Make Affordable Cellphone Calls While Travelling Internationally

Cellphone bills can put a serious crimp in your wallet if you’re an international man of mysteriousness. Here’s some ideas on making wireless calls without dropping too many deutschmarks:

• Buy a GSM phone on eBay, from the manufacturer or from a provider like Telestial or Cellular Abroad
• Buy a local prepaid SIM card once you’re off the plane. Should be able to find at magazine shops or tabacs.
• You may be able to unlock your regular cellphone. However, exorbitant rates will likely apply.
Buy a Skype cellphone and make Skype calls wherever you have WiFi.

What are your money-saving tips for making calls while abroad? — BEN POPKEN

Finding an Affordable Way To Use a Cellphone Abroad [WSJ]
Unlock Your Cellphone Now
HOWTO: Unlock Your Phone
Best Unlocked Phones


Edit Your Comment

  1. DCvision says:

    While Skype isn’t a cell phone, and you will be attached to a laptop or computer center, Skype calls are reasonable, and if it’s Skype to Skype, free…

  2. Kurtz says:

    My Cingular phone is a GSM phone, and I was able to unlock it without any problems or additional fees. When I arrived in Australia a few weeks ago I bought a AUS$20 Vodafone sim card. They’re easy to use, and they include several handy tools for checking and topping up balances, but make sure your write down your new number (I couldn’t access mine from my phone menu). But keep in mind that not all plans include voicemail. Also, pay close attention to your plan’s domestic and international rates. I was surprised to find that a call to the US on Vodafone’s prepaid plan cost half that of a local call in Sydney – I thought it would be the other way around.

  3. Grasshopper says:

    I have several prepaid SIM cards; one for each country I visit. I write the phone number for each on the card itself so there’s no chance I’ll forget or misplace the number.
    My China Mobile card has two options for outgoing international calls: normal calling at a fairly reasonable rate and IP calling at a low rate. The IP calls have noticeable latency but the low cost makes it worthwhile.

  4. Tallanvor says:

    You may also want to consider Roam4free. Making calls may be more expensive than buying a local sim, but if you’re going to be visiting a bunch of countries, you can receive calls for free in most of them, and just pay for the outgoing calls.

  5. chortik says:

    I was in Europe recently.

    Vodafone Spain had a pretty decent deal “Mi Pais” where I could make calls to the states at 55 euro cents/min and sms at 35 euro cents. Incoming calls and messages are free, which was the case with all the providers. Set up costs were 10 euro. It was also easy to recharge my prepaid SIM – most ATMs offered that service. Also, I opened the account with cash and they did not ask for ID.

    Vodafone Italy cost 4 euro to set up and similar cost structure for services, they also required a passport to open the account.

    3 Italy had no setup costs and a similar cost structure as well. They wanted a passport to open the account and took by far the longest to do it.

    The downside to the last two is that it was more difficult to add money to the SIM. Also, Vodafone Spain gave me 13 euro credit as part of some beginning of the month promotion.

  6. Gari N. Corp says:

    In the UK use an Orange pay-as-you-go SIM card in an unlocked Cingular GSM phone. In fact I once forgot to bring either the phone or the card back with me, and they were able to set me up with a new SIM and a cheap and nasty Sagem phone for about £35 ($55 back then). They may have tightened the rules by now, though.

  7. Sasquatch says:

    If you have T-Mobile service, they will unlock your phone free of charge after you’ve had service for 90 days. Just go into a store, and the rep should be able to do it for you.

  8. jenchicago says:

    Ben, you wrote:
    “You may be able to unlock your regular cellphone. However, exorbitant rates will likely apply.”

    Umm…this is wrong. I suspect you meant to say that you may be able to use your regular cell phone [on your existing plan] overseas, but exorbitant rates may apply. That’s true, but you don’t need to “unlock” your phone to use it in another country via reciprocal agreements your cell phone provider may have with foreign carriers. Instead you need to ask your cell phone provider to add an international calling plan to your phone service. I’ve done this with Cingular and T-Mobile, and it costs nothing to add the plan. You simply pay a per-minute rate (which usually starts at about US$1) when you make or receive calls overseas. Remember, you’ll need a phone that works on the same frequency as you’ll find in the country you’re visiting. (Usually GSM quad-band phone work, but it’s not universal so you should do your research. For example, I visited Morocco and was only able to use my Cingular phone in Tangier, where I was picking up a Spanish cell phone carrier’s frequency.)

    If you unlock your internationally compatible cell phone, it’s no different than buying an unlocked GSM phone on eBay. When you get overseas, you simply open the back of your phone and pop out the SIM card, then buy a local prepaid SIM card in the country you’re visiting. If you do this, however, remember that you’ll get a new, local phone number with the SIM card. So you’ll need to communicate that number to friends/family who might need to reach you. Calls made to your US phone number will go straight to voice mail.

