Using a Cell Phone When Traveling Internationally

Most phones these days have interchangeable SIMs to allow them to use different wireless companies' services.
Most phones these days have interchangeable SIMs to allow them to use different wireless companies’ services.

We’ve written many times before about how to minimize the costs of using a cell phone internationally.  There have been three major changes since most of those articles.

The first is that most modern cell phones will now work internationally.  You no longer need a ‘special’ phone for when traveling out of the country, you can probably use your regular phone.

The second is the advent of data services.  Before the iPhone, few people used their phone for anything other than voice calls, with the main exceptions being a few early-adopters who would send text messages, and the occasional Blackberry user who also sent/received emails.  Today, more than half of us have data-enabled smartphones, and for the majority of us, voice calling has shifted from being the most important function on our phone to the least important function.  When considering phone use overseas, we now need to focus in on data costs – not only because data is important to us, but also because it is potentially enormously expensive.

The third is the collapse in voice calling costs.  In years past, it was possible to pay $2 or more a minute for both receiving and making calls on your phone internationally.  Nowadays, if you’re paying over 50c a minute you’re being imprudent, and the best plans see you paying a mere 20c/minute.

Let’s look at the current state of play under all three of these categories.

Will Your Phone Work Internationally?

This question is simultaneously easy and hard to answer.  If you mean ‘can I use my phone to make and receive voice calls’ that is easy to answer.  You want your phone to have all four GSM frequency bands (and possibly additional voice frequency bands to use with Sprint and Verizon CDMA type service in the US too).  As long as it has the four GSM frequency bands, your phone is capable of working pretty much everywhere in the world.

To see if it is not only theoretically capable of working internationally, but also actually allowed to do so, you need to check that your wireless provider has enabled international voice roaming on your phone.

The harder question to answer is whether your phone will also access international data frequencies.  Most of the world uses only two GSM voice frequencies (900 MHz and 1800 MHz), and a few countries including the US use two different GSM voice frequencies (850 MHz and 1900 MHz), meaning that a four frequency ‘quadband’ phone will work everywhere.  But there are a confusing number of different data frequencies.

Indeed, here’s a list of not two or four, but of 26 different frequency bands for UMTS type data service, although generally the bands 1, 2, 4, 5 & 8 are a good start for most places.  That’s not all, there are other types of data service in addition to UMTS, and other frequency bands and phone capabilities are needed for those services.  UMTS is the most common.

How many data bands do you need?  The more, the merrier.  To give an indication, an iPhone 5S has 13 different data bands supported, and the new iPhone 6 generation supports 20 bands, so clearly the more bands that are supported, the more likely you are to access good and fast data on your travels.

Data Costs

At home, we seldom need to think about our data usage, or its associated cost.  Probably while at home and at work, our phones are connected via Wi-Fi, and we’ve probably also added log-in data to Wi-Fi services at other places we frequent.  So we only need the wireless data service when traveling away from familiar places.

But when we’re out of the country, we’ll be reliant on wireless data most of the time.  If you’ve not signed up for some sort of data package, then you risk paying the highest rates for wireless data, potentially reaching up to the region of $1000/GB.  Be warned :  The harmless seeming rate of ‘$1/MB’ is another way of saying ‘$1000/GB’ and that even more trivial seeming ‘1c/kB’ equates to a breath-taking $10,000/GB!  If you sign up for data packages before leaving home, you’ll probably end up paying in the order of $100 per GB, possibly more.  Still expensive, but ten to one hundred times less than if you don’t buy a block of data in advance.

Every year we read stories of people returning home to find a cell phone bill with over $10,000 of data charges attached to it.  They claim they didn’t realize that the data would be so expensive, and usually the wireless company offers some sort of a compromise.  But even if they ‘generously’ slice the cost in half, that could still be a $5,000 bill – perhaps more than the total vacation cost!  Don’t let this be you.

If you want the ‘best’ (ie fastest) wireless data, then pre-purchase a block of data from your wireless provider before leaving home.  Note that this block of data probably expires after some period of time (as quickly as a week or two, seldom more than a single month or billing cycle), whether used or not, so make sure you track not only your data usage but also that you know when its validity will expire.

But for most of us, there’s a much better alternative.  T-Mobile’s free/slow data plan.  This is such a revolutionary product that we had to test and try it repeatedly around the world before believing it really is as good as it could be, and now that we’ve done this, we write about it in our article ‘Does the Free Slow International Data Service Offered by T-Mobile Really Work?‘.  If you don’t want to read the article (and you should!) the short answer is ‘Yes, it does’.

Voice Calling Costs

All the major wireless companies have been reducing their charges on international voice calling, and sometimes they have a two-level pricing structure.  If you agree to pay a small flat fee each month, you get access to lower per-minute calling rates; if you don’t, then you pay a higher cost per minute.

Usually you can turn this fee on and off on a month by month basis, so it might make sense to turn it on before starting your travels and to turn it off again when you return.  But if you’re only traveling for a short time and don’t expect to use your phone for anything other than emergencies, perhaps you’ll not even bother to do this.

If you’ll be in one country for an extended period, and expect to have local people wanting to call you, then it makes sense to get a local SIM and use that.  This has several advantages.

