How To Find The Cheapest Roaming Solution When Traveling Abroad

Having the ability to make calls all over the world is a pretty amazing communications milestone, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap and easy. The Consumerist is filled with stories of poor fools who come back from parts unknown with thousand-dollar roaming bills—and it doesn’t just happen to clueless iPhone users. Here’s our attempt to help make some sense out of the mess.

BEFORE YOU GO: WILL YOUR PHONE WORK IN THE OTHER COUNTRY?

Read “Use Your Cellphone Abroad” for a quick description of the difference between GSM and CDMA phones, or just trust us that what you really, really need is a phone that will work in your destination country. If you’re looking at traveling to Europe, a quad-band GSM phone will probably do the job.

Japan’s network can be more problematic for U.S. travelers. As of August 2007, there are only a handful of phones you should look at if you want to make calls in Japan:

  BlackBerry 8830
Cingular 8525
Motorola RAZR V3
Motorola M1000
Nokia N73
Nokia N95
Nokia P990
Samsung SGH-Z140
Samsung SGH-Z600
Sony Ericsson M600i
Sony Ericsson W850i
Treo 750

Of course, you’re also going to need an unlocked phone unless you add an international plan onto your existing service—if it’s not unlocked, you won’t be able to use other SIM cards in it. Most carriers will now unlock your phone if you call and ask, but here are a few posts if you need more help on how to achieve this:

  “HOWTO: Unlock Your Phone”
“Unlock Your Cellphone Now”


SUGGESTIONS FOR THE MOST LIKELY SCENARIOS

Now that you’ve got a phone that will work in the other country, here’s our advice on how to prepare it for roaming. (Trying to map out all the options is like trying to draw the entire human circulatory system, so other suggestions are always welcome.)


Scenario 1:
You’re going to be in one country for a few weeks, and it’s unlikely you’ll be going back there regularly.
Suggestions:

Scenario 2:
You travel repeatedly to the same countries
Suggestions:
  • purchase a pre-paid local SIM card once you arrive
  • if your current phone is incompatible, consider purchasing a cheap 2nd phone to use when traveling
  • purchase a phone that can support wifi-enabled VoIP

Scenario 3:
You travel frequently to various countries.
Suggestions:

Pre-paid Local SIM Cards
  Best for: occasional or one-off travelers to single countries (for example, that once-a-year business trip you have to make to Germany).
Drawbacks: pricing is all over the map, so it can be hard to find a good deal if you’re new to a country
You can buy pre-paid local SIM cards all over the web, but our readers have consistently pointed out that it’s cheaper to buy them locally once you arrive in the country.

Global SIM Cards
  Best for: frequent business travelers, people who spend time in several countries each year.
Drawbacks: see GeoSIM’s story below; also, coverage mostly limited to countries in Europe, Africa, and Middle East

Here are a couple of options, although you’ll quickly find more as you begin to shop around:
Hop Mobile — $100 for card; 35¢ per minute for incoming calls, 95¢ per minute for outgoing calls
United Mobile — $50 for card, then adjustable rates (in Euro) depending on what “zone” you’re calling
GeoSIM, another global SIM card provider, is apparently having what may be death throes; their network has been down for more than a month, and although they may survive the current problems and resume service, there’s no guarantee—stay far, far away from them for now

VoIP On Your Phone
  Best for: tech-savvy people who can be flexible about call availability and quality
Drawbacks: “roaming” only in the broadest sense, since you must be connected to a wifi hotspot to use it

This is the cheapest solution, with the added benefit of bypassing the ridiculously complicated world of SIM pricing—but you’re limited by access to Wifi hotspots. If you’re traveling in an area with lots of Fon nodes and you’re a Fon member, or if you know your hotel offers free wifi and you’re okay with only making calls when you’re at your hotel, it might be a little more usable. Also, call quality varies greatly—we’ve never had a Skype or GizmoProject call that matched PSTN call quality.

U.S. Carrier Roaming Plans
  Best for: people who find this whole topic annoying and complicated, and would rather pay a little more to avoid the headache
Drawbacks: Rates aren’t that competitive, and U.S. carriers have such complicated and inefficient bureaucracies that if anything goes wrong, you’ll find it difficult and time-consuming to make right.

Renting A Local Phone
  If all you need is a way for others to reach you and you’ll rarely make outbound calls on your phone, this can be an affordable solution for short-term visits and business trips. However, the per-minute fees are too high to bother with if you’re planning on actually making any calls.

Cellhire

ADVICE FROM OTHER READERS

Real world experiences from other people are invaluable on a subject like this, so here are some posts that have contain great reader-submitted advice on the best ways to set yourself up for calls when you go abroad:

  “How To: Use Your Cellphone Abroad”
“Downloading Overseas? Here’s Your $7,124 Cingular Bill”
“When Travelling Internationally, Pop Out The iPhone SIM Card To Check Email Without Huge Roaming Charges”

[last updated October 31, 2007]
(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. Amelie says:

    I regularly go to Germany. I bought a phone at Tmobil shop for 20 euros and g0t a 15 euro card that lasts a month. The calls are 39 cents, but sometimes are cheaper on the weekend. This is the rate for calls in Germany. Calls to the US are $2 a minute, but I’m not making them outside of an emergency. The nice thing with a pre-pay, is you can’t get screwed with a bill.

