How To: Use Your Cellphone Abroad

People often write in and ask us how to use a cellphone abroad without roaming. Roaming can be insanely expensive. We don’t recommend you do it. But what should you do? The answer depends on what type of cellphone you have.

T-Mobile & Cingular/AT&T: You have a GSM phone. Some GSM phones can be unlocked and used in Europe, for example, while you’re traveling. You’ll first need to unlock your phone by calling your provider and asking for the unlock code. They will be very reluctant to give you the code if you are still under contract with them.

Then you can purchase a local SIM card and talk to your heart’s content for far cheaper than the cost of roaming. For more information on how to unlock your phone, click here. Not all GSM phones will work in all areas, however. You’ll have the best luck with a quad-band phone, but a tri-band might work. To check your equipment visit Cingular’s world travel guide. If your phone won’t work, you can rent one.

Verizon, Alltel, Sprint: You have a CDMA phone. CDMA phones are not compatible with GSM phones, and are less likely to work outside the US. If you have a CDMA phone you can rent a GSM phone, like a Motorola V3. Or simply buy an unlocked one from a third party.

Whatever you do, it’s likely to be less expensive than international roaming. —MEGHANN MARCO

Guidelines for Using a Cellphone Abroad
(Photo: cmorran123)

RELATED: HOWTO: Unlock Your Phone
Best Unlocked Phones


Edit Your Comment

  1. Warder12 says:

    Having just started studying in England, its actually cheaper to buy a cellphone than to pay T-Mobile to rent one in most European countries. A cheap model with 10 pounds of credit was only 30 pounds, or about $56. It ends up costing about the same as 4 days of T-Mobile rental, and you’re not stuck with a $255 charge up front. When you’re done, either keep the phone to use again, or give it to a charity shop.

  2. Mr.Purple says:

    What about t-mobile?
    T-mobile has a great roaming agreement with many countries with really cheap rates (not cheap enough!). I think in some countries it is no roaming charge. I might be wrong.

  3. MeOhMy says:

    T-Mobile’s roaming charges are just as bad as everyone else’s. They just gave theirs a name (“World Class Service). I gotta pay a roaming charge in GERMANY? Ridiculous. T-Punkt…more like T-Punk’d! It’s like 35 cents/minute. I even have to pay extra to use int’l Hotspots even though my data plan includes “unlimited” Hotspots.

    You know with int’l roaming they can at least claim some sort of regulatory excuse for why they charge you a fee even if you are connected to your provider’s own network.

    What’s the excuse with using a cafe’s local internet connection via WiFi?

    “Because we can.”

    I would love to be able to use my smartphone when I travel internationally. The Internet is a great thing to have in your pocket when you are in an unfamiliar city.

    They even got rid of international rate plans where you could pay $50 or whatever up front so you don’t get a $500 bill when you get home.

    Thanks for the rant space.

  4. Beelzebub says:

    I actually had a very positive experience with *gulp* Cingular when travelling to New Zealand.

    The RAZR I bought was already GSM ready (unbeknownst to me), and I didn’t have to do a thing. Cingular activated a regional plan for the 3 weeks I travelled, and were incredibly easy to get it turned back off.

    The only problem I had was with getting voice mail–there was a 1-800 number to call, with bad instructions, that ended up creating $300 in charges of me trying to connect to my voicemail. When we complained, Cingular not only took the charges off, but also took off half the actual call charges as a courtesy (!). We told them it wasn’t necessary, but they still did it.

    So, if you have Cingular, just get that regional international plan, fo rwhere ever you’re going!

    Oh, and service was better in NZ than it is here in the US.

  5. larry_y says:

    Some countries (I’m thinking Korea and Japan) use cell phone standards and frequencies that are unique to that country. An unlocked GSM phone, even one that supports all four frequencies, will not work there.

  6. pestie says:

    Hell, Canada’s like the 51st state and Sprint still charges me something on the order of $0.60/minute for making calls there.

  7. Jillsy says:

    I rented a phone through Verizon Wireless a few years ago when I was in London for a week. The same phone would have worked on the continent, but the pricing would have been slightly different. I only paid for outgoing calls – incoming were included. They even forwarded calls from my US number (which was slightly annoying in the middle of the night, but that’s my bad for not turning it off).

