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)