  9. FINANCE101 says:

    A friend said that when he went to the Bahamas he took his phone, and while he didn’t use it there, he received several voicemails. He said he was charged ungodly amounts for this. Does this make sense? Will it happen in other countries?

  10. chrismar says:

    Mobal has cheap ($49) unlocked dual-band GSM phones. I’ve just purchased one of these for my wife who will be in France studying for a month.

    Its not much more than you’ll find on eBay, but they’re pretty reputable as far as GSM phones go, so you won’t have to deal with shady people.

  11. rachmanut says:

    Perfect timing (for me) for this post! I am going to Europe for a total of five weeks over 3 months this summer and want to be able to communicate, rarely to the US but more frequently to hotels, friends, etc. in Europe. Thankfully my company has unlocked GSM phones for loan, so I did a little research and bought a $50 international SIM card from united-mobile (comes with $20 of minutes). As I’ll be in multiple countries (Germany, Czech Rep., Netherlands, Finland, Italy) buying a single-country card didn’t work for me.

    The deal here is I get a lichtenstein number and it’s pretty much the same rate everywhere I go in europe: 0.49/minute to make calls or text in europe to basically anywhere including the US (.79 to call a cell phone) plus .30 setup fee for each call. As is the norm in Europe, all incoming calls and texts are free (though any callers pay for a call to lichtenstein). Overall, more expensive than skype, but seems reasonable.

    The company seemed more or less unshady (tough to tell from a website) though payment was via paypal. I got my card in about a week. The calling system they use is strange — when you make a call the phone hangs up and calls you back 5 seconds later. I guess that saves money somehow. The customer service was pretty good — I had a little trouble testing the phone — but they responded personally to my email the next day and everything worked. Of course, the real acid test will come in a few weeks when I try to actually use the phone in Europe.

    Anybody have previous experience, good or bad, with united-mobile? Any advice for SIM purchasers? Telestial was another compnay I considered, and had similar rates, but united came out a little cheaper.

  12. Heyref says:

    Even a locked GSM phone such as a RAZR will work in Europe, if you sign up for international service with your carrier. My T-Mobile RAZR worked fine in France last year. T-Mobile will also unlock your phone, if you purchased it from them, and you have had service for 90 days or more. My experience was that they did it quickly and politely, and that leads me to a question.

    I’m planning a trip to Italy this fall. I’d like to buy a SIM from TIM to use while in Italy both for local calls and because their rate to the US is cheaper than T-Mobile. A couple of websites imply that it is a pain in the rear to buy a SIM at a Tabac, due to the whole terrorist thing. Of course these sites want to sell you a SIM card at a premium with minimal time on it ($30.00 with 5-10 Euros of time.) Is it really that big a PITA to buy a SIM in Europe? Is it worth avoiding the hassle by purchasing a European carrier’s SIM through the internet before I go?

  13. tozmervo says:

    I can’t say enough bad things about Cellular Abroad. I used it on my first trip to Europe and it ended up costing me dearly. The phone stopped working while I was in Florence and I went to their shop there to get it fixed and/or replaced.

    They not only made me pay for the phone (that POS shouldn’t have been worth more than a few Euros, unless you’re a scum company like Cellular Abroad), but they wouldn’t give me a new one without paying a whole new deposit.

    Sufficed to say, this was a school trip. I have since been able to get my professors to stop listing that company in the info packets for students.

  14. itonix says:

    FINANCE101: Yes if you leave your voicemail on you will get charged 2x the international roaming charge. That is because of the way voicemail is routed to your phone and then back to the voicemail #. You are better off answering the call. I always use local SIM or turn my voicemail off when abroad.

  15. mkguitar says:

    I’m a US resident on tour in Europe.
    I have the cingular int’l plan for $1 min ( most places).

    In the UK Carphone Warehouse has “Mobile World” SIM cards available. 5p (10¢) min to the USA, 15p within the UK. Free incoming BUT it only works in the UK.

    Some services ( sim4travel being one) offer you an Leichtenstein or Estonian number the costs for callers to you can be OUTRAGEOUS -$3 or so. You have to check the total cost to both parties if you are expecting daily hour long calls with the Spouse.

    Currently I am spending just a day or 2 in each country so am using Skype when the internet is free or low cost compared to using my cingular phone.

    I’ll have 2 weeks in Germany so will visit “phone house” ( carphone warehouse affiliate) to see what is available for a SIMs and pricing.

    Unlocking: just about any guy on the street will unlock a GSM phone. My Nokia 6620 I unlocked using the codes at My Sony Ericcson I had unlocked by a shop at Sheperds Bush…5 pounds while you wait, the first 2 shops quoted 10 pounds.


  16. lainemcd says:

    I’m off to Turkey next week and setting up international roaming was incredibly easy through T-Mobile. Since I’ll be all over Turkey, Greece and the Greek Isles, unlocking my phone and getting local sim cards wouldn’t be cost effective, so for $10 I simply had my email switched to unlimited for the two weeks I’m over there and my blackberry will push my email just as easily as it does over here.