  2. JustAGuy2 says:

    For folks looking for a global SIM, I’ve had good luck with Telestial.

  3. tcp100 says:

    You guys fail to mention that the entire idea of using another SIM in your phone only applies to TMobile and ATT customers in the US. Sprint and Verizon are not GSM-based providers, and therefore those customers’ only options are to use the international roaming plan provided by their respective company (ALWAYS very expensive), or to rent a phone.

    Another thing to consider, believe it or not, in some areas (especially on cruises and the like) is satellite service. Globalstar (despite their current satellite problems; although they just had a sucessful launch) does offer satellite service for as low as $1/minute, but the phones are expensive. You can get them used / refurbished, though. I’ve had one for years and am quite happy with it. Thuraya is actually quite competitive in the middle east and north Africa, honestly. Just another thing to consider, but not always the most cost effective. Avoid Iridium and Inmarsat though, their prices are insane.

  4. ARP says:

    I know the carriers are evil, but if you’re only going to make a few calls, it might not be worth the hassle. For example, met up with some friends in Dublin. Made 2-3 calls per day for five days, but they were always less than 1 minute calls (where are you, where should we meet, where are you located, etc.). So, about $1.30 a phone call.

  5. BigNutty says:

    I learned something today. Thanks for all the info.

    I always have rented a phone in the past because that’s all I knew how to do.

  6. yg17 says:

    @tcp100: Verizon and Sprint customers don’t even have the option of using the international roaming plan provided by their provider. The US, Canada and a very small handful of countries are the only ones with CDMA networks. Everyone else is GSM. They couldn’t roam even if they wanted to.

    For CDMA users, the best option would be to buy a cheap unlocked GSM phone and buy a SIM card in the country you’re going to. Or better yet, not use CDMA….The most anti-consumer thing in the mobile phone world (well, that, and the iPhone).

  7. jamar0303 says:

    Not quite- In China, at least, CDMA phones are free and open, using SIM-like cards called R-UIMs. But, there are third-party shops (In big cities like Shanghai, at least) that will activate American Verizon/Alltel (and now Sprint, but you have to ask for the MSL code first) phones with a local prepaid plan. They’re hard to find if you don’t speak Chinese (or Korean- their main market is immigrant Koreans who want to keep using their own phones) though.

    Handy tip 2- T-Mobile phones are not locked to their own country. If you have a T-Mobile USA phone you don’t need to unlock it to use a T-Mobile UK/Germany card.

  8. eimajuno says:

    That phone list that is listed does have an error. The Blackberry 8830 does have a GSM radio however it does not have the band, 2100, which is needed for Japan. GSM 900/1800 should be fine for Europe, Mainland Asia, Africa and Russia. Also, You may want to add the AT&T Tilt to that list for it does have the 2100 band for Japan.

  9. eimajuno says:

    @eimajuno:

    edit: Also, the Motorola V3 is in the same boat as I previously stated for the Blackberry.

  10. Benny Gesserit says:

    What about the “Pay as you Go” option? We’re thinking about the next trip to the UK, so I just checked Virgin UK and (doing quick conversions), a low end Nokia can be purchased from them for about US$40.

    Usage to land lines and other Virgin mobiles is 30cents a minute for the first 5 min of the day and 10 cents a minute after that. (Calls non-Virgin cells are pricey, about 70cents a minute.)

    Supposing I spend 20mins on land line calls, that’s $3 for the day. I’m mentally comparing this to BritTelcom payphone (when you can find it) for 80 cents a pop.

    We’re thinking this is a better route, if only because we don’t have to juggle SIM cards.

    Despite all that, if you’re a Rogers customer in Canada, there’s a very good chance your phone will work in the UK. The last time we went, I spoke to a Rogers CSR. He told me my phone would work but strongly encouraged me to only use Text Messages while there as roaming was $3.50/minute(!!) but text messages were 50 cents a piece.

  11. ThePopOversAreDone says:

    The man in this picture doesn’t look
    very awesome :(

    If I couldn’t call my Mom I would just
    die and I know she would be pretty upset!

  12. ThePopOversAreDone says:

    @BigNutty:

    I think your name is just awesome!

    <}

  13. finite_elephant says:

    South Korea uses the same GSM 2100 freq that Japan uses, so they’re the other part of the asterisk on most “World Phones”*

    Supposedly all Helio phones are GSM 2100 equipped.

  14. jamar0303 says:

    @finite_elephant: No, they are not. Otherwise they would be capable of roaming in Japan. But Korea does use WCDMA 2100 (not GSM- it’s a 3G technology).

  15. sree_nilakanta says:

    I recently travelled in India. To my surprise my Verizon phone worked. I was able to make local calls and international calls. I did not have to do anything special, just turn the phone on! I use LG env. Depending on the location, I had to use country/city codes. For example, in the city of Trivandrum (Kerala state) the call were just like a local call while in a remote area, I had to use 0 and the city code.

  16. jamar0303 says:

    Yes. Quite a bit of Asia and South America has CDMA coverage.