How Use Your Cell Phone While Traveling Abroad: International Mobile Phone Tips

9 Mar

It’s tough to divorce yourself from your cell phone. It’s an all-knowing security blanket, and a lot of us would both like to use it while we travel and be entirely free of its interruptions while we travel. I can’t help you with the second one — you’ll have to figure out how to turn the thing off yourself — but I can help you with the first one — making sure your phone will work will abroad.

For your phone to work internationally, you need two things: 1) an unlocked phone, 2) a phone that’s compatible with the local frequency. Both are tricky.

Just to be a jerk, most cell phone carriers lock their phones to their own networks, so you can’t use a T-Mobile phone on AT&T, for example. When you travel, you want your phone to be “unlocked” from any carrier so that you can use it on any carrier’s network in New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, and everywhere in between. The good news is that most carriers will unlock your phone if you’ve been a customer for more than a couple months — just call the support line and tell them you’re traveling abroad and want to use your phone in __ country. They should be able to unlock your mobile with a special code over the phone. It will likely be a long and annoying phone call, but it’ll be worth it, unless …

Unless your phone works on the wrong frequency. The best phones for international travel are GSM phones (Global System for Mobile communications). These phones use SIM cards that you can swap out while abroad. However, phones on Verizon, Sprint, US Cellular, Virgin Mobile, and Boost Wireless are NOT GSM phones (more here). These carriers use CDMA technology (Code Division Multiple Access), these phones don’t use SIM cards, and they work in a lot fewer countries.

There are, of course, exceptions. Many of Verizon’s new 4G LTE-enabled phones (like the iPhone 5) support both CDMA frequencies and GSM frequencies and are great for international travel. But if you have an older Verizon phone, you’re out of luck — you’ll need a new phone if you want to use it abroad.

And it’s not as simple as this. Even if you have an unlocked phone and if it’s GSM instead of CDMA, it still may not work abroad. Many GSM phones sold in the US only utilize two of the four possible frequencies (GSM 850, 1900). These phones are called “dual-band” phones. If you’re traveling to Europe, you want a phone that connects on the other two frequencies (GSM 900, 1800). You want a “quad-band” phone. Here’s a list of countries and common GSM frequencies.

If you have a newer smartphone (like an iPhone or Google Android or Windows Mobile phone), it’s probably a quad-band phone — check the manual. It should say something like “Compatible with: GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)” — four frequency bands.

Phew, but it’s not over yet. If you want to use 3G data, it’s more complicated. There are five 3G frequencies, but three of those are most common. Sigh. Maybe just roll the dice on this one and use the hotel WiFi? Damn phones. The most at-risk of not working on 3G in other countries (you’ll still be able to make calls and send texts) are older T-Mobile cell phones. And even if your phone isn’t compatible with 3G in whatever country you’re in, you should still be able to get 2G data. Luckily, you’re on vacation … don’t worry too much about download speeds.

4G LTE? Forget about it.

Moral of the story:

  • If you have a newer smartphone on T-Mobile or AT&T, you’re probably good to go abroad, just get the thing unlocked.
  • If you have a 4G LTE smartphone on Verizon, you MIGHT be good to go abroad, just call customer service to confirm.
  • If you’re buying a new phone and you’re planning on traveling a lot and want an inexpensive, but high-end phone, check out the Google Nexus 4. It’s compatible with (nearly?) every international networks and you can buy it for $299 without a contract. If you’re really going to be traveling a lot, why pay for cell phone contract in the US if you’re not in the US to use it? (More on this below.)
  • If you want a cheaper quad-band phone, check out Red Pocket Wireless. Their phones are unlocked and GSM-compatible (they run on the AT&T network in the US). I like the Samsung Chat and the Sony Xperia tipo — both are $160 and sold unlocked according to the website. Click here to shop Red Pocket Wireless. (FYI: Red Pocket sells the iPhone 4 for $450, unlocked.)

How do you get cell phone service in another country?

It’s simple — think of it like converting currency and do it at the airport. The easiest way to get cash when abroad is from an ATM at the airport. The easiest way to get your cell phone to work in another country is to buy a SIM card at the airport and swap it in. There are, of course, international calling plans, but I’m not going to cover those here. You’ll have to tweak a few setting if you’re using a smartphone, but the person who sells you the SIM should be able to help you out.

How to keep your local US phone number while traveling abroad for $20:

There is one problem to long-term travel: if you’re planning to travel for six or more months, you may want to cancel your US cell phone plan to save a few bucks ($75 a month x 6 months = $450 … the price of a plane ticket). If you do this, and cancel your current plan, you will get a new phone number when you return and re-signup for cell phone service in America. If you want to keep your number cheaply, port your current number to Google Voice for $20. Google Voice allows you to listen to your voicemail and send text messages from a web interface which you can log in to while abroad. Using a simple app, you can place calls using your Google Voice number from your smartphone — regardless of the phone number your carrier assigns you. It’s very slick.

(Full Disclosure: I have an unlocked HTC One V. I bought mine on eBay. I am a happy Google Voice user.)

UPDATE 1: T-Mobile Simple Choice plans now include FREE international roaming. This is unprecedented. No other US carrier offers this. If you’re a T-Mobile subscriber, you’re all set to wander the world and stay connected. Just take a look at their coverage map and talk with customer service before you leave to make sure you’re all set.

UPDATE 2: I’m testing out an international SIM card from GoSIM. It provides international roaming at reasonable rates and free incoming calls to my +44 UK number. It cost under $30 ($19 for the SIM + $8 shipping) and includes $10 of airtime.  So far, it’s slick.

Got any other cell phone tips? Leave a comment below.