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Last updated February 07, 2016. 

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of international Cell Phone Service

Until recently, having a cell phone to use while you were abroad was perceived as not only an expensive luxury, but also somewhat of an inconvenience to acquire. In recent years--and although the perception remains-- rates and procedures have become such that virtually anyone traveling abroad can afford to have a cell phone. Regardless of whether you will be traveling to one of the many popular tourist destinations throughout Europe or a to remote, less traveled area of the world, where the costs of conventional cellular service are particularly prohibitive, you will still most likely be able to afford to have cell phone service. There are two well-known options for obtaining international cellular service, both of them rather expensive, both of them bad…one of them downright ugly. Ironically, there is lesser-known yet more cost- effective and easier way to make and receive cellular phone calls while overseas.

First, let’s explore the two more common approaches for attaining international cell phone service. The first method, renting a cell phone at the airport or through cell phone rental companies, is also the most expensive and most time consuming to arrange. Basically, it works like this. Let’s say you’re going to Europe for a one month trip. A cell phone rental agency will usually charge you $1.50 on the low end to $3.00 on the high end per minute for each minute of cell phone use. Although rates may vary, you generally pay the same price for the call whether you are calling down the street or back home to the US. You will also have to pay for the handset rental. Again, while rates vary, expect to pay at least $25 per week.

Since cell phone rental companies make the vast majority of their profit on the actual airtime usage, there will almost always be a 3-5 minute minimum usage charge. So if you were hoping to get by with having a cell phone and using it strictly in case of an emergency and thereby not getting stuck with a hefty bill once you get back from your trip, that’s not going to happen.

The second approach, and the one coveted by many business execs, is to roam with their current US cellular carrier, provided they offer that service. Basically, you retain your US number while traveling overseas and your cellular carrier will bill you for per minute usage according to their international rates. Again, while rates vary from carrier to carrier, they are generally around $2 per minute and up to $5 for more exotic locations. Not all carriers service all countries, so that is another aspect to consider. Some carriers also require a subscription fee and approval in order to be enabled for international service. Furthermore, unless you have the appropriate overseas phone, you will need to rent or purchase one.

The main reason that this approach for international cellular service is preferred by the business world is that you are allowed to retain your pre-existing cell phone number. However, for the non-business traveler, taking along your US cell phone number along for the ride is not necessarily a good think. Just imagine how many non-essential phone calls you get during the day. That may be fine when you are in the US, but not so great if you are paying a couple dollars a minute. Plus, it is inconvenient, not to mention expensive, for the locals in the country you will be in to call you (talk about being an ugly American!).

As promised, here is the affordable and good way to have a cell phone with you while you are gallivanting overseas. There’s a saying that goes, “while in Rome, do as the Romans.” In terms of international cell phone service, this expression is valid not just when you actually are in Rome but also in Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro or virtually anywhere else. Obviously, the locals do not rent a cell phone from an American company nor do the roam with a US provider, they have their own local carriers who provide them with service. If you travel overseas, you can now do likewise.

Here’s how it works. First, you need to get a compatible phone. Luckily, there is a standardized cellular system called GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). This platform is used in 195 countries, and growing, around the globe – hence the name. Different frequencies are used in different countries but if you have a tri-band GSM phone, encompassing all possible GSM frequencies, including 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz, you are covered, meaning, any SIM card in the world will work in that phone. Be sure that the phone is not “locked” into any specific carrier’s service, which happens to be a bad habit that US providers engage in.

 Once you have the correct phone, you will need what is called a prepaid SIM card in order to give you service. The SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card or chip is about the size of a postage stamp, with embedded circuitry on one side of its surface, and, when inserted into a GSM cell phone, provides cell phone service on a particular GSM network. Basically, it’s the brain of the phone, giving you not only the cellular service and the phone number but also logging the cell phone use, storing your address book, as well as a variety of other features. Pre-paid SIM cards have a certain amount of credit that as you make calls, gets deducted from the credit. You can easily add additional talk time by purchasing recharge vouchers. A recharge voucher is a credit-card sized card with a scratch-off area embedded with a PIN number. When you enter the PIN number into the handset, your SIM card will automatically be credited the denomination of the recharge voucher that you purchased. Think of it as being like a pre-paid calling card for your cell phone.

There are two basic types of SIM cards, the first is a SIM card issued by the provider in a particular country and convenient for cell phone use within that country, and second, an international SIM card which allows you to roam seamlessly from country to country. Country specific SIM cards, as the name implies, give you that specific country’s cellular service rates. While rates do vary from country to country as well as from carrier to carrier, one of the main benefits that is almost universal is unlimited free incoming calls. Domestic rates are usually about $0.25 while calling back to the US is generally around $0.50-$0.75 (hint: whenever possible, get people to call you back). One caveat is that many countries do not allow non-residents to purchase SIM cards. However, if you go to , there are a number of SIM cards available for purchase here in the US, prior to your trip.

The second type of SIM card is intended for travelers going to a number of different countries. While the rates aren’t so good, they still beat out the competitors’ and, since the SIM cards are prepaid, you are in complete control of you expenditures (good for preventing credit card bill shock, the number one cause of “expatriotism” in returning overseas travelers!). Depending on your requirements, you may opt to have a SIM card for a particular country, plus an international SIM card for other countries.

There you have it, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of international cellular service. And here’s another bit of good news , if you place your order online at Cellular Abroad (, either to rent a cell phone or SIM card or for a cell phone and SIM card package, you will get a $10 discount! Just type in backpack10 in the promo code field and the discount will be applied.


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