    I’ll just have to suck it up and pay the $1.99 when talking to friends/making dinner reservations!

  17. Tallanvor says:

    @FINANCE101: Yes, if you have your phone setup for overseas roaming, then you will be charged the international roaming rate even if the call goes to voicemail.

    If you’re going to use your normal carrier’s overseas roaming, keep the phone off unless absolutely necessary.

  18. theora55 says:

    We took unlocked GSM quad-band phones to Europe. We were able to get a SIM at the airport. Tabacs could recharge the SIM, but did not carry SIM cards. There are phone stores in many towns, so getting another SIM was easy. Vodaphone-Italy SIM was 15 Euro, with 10 of that as phone credit.

  19. wikkit says:

    Just a friendly geek reminder, make sure your GSM phone works on the appropriate frequencies for the country you are visiting.

    *A quad-band phone will work just about anywhere
    *A tri-band will work in most areas
    *A dual-band will either work in the US, or abroad, but not both.

    Wikipedia has a decent section on this under GSM

  20. Motor_Head says:

    I’ve learned this the hard way: disable voice mail!

    If you don’t have a GSM phone, buy a prepaid when you get to your destination. Turn off your other phone.


  21. Joe says:

    @DCVision: While Skype isn’t a cell phone, and you will be attached to a laptop or computer center, Skype calls are reasonable, and if it’s Skype to Skype, free…

    not necessarily true. I use a Belkin Skype phone that authenticates on free WIFI (no browser though) and I have an Orange SPV m5000 Pocket PC with Skype, which CAN authenticate to WIFI that uses a browser… Skype calls around London have cost me from .02 to .48 cents/min. And as you noted, the only way its free is if the recipient has Skype.

  22. rouftop says:

    I definitely must agree with the Skype lovers out there. While traveling through South America, I resisted trying Skype because I feared it wouldn’t work well until the last month of my trip. Once I finally gave it a whirl, I wished I had signed up on day one.

    It’s not going to help business travelers that need to be reachable at any moment, but hopefully if you’re in that boat your company is subsidizing your phone!

  23. John Stracke says:


    Unlocking: just about any guy on the street will unlock a GSM phone. My Nokia 6620 I unlocked using the codes at

    However, this won’t work for newer Nokia phones, especially Symbian-based models.

  24. Snakeophelia says:

    Anyone have information specific to Australia? I’ll be there next June. I currently have the first-generation RAZR and the T-Mobile Dash (which does have a sim card).

  25. mroach says:


    Call T-Mobile and they’ll give you the unlock code for at least one of the phones. I know they used to have a time limit on unlocking, like one phone every 90 days. They’re both quadband so it doesn’t matter which one you pick. When you get to Australia just buy a prepaid SIM from Vodafone or Optus. If you’re going to go to New Zealand, be warned that Optus pre-paid does not work there, but Vodafone pre-paid does.

  26. capturedshadow says:

    My US GSM phone was not tri-band so it would not work in the Asian countries I visited. However my Indonesian cell phone could easily accept prepaid cards available in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and even roam across to the other countries with them. I am not sure how much my friends paid in international long distance for voice, but the sms messages were cheap. I didn’t try any calls to the us so I can’t tell you those rates

  27. zolielo says:

    Like many of you guys and girls, I pick up an SIM card wherever I end up. I then switch out the cards (domestic and foreign SIM cards). I use a land line to check voice mail from back home. And always remember to add a foreign voice mail.

  28. Hirayuki says:

    Japan doesn’t use GSM networks. You can have as many bands as you want and your phone still won’t work over there. Much better to just rent one; you can do that right at the airport or reserve one to be waiting at your hotel/destination when you arrive.

    Of course it would be the country I visit the most.

  29. FLConsumer says:

    I usually pick up a used unlocked GSM phone when abroad and do the pre-paid SIM thing as well. ‘cept I’m looking for another unlocked GSM phone since the ramp rats at Newark Airport knicked my mobile when I was through there last year.

    Also, don’t forget about VoIP. Not as “portable”, but certainly useful and cheap. Nice to have my office extension and home phone line on the road.

  30. cnikolan says:

    I’ve had a few nightmares recently whilst travelling to the Netherlands with a Fido (Canadian Cell Provider) GSM phone. I found that I could receive calls from anywhere, and that I could also dial Canada or the Netherlands. Everywhere else was out of bounds. Of course, no one at Fido can explain this. I guess it has to do with their contracts with other international providers.

    I had to use a service called text2it ( to be able to make calls to colleagues who had other international numbers. This was a good solution and probably saved me few dollars as incoming calls are cheaper than international outgoing in Europe. Text2it bridges 2 incoming calls initiated by a text message or online. I really wish the service providers here in North America would get their contracts sorted out for international roaming. It would really facilitate things.