Guidelines for Using a Cellphone Abroad
By ERIC A. TAUB
Published: March 15, 2007
As a T-Mobile subscriber, Ken Grunski, a businessman in San Diego, knew that his cellphone would work during a trip to Tanzania. What he did not expect was the bill: $800 for 10 days’ use. “I didn’t think I was going to use my phone that much,” Mr. Grunski said. “But two to three 10-minute calls a day, and it adds up.”
What a shame that Mr. Grunski did not heed his own company’s advice. If he had, he would have saved himself a bundle.
Mr. Grunski owns Telestial, a company that sells SIM cards, small chips that replace those in cellphones sold by T-Mobile and Cingular and lower the costs of calls when overseas.
While his American phone worked abroad without one, Mr. Grunski was paying sky-high rates because he was roaming in a foreign country. T-Mobile charged him $5 a minute to roam in Tanzania.
If Mr. Grunski had used one of the SIM cards he sells, he would have paid $1.15 a minute to call the United States and his calls — averaging 16 minutes a day — would have cost him $184, rather than $800.
While Americans have embraced the convenience of using cellphones, trying to dial from overseas often brings surprises. Even if the phone works, voice mail may not. Depending on the handset, coverage can be spotty. Make the wrong choices, and you may find a huge bill.
The right tactics to avoid those headaches depend on which carrier you use, the length of your trip and your destination.
GSM vs. CDMA
A majority of the world’s cellphone subscribers — 82 percent — use the GSM technology standard, according to the GSM Association. In the United States, the major carriers use two systems. Cingular (now AT&T) and T-Mobile use GSM, while Sprint and Verizon use CDMA, an incompatible technology.
CDMA technology is found in North America, as well as some Asian countries, but it is basically nonexistent in Europe. As a result, Sprint and Verizon customers can use their phones in just 26 countries. (AT&T and T-Mobile customers can potentially use theirs in over a hundred.)
When traveling in non-CDMA countries, Sprint and Verizon customers can rent or purchase GSM phones from those providers. Sprint rents a Motorola Razr for $58 for the first week, and $70 for two weeks, plus $1.29 to $4.99 a minute of airtime. Verizon charges $3.99 a day to rent, plus $1.49 to $4.99 a minute. Verizon also sells three combo CDMA-GSM models, priced from $150 to $600 with a two-year contract.
Cingular and T-Mobile customers have more options — if their existing phones can pick up multiple frequencies. To complicate matters, the American GSM standard operates on 850 and 1,900 megahertz, while the rest of the GSM world uses 900 and 1,800 megahertz.
To use an American GSM cellphone in a foreign country, the handset you own must be tri-band or quad-band and able to operate on one or both of the frequencies used outside the United States. The Cingular and T-Mobile Web sites, as well as Telestial’s and others, list the predominant frequencies used in each country, and show if your phone can operate on one or both overseas bands.
To protect against fraud, American cellphones are typically blocked from making calls when used abroad. Before traveling, call your provider and ask to have that restriction removed.
A Temporary SIM Card
GSM phones use SIM cards (subscriber identity modules), tiny electronic chips that hold a cellphone’s “brains,” including the subscriber’s contact numbers and phone number. (CDMA phones store such information directly in the hardware.)
GSM customers can avoid sky-high roaming charges by replacing their American SIM cards with ones from other countries. For example, travelers to Britain can pick up a SIM card from the British carrier Vodafone; once inserted, it gives the phone a temporary British phone number. Calls within Britain and to the United States would be much cheaper.
For example, T-Mobile charges its customers 99 cents a minute for using their phones in Britain, whether calling a pub in London or your home in New Jersey.
Insert a prepaid British SIM card from a company like Telestial instead, and local calls drop to 26 cents a minute, while calls back to the United States cost 9 to 14 cents a minute.
Another benefit when using overseas SIM cards is that incoming calls are typically free in most countries.
Overseas SIM cards can be purchased before you travel from companies like Cellular Abroad (www.cellularabroad.com) and Telestial (www.telestial.com) or at local shops in foreign countries.
Unlocking the Phone
Even if you have a GSM phone that operates on both overseas frequencies, domestic cellphone providers do not want you to use your phone with another company’s SIM card, because they do not make any money when you do. To prevent your doing so, cellphones bought through Cingular and T-Mobile are electronically locked — they accept only their own company’s SIM cards.
Before you throw your phone off the Eiffel Tower in frustration, know that there are several ways to unlock your phone and avoid those high overseas roaming rates.
Cingular and T-Mobile will unlock their customers’ phones under certain conditions. Cingular will provide unlock codes to customers whose contracts have expired, who have canceled their service and paid an early termination fee, or who have paid a full rather than subsidized price for their phones, according to Rich Blasi, a Cingular Wireless spokesman.
T-Mobile has more lenient policies. It will provide the unlock code to any customer after 90 days of service, but no more than one unlock code will be provided every 90 days, said Graham Crow, a T-Mobile spokesman.
If you do not meet these requirements, you can still get your phone unlocked from a private company. For a few dollars, the Travel Insider (www.thetravelinsider.com) and UnlockTelecom (www.unlocktelecom.co.uk) will provide your phone’s specific unlocking code.
Other GSM Phones
Cellphone customers with dual-band GSM phones that cannot be used overseas can always purchase unlocked quad-band phones from third-party providers. These phones can be used solely when traveling outside the United States. Since they are unlocked, they can also be used instead of your current phone on your American network.
Because the phone is not subsidized by a carrier, the price is higher. For example, an unlocked quad-band Motorola Razr V3 can be bought for $140 from Cellular Blowout (www.cellular-blowout.com). Cellular Abroad and Telestial also sell unlocked phones.
A Few More Tips
When entering numbers in your phone, always add the plus (+) sign and the country code; that way, the number can be dialed automatically no matter from what country you are calling.
Store your GSM phone’s numbers in the phone itself, rather than the SIM card. Then the numbers will still be available to you when you use an overseas SIM card. To transfer them to a new phone easily, store them on a device like Backup-Pal (www.backup-pal.com), an external U.S.B. memory unit.
While you will not pay any charges for incoming calls when you use a foreign SIM card, tell your American callers to get an overseas calling plan from their phone company before you ask them to ring you. If they do not, they could be paying the same sky-high rates that you just avoided.
And if you take your American phone overseas, make sure that its battery charger is dual voltage; without one, all the effort to get your phone to work in other countries may go up in smoke the first time you plug it in.
Correction: March 17, 2007