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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
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
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 www.cellularabroad.com , 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 (www.cellularabroad.com),
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.