price of the handset knowing that they can make money on overseas roaming charges. GSM phones that are purchased unlocked can be twice as expensive as an unlocked phone purchased through a mobile carrier, however an unlocked phone does offer the opportunity to insert a SIM card from any local overseas cell phone company and take advantage of the local rates on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Buying SIMs Overseas
If you have an unlocked GSM phone that operates on the correct frequencies, it is sometimes possible to purchase SIM cards at the local cell phone store. However, in some countries you must be a legal resident of that country in order to establish cell phone service, which is essentially what buying a SIM does. For proof you may be asked for a tax ID and passport for that country. Mostly this is a security issue.
The other two drawbacks to buying a SIM in the destination country are that you will not have the phone number prior to departure and therefore can’t leave it behind for friends, family and business associates and that all the operating instructions (how to check credit, add credit, check voice mail, etc.) will be in the local language.
Get Everything You Need before Leaving the US
A company in California called Cellular Abroad has developed a great service that provide GSM phone, SIM card, phone number and English-language operating before departure. They sell or rent unlocked GSM phones and have SIM cards from over 50 countries.
All the SIM cards they sell are pay-as-you-go so you are in control of you calling expenses and will never come to an unexpectedly large cell phone bill.
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