Smartly Using Cellphones Abroad

By Sebastian Harrison

While many cellphones work overseas with both voice and data packages, some can be extremely expensive and beyond the budget of most travelers. In addition, certain phones don’t work overseas at any price.

Here are some technical details:  In order for a cell phone to work abroad, it must have the proper GSM frequencies. In most of the world, carriers use the 900 and 1800 networks. In the USA and Canada, some carriers rely on the GSM system while others use CDMA. To make matters more confusing, the GSM frequencies that we use in the US and Canada are 850 and 1900 and therefore not all GSM phones are compatible to work internationally. If you are an AT&T or T-Mobile customer, there is a very good chance that your phone will work internationally. If your carrier is Verizon, Sprint or someone else, your chances are slimmer. In order to ensure that your phone is capable of functioning abroad, your best bet is to either research the features of the handset model online ( is a good resource), or check the user guide or call customer service.

If your phone does work overseas, the good news is, well, it works overseas. The bad news is that using your phone with your current carrier’s service can be very expensive. In fact, in some countries, your carrier will charge you about $5.00 per minute to make or receive a phone call. However, there is a much better solution. If you are traveling to a single country, say Italy or France, you can purchase a local SIM card for that single country and you will pay the same cellular rates that the locals pay. While rates vary depending on the carrier and the country, an across the board average is about $0.25 per minute for international calls and about $0.10 per minute for local calls. All incoming calls are always free. You can purchase SIM cards once you arrive at your destination or prior to your departure by ordering online from a reputable US based e-tailor. Some of the advantages of ordering prior to your departure include A) you have the SIM card and phone number in hand and ready to upon arrival, B) all instructions and customer support are in English and C) you will generally get the best SIM card in terms of rates for the needs of the international tourist. A good source for SIM cards as well as cell phone rentals is Cellular Abroad (

One small caveat is that your cell phone must be unlocked. This makes it capable of operating with other SIM cards. Fortunately this is easy to do. Simply call your carrier and ask them for the unlock code. If your account is in good standing, they will, in almost all circumstances, provide you with the unlock code and your phone will work with any SIM card.

What about data? Most smart phones, even those offered through non GSM carriers like Sprint or Verizon often have GSM capabilities and are able to work for data needs overseas. Using data while roaming can be incredibly expensive, particularly with phones such as the iPhone that are continuously using data. There have been instances where customers, unaware of the roaming expenses, have run up bills literally in excess of $200,000 in one billing cycle. While those are (hopefully) isolated cases, in every case, data roaming is expensive! Here are several money saving tips for those who need to rely on data for checking emails, maps, web browsing or other data related activities.

– Most carriers offer international data packages. These packages are moderately expensive but certainly a great deal cheaper than not signing up for a package at all. Contact your carrier and see what plans they have. Be careful of exceeding the data package as it can be a costly mistake.

– Turn off data roaming on your phone and use wifi. Depending on where you are traveling, wifi, even free wifi, may be available. In Europe, many cafés offer wifi. You may have to sit down and grab a cup of coffee or a sandwich but there are worse things to do when traveling! A word of caution; if you have sensitive documents on your computer, you may not want to expose yourself to the risk of someone else accessing your computer when using a “public” wifi service.

– Use a country specific or local SIM card. Many pay as you go SIM cards for international destinations offer incredible deals for data. For example, Ortel, a German carrier, offers unlimited data on your cell phone for only 8 Euros (about $10) for 30 days. There are other similar deals for other destinations as well.  Visit for more information and other deals.

If you want to use your computer or an iPad to access the internet, consider renting a mobile broadband hotspot device. These are often referred to as “Mi Fi” and when paired with the correct SIM card create your own personal and portable mobile hotspot. The device is about the size of a small cell phone and the battery life can last several hours between charges (several days on standby). With “mifi”, you can use up to five wifi enabled devices simultaneously. This is perfect for travelers who need internet service any time and any place and for those wishing to use multiple devices.

 Sebastian Harrison is the president of Cellular Abroad (, founded in 2002.