    They mailed me the phone before I left, and I returned it in the same box when I got back. It wasn’t cheap, but it was fairly painless.

  8. lonelymaytagguy says:

    @larry_y: Visitors can’t buy prepaid phones in Japan anymore, so about the only option is to rent one. The last time I was there I rented from and was happy with the service. I had my phone number before I left home, and the phone was waiting for me at my hotel.

  9. mroach says:

    @larry_y: Softbank (formerly Vodafone) in Japan uses UMTS 2100, so if you have a phone that supports that, you’re all set. UMTS 2100 is the 3G standard used ’round the world, except in the US, surprise surprise. Cingular/AT&T uses UMTS 850/1900, so almost all of their 3G phones won’t work there. The Cingular 8525 though is triband UMTS, so it will work there.

    You’ll start seeing more and more 3G phone being triband, so they’ll work fine there. You could buy a GSM/UMTS phone if you’re planning on going there. I have a Sony Ericsson Z800 which will work there, and these days they’re pretty inexpensive.

    Important! If you’re with T-Mobile, you have to activate World Class International service before you go abroad. This is a free thing that they switch on to allow you to roam abroad. I think they do that so that there’s a point where you’re consciously deciding to roam and take the roaming charge beating that goes along with it.

  10. Amy Alkon says:

    I did the same as Warder12 above. I’m in Paris often, so I bought an “Orange” brand phone for about 60 eu about five years ago, and I fill it with 10 eu mobicartes (which I purchase at tabacs [tobacconists]) when I’m there. It needs to be refilled every six months, and sometimes I don’t get back that often, so I either give it to a Paris-bound friend to use or leave it with friends who live in Paris with a couple 10 eu notes.

    PS What you purchase at the tabac is actually a number to put in your phone for credit for minutes. It’s free for people to call you — you just pay if you call out. Really great deal!

  11. dohtem says:

    T-Mobile’s world class service is not for everyone. It depends on where you are traveling to. I was in West Africa where the currency exchange rates are insane (in favor of the dollar). The cost to make calls to the US was too cheap after exchanging dollars and buying prepaid phone cards. Compared to the price of the World Class Service, it was a no brainer. usually sells refurbished go-phones for cheap. Some for as low as $10. Get one if you are the type that travels. Unlock it and keep it till you need it.

  12. Chris Barrus says:

    I tried to have T-Mobile active world service on my phone (it’s an unlocked GSM phone), but they wouldn’t do so unless I had been with T-Mobile for over a year.

    I tried another customer service rep and got the same answer.

  13. FLConsumer says:

    I always carry an unlocked GSM phone in my luggage. Local SIM cards are the way to go, really cool rates. Also, I’ve found it cheapest to buy used GSM phones abroad rather than stateside. Not to mention that they have MUCH cooler phones over there.

    Also don’t forget about VoIP. If you’ve got a decent provider, you can take your VoIP phone/adapter abroad with you and you’ll still have your same # and same rates.

  14. Meatlof says:

    I run a small cell phone shop and customers often ask us how to unlock their GSM phones (T-Mobile and ATT Cingular) so they can travel abroad with thier phones. I’m pretty sure it would be illegal for me to unlock the customer’s phone for them, but I figured it would be alright for me to give them instructions so I just searched the web earlier today and found the following site that explains the whole process step-by-step:

  15. MeOhMy says:

    @quartzcity: Have you tried activating it on-line? That’s what I did…just checked a box.

    Do some reading about how it works before you depart, as in addition to the lackluster rates, there are hidden charges. For instance, once your phone registers on a foreign network, you get a charge for every call made to your phone, even if you don’t answer.

  16. Buran says:


    Thanks, great link — but I’ve got a Razr. Any suggestions?

    It is NOT illegal for you to unlock a phone — there is now a specific DMCA exception for unlocking cell phones.

    Cell phone unlocking legal (for three years)

  17. AlphaTeam says:

    AT&T and T-Mobile both unlock your phone for free if you are a good customer (as in you pay your bills) and have been a subscriber for 3 months. Very nice, except they won’t unlock the iPhone. Of course I buy unlocked phones in the first place.