Traveling with your cellphone

How to use your cellphone abroad, and where to buy or rent a mobile phone in other countries

A Vodaphone store in the Rome airport
Stop into any cell phone merchant—like this Vodaphone store in the Rome airport—and buy the cheapest phone available along with a pay-as-you-go plan. You can add more to the account as you use it up at just about any tobacconist (same place you get bus tickets) and many newsstands.
• Use your own cellphone
• Rent a mobile phone
• Buy a foreign cell phone
First thing you need to know: Only a phone using the world standard GSM network (in other words, those from AT&T or T-Mobile)—and some CDMA (Sprint/Nextel)—will actually work outside of North America.

What's more, even among GSM networks, only a tri-band (or quad-band) phone will work in Europe, Asia, South America, or Africa. (This is because other countries use different frequencies than the U.S.; so-called "world phones" are designed to work on all three, or four, major frequencies.)

Verizon and other phones will be utterly unable to make or receive phone calls outside of North America. They will merely become expensive electronic pocket watches and address books.

This is not the rest of the world's fault. It's the fault of Verizon, et. al., for pursuing dead-end cellular technologies that the rest of the world has abandoned.

Even if your phone will work, don't use it

Even if you have a worldphone that uses GSM and will work overseas, you will pay and arm and a leg to make or receive any calls.

All of which is to say: if you have AT&T or T-Mobile (or some Verizon or Sprint smartphones), and you have a world phone, it will work abroad—but it'll cost you big time.

For more direct dirt on the fine print (and various international roaming and data plans), see the page about international roaming at your own service provider's website.

Here are two far better solutions, with a twist at the end to save even more money:

1) Rent a world cellphone for your travels

Explore1aThis is a pretty straightforward exercise: simply rent a world phone (and the accompanying short-term service plan) and don't worry about the details.

It's not the cheapest option—per minute rates are a bit richer than they would be if you outright bought a local plan and phone in the foreign country (see below)—but it's far cheaper than using your own phone and home account, and is by a long shot the easiest way to get a mobile that will work in just about any foreign country.

There are many companies that provide this service—heck, rent a car with consolidator Auto Europe ( and they'll usually throw in a GSM cell phone for free (you still pay for the minutes you use, just the rental is free).

Otherwise, research the best deal for you—with some you buy the phone and its good for life, with others you rent it—with any of the following recommended services:

How it works is simple. They'll provide a phone that works around the world, a number for people to call, and you can rest easy.

You can get a standard phone, a smartphone with a data plan, or even (with Cellular Abroad) a MyiFi roving hotpsot so you can go online at will with your existing laptop or Smartphone. (Good way to depoly the WiFi: Use it, and a Skype app on your smartphone, to make free calls.)

Most home phone and cell phone services allow you to forward calls, so you can set it up to have your rented cellphone ring in, say, Italy or Thailand when people call your regular phone number(s) back home. Neat.

(If you plan to really go off the grid and away from cellphone service—as I did in Alaska a few summers back—you can also rent a satellite phone from those same companies, but note that the rental—and the usage charges—are considerably higher for a sat phone. Then again, cell phones only work when you are within range of a tower. Sat phones work wherever you can get a clear shot at the sky overhead.)

2) Buy your own local cell phone and calling plan

How to use your own phone with your new account in another country
If you have an AT&T or T-Mobile phone, and it works in, say Europe, you would be able just to take the SIM card chip that comes with your new European cellphone account, swap it out with the one in your phone from home, and be good to go, right? Wrong.

Your home service provider will try to keep you from doing this, and the first step in that process is that every cellphone in the U.S. is sold "locked"—which means you can't swap chips. I mean, physically you can—the "lock" is a bit of programming code—but the phone won't actually work with eh new SIM.

What you need is the "unlock code"—a simple set of digits you punch into your phone to unlock it forever.

You phone company will do everything in its power to keep you from learning this code, even though they have it readily available. They will swear up and down they cannot provide it, or they will tell you the code has to come from the manufacturer, so you should contact Motorola (or whatever).

They are filthy, stinking, greedy liars. They can get the code and tell it to you over the phone or send it to you in an email or text message, easily. They are simply trained to stonewall you for as long as possible, hoping you will give up.

You think I'm joking. I am not. Ever try to get out of that two-year calling plan you're locked into (or, for that matter, a gym membership)? Yeah, it's like that.

Pester the heck out of them long enough, and—with one glaring exception—they will give in. You will get your unlock code, and you can then put any SIM into the phone and it will suddenly start making and receiving calls on that account (when you get home, just swap the SIMs back again).

That glaring exception: an AT&T iPhone

As of the iPhone 4S, Sprint (immediately) and Verizon (after you've been a customer in good standing for 60 days) will unlock your iPhone.

However, AT&T still categorically refuses to unlock an iPhone—for now, at least. As an AT&T iPhone user, this annoys the !@#$% out of me.

You can buy an unlocked iPhone in other countries, but since the price isn't being subsidized by AT&T or Verizon, it'll cost you a monstrous $900 (in Europe, around €620 for the cheapest 3GS model) or more to buy one.

If you have an iPhone, just forgo the 3G and cellular antennas entirely. Put it into airplane mode (which turns off all antennas), then switch on ONLY the WiFi by itself. You can now use any stray WiFi signal to make Skype calls—for free! It's what I do.
Almost as cheap as renting—and probably a better idea if you plan to travel abroad more than once in the next few years—is simply to buy your own world phone with an international plan.

You can buy an international phone and plan from the merchants listed above under "rentals":

Or, as is says above under the picture at the top of the page, stop into any local cell phone shop and buy the cheapest phone available along with a pay-as-you-go plan (often called a "rechargeable" one).

Finding a mobile phone store is not hard. Airports and major train stations usually have them, and these offices in particular are extremely accustomed to setting up an account for foreigners. Otherwise, just wander any downtown for more than five minutes and you'll pass half a dozen competing mobile phone retailers, just like in the States.

Within 15 minutes, you'll be back on the street with a brand new phone—and your own, personal local telephone number.

How to keep your new, local mobile phone working

Charge it every night :-)

No, what I really mean is how to keep the phone account topped up with money so you can keep making calls. Your rechargeable account will come with a certain amount of time/money on it. (In most countries, you use up Euros, not minutes, as you chat.)

As you use up your "minutes," you can easily add more to the account, either by popping into a cybercafe, logging into the carrier's website, and using your credit card, or by stopping by any retail outlet that sells the carrier's phones—or any shop where you see a sticker for your carrier's symbol on the door. As a rule of thumb, this includes just about anywhere you can buy bus tickets: usually tobacconists (popular in Europe), most bars/cafes (certainly any that double as lottery ticket resellers), and many newsstands.

Just go into any of those establishments hold up your cellphone, and say the name of the carrier in a questioning voice ("Vodaphone?").

Have people Skype you

No matter if you rent a cellphone, buy a world phone, or carry your own tri-band phone with you, convince your friends and family to save a bundle by not calling you on it but rather by Skyping you.

Just have friends and family back home call you on your new phone using Skype, which will cost them a mere 2¢–30¢ per minute.

(Yes, Skype is normally just 2.3¢ per minute to Europe, Japan, China, etc.—though to some countries the cost is 9¢–30¢—but that's for calls to landlines. Calls to cellular networks usually cost a bit more... though still usually less than a regular phone line, calling card, or international dialing plan). Full story


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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in April 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.