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Using Cell Phones When Traveling Abroad

Carole Copeland Thomas

I asked: Now than Apple has released the iPhone with GSM capabilities, how does it stack up to other GSM phones that accept international calls? I am traveling out of the country and am trying to decide if I should buy a GSM phone, SIM cards that come with the phone, or SIM cards in the respective country. Your advice and suggestions are welcome.

(Note: GSM stands for Global System For Mobile Communication, and SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module)

This is the solution I settled on after reading the responses below:

Purchasing an inexpensive mobile phone in downtown Nairobi, Kenya worked well for my budget. The dual-band Motorola phone cost $30 at a discount store similar to Walmart. The SIM card and scratch cards I purchased and loaded into my phone for less than $20. I made many phone calls back to the US, all for under $50. Store clerks were very helpful in loading the minutes (SIM card and scratch cards) for me in my phone.

Using an iPhone or an international Sprint phone would have cost me the price of purchasing the phone itself ($150-$300) plus each call would have been $3.99 minute!

Buying the phone in Kenya was the best choice for me.

— Rebecca Staton-Reinstein

I’ve used a variety of GSM phones and provider services over the years and they all work slightly differently. You definitely need a “triband” or “quatraband” phone if you will travel outside the US. Ask your provider because today, a lot of the higher-end phones already have the GSM capability. The key thing is to talk to your provider’s tech support until you find someone who actually knows how that phone works overseas. You also have to consider how long you’ll be there and how much you’ll use the phone to decide whether to buy a special plan which is cheaper and useful if you use your phone a lot. There’ll be huge roaming charges otherwise. It is possible to buy or rent phones just for use overseas but this is usually quite expensive and your own is more reliable. You have to check a lot of factors before you decide based on how you will use your phone and how long you’ll be gone. Also, if you will use Internet service on your phone overseas this is often another very expensive charge.

In planning for an extended trip at the moment we are also asking about our wireless service. The problem here is that it is calculated in pennies per kilobyte which means that it’s impossible to figure out what the actual charges will be. Whatever choices you make it will cost money and what you’re paying for is the convenience so think of it as a legitimate business expense.

— Rohit Talwar

I used to use my quadband mobile everywhere — but the charges are very high. I’ve taken to buying local phones or SIM cards in each of the main places I visit (e.g. US and Middle East).

— Rosemary Verri

I love the phone I got this year: Motorola V220, GSM. Small, comfortable to use.

The cards have to be bought in the respective country. In Australia I used Vodafone because offices are everywhere. You get their card and put money on it. You can call anyplace in the world but you use it only in that country.

When I go to Italy I use Tim/SIM because they are all around (Vodafone is not). In any event, you buy a card in the country. To use your GSM, you’d have to to purchase a US card.

— James Dion

I have used my iPhone in Italy, Denmark and France with perfect connectivity. You just need to check with AT&T to make sure that they have a partner in Kenya (or other countries that you visit).

— Mitch Krayton

Go for the iPhone and keep your existing GSM phones for when you travel outside the USA. You can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card all over the world and these phones will work fine. For long distance phone calls use Skype or iChat with your laptop and any IP connection you can get. Voice over IP will work even on a dial up line for a single call. Conferencing and video require faster connections.

It is Calif. law that after 6 months service the service provider must unlock your phone for you IF you ask. So ask. (We will have to see how Apple handles this unlocking rule when the time comes).

Internationally it is all GSM so Verizon and Sprint phones won’t be of much use to you internationally.

You can buy an iPod Touch and keep your current phone, but for $100 the whole package is nice in the US. And you can still carry both devices on the road for all the other services.

I have the iPhone and find it is terrific. You have 14 days to try it out and still get a refund, too.

— Excerpted from the Kim Komando newsletter and radio program:

Most of the world uses GSM technology. In the US, we also use CDMA. That’s offered by Verizon and Sprint. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM.

The worst thing you can do is simply take your phone to Ireland and start calling. Roaming charges can be as high as $5 per minute! Yikes!

The best way to handle this is to have GSM cell phones and get a prepaid SIM card for each that works in the country you’re in. When you arrive, remove your U.S. SIM card and replace it with the one that works in there. This way, you get a local phone number and usually pay around 20 cents (or less) per minute for local calls.

Incoming calls are usually free regardless of where they originate, even from the US. You can buy these cards at a wireless store for under $50. They usually include some airtime. If you need more airtime, you can add it easily.

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