First, almost every country in the world – other than the US – gives cell phone users free incoming calls (the person who calls your cell phone pays a fee, rather than you paying the fee), so calls to your phone will be totally free to you.  Secondly, it is a courtesy to give people in the country you are visiting a local number to call, rather than requiring them to make an expensive international call to your home country cell phone number.  Thirdly, your own local calling in the country will probably be cheaper with a local SIM than using your home country SIM.

Other than for that special scenario, the cheapest calling rates are with T-Mobile, who offer a flat rate of 20c a minute for all incoming and outgoing calls when you’re traveling internationally in 120+ different countries, no matter where you’re calling to.

What About Free Wi-Fi?

We are often told by intending travelers that they’ll simply make do with using free Wi-Fi while traveling outside their country.  We’d love to know where they find it, and how they can use it safely!

Many years ago, it was common to find free Wi-Fi in many places, but these days, it is much less common to do so, because Wi-Fi routers are no longer shipped with a default ‘open/free’ status, and users are more conscious about security issues and password protecting their Wi-Fi networks.

Talking about security, that brings up an important related issue about free Wi-Fi.  To make things much worse, if you do find a free Wi-Fi source, it might be a trick/trap by a hacker to intercept your passwords.  Even if it is not an active hacker trap, communicating over an open free Wi-Fi service makes it much easier for other people to eavesdrop on your data stream, and to access your passwords and other identifying information.

So it is probably not a good idea to hope to ‘borrow’ (the correct word is ‘steal’) some free Wi-Fi, anywhere, ever.

Locked and Unlocked Phones

If you are wanting to replace the SIM in your phone with a local SIM from the country you are visiting, you need to be sure that your phone has been unlocked by the wireless company you purchased it from.  Nearly all phones are sold through wireless companies in a ‘locked’ condition, meaning they will only work with a SIM from the wireless company who sold ‘your’ phone to you.

Happily, these days most of the companies will unlock your phone for you if you ask them.  Assuming you’ve been a customer for a while, they usually give you a code which you key into your phone and then it will work with any SIM, from any provider, anywhere in the world.

It can take several days to get the code, so you need to make sure your phone is unlocked well before you start your travels.

Local SIM Solutions

Although it is hard to beat T-Mobile’s service and price, if you’ll be staying in one country for an extended period, or if you need a local number, or if you plan to make extensive use of your phone, or if you want the fastest data service possible, probably then your best solution is to buy a local SIM and pay local rates.  This usually gives you free incoming calls, lower priced outgoing calls, and much lower fast data fees.

You can buy a SIM once you get to your destination – sometimes they are for sale in airport shops, but sometimes not, and we know of some people who end up wasting days of their travels searching for an open cell phone store with an available correct-sized SIM in stock.

We prefer to buy any SIMs we need before leaving the US – that way you can confirm the SIM works in your phone (and if you do have problems, you can call the supplier in the US and speak to them in English to conveniently get the problem resolved), you don’t have any hassle or delays or problems in-country, and you can tell people what your phone number will be in advance of traveling.

Probably the broadest selection of local SIMs is offered by Telestial, and at very reasonable prices.

I typically travel with two phones – my regular US phone with T-Mobile service and a second phone with a local SIM in it.

Another Use for Local SIMs and Data

Sometimes, if you’re staying in a hotel with very expensive Wi-Fi charges, it is nowadays better to use your phone with local SIM including low priced fast data, and set it up as your own hotspot, and access the internet via the phone rather than paying over the odds for the hotel’s Wi-Fi.

This sounds strange, but it is merely a repetition of the same evolution that saw us all switch from using our in-room hotel provided telephones to instead using our cell phones for cheaper better voice calling, and now a similar level of extravagant greed on the part of hotels will start to force us away from their Wi-Fi services, too.

The Best Overall Solution

No matter which US wireless company you use, when you travel internationally, you should consider getting a T-Mobile SIM and account for the period of your travels.

Because you can sign up for T-Mobile with no contract, and use their service on a month to month basis, you can even do this without interfering with your regular relationship with your regular carrier.  On the other hand though, we’ve found T-Mobile’s domestic services and features and pricing to be excellent too, and ended up switching all our service, domestically and internationally, to T-Mobile, and probably you might feel the same way.

T-Mobile offers you 20c/minute calling internationally, free slowish but functional data, and also free incoming and outgoing text messages.

If you are traveling to a specific country for a longer period, or if you expect to be using your phone a lot, then you should get a local SIM before you travel, eg from Telestial.

3 thoughts on “Using a Cell Phone When Traveling Internationally”

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      Hi, Stu

      A lot depends on the best deals you might have with whatever local provider you have, wherever else in the world. But, within the US, I’d suggest a trip to Walmart and getting a discount prepaid SIM/service from them as probably the least expensive option, or otherwise, who resell T-Mobile.

  1. I picked up a manufactured unlocked phone from . They sell dual sim phones, which really makes it easy to travel with. It has tethering & Wi-Fi built in (big bonus). I’m really excited to have it because, I am going to be traveling and I can take it with me and use it oversea’s. All I have to do is pick up a sim card in the country I am visiting at the airport or at a store. This way I can make local calls and call home cheaper with the plans they offer.

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