International Mobile Phones and Internet access

If you’re planning an internationally nomadic worklife you will probably need some way to speak with clients or colleagues back home.  A telephone likely will be one of your essential pieces of equipment.

(We recommend that you visit our

Store page on Handheld Devices

for phone and SIM card recommendations.)

Experienced nomads not only use their mobile phones for talks but also as the interface between their notebook computer and that country’s dial up internet service (if supported by Bluetooth). Most of us are used to the freedom and security cell/mobile phones offer and wouldn’t want to return to the days of relying on hotel phones or finding a pay phone in a remote location. However, when you start to venture beyond the borders of your home country, understanding how to maintain the use of a mobile phone without going broke can be difficult. In addition, some of the newest alternatives can allow you to speak with others without any phone at all.  What are the choices and ramifications of each choice? The many variations can be mind boggling.

Let’s start with the basics:

Basic #1  GSM, CDMA, IDEN…?

First, it is important to understand that phone service technology varies from country to country. The most common service worldwide is GSM service. GSM was developed so that people could move freely across borders with one phone, gaining access to specific country services as they moved. Over 200 countries worldwide use GSM service.  However, the U.S. does not. The U.S. uses a variety of other technology such as CDMA and IDEN among others, and most mobile phones only work with their particular service provider.

So, if you own a mobile phone purchased in the U.S., it probably will not work in other countries. You may notice that some mobile phone providers (TMobile, Cingular) sell GSM phones. However, be aware that you must have the Global Roaming feature enabled by the provider and that roaming charges will apply if you should place a call while traveling. In addition, an American GSM phone may not use the frequency for the country you are visiting and be useless when you arrive.

If you’re planning an internationally nomadic worklife you will probably need some way to speak with clients or colleagues back home.  A telephone likely will be one of your essential pieces of equipment.

(We recommend that you visit our

Store page on Handheld Devices

for phone and SIM card recommendations.)

Experienced nomads not only use their mobile phones for talks but also as the interface between their notebook computer and that country’s dial up internet service (if supported by Bluetooth). Most of us are used to the freedom and security cell/mobile phones offer and wouldn’t want to return to the days of relying on hotel phones or finding a pay phone in a remote location. However, when you start to venture beyond the borders of your home country, understanding how to maintain the use of a mobile phone without going broke can be difficult. In addition, some of the newest alternatives can allow you to speak with others without any phone at all.  What are the choices and ramifications of each choice? The many variations can be mind boggling.

Basic #2  Frequency Issues

Just as service providers vary in countries you may visit, mobile phones may be running on a different frequency. The United States uses 850 and 1900 MHZ bands.  Most other countries use 900 and 1800 MHZ. Your phone can only function if it is using the same frequency as the country in which you are standing. So – as stated above – a United States GSM phone that works on U.S. frequencies will not work in most other countries. It is possible to find tri-band or quad-band phones that can work with a variety of frequencies but they are uncommon and expensive. Check on the frequencies used in your destination country before you purchase a phone. For a comprehensive list of frequencies for various countries visit:GSM World.

Basic #3 Unlocking Mobile Phones

Here’s another issue for those of you purchasing phones in the U.S.. The cell phone you buy in the U.S. is probably “locked”. This means it will work only with the provider from whom you bought it. In other words, a phone from Sprint only will work if you pay for Sprint service. If you buy a GSM phone and want to be freed from your providers roaming charges you will need to get your phone “unlocked”. Some phones can be unlocked by finding and using the unlocking code for your make and model through the internet. However, other phones will require a visit to the provider to be unlocked.
Let’s review what’s been covered so far.  In a nutshell, many nomads find that buying an unlocked GSM phone that runs on frequencies for the countries they are visiting (most likely 900/1800 MHZ) and then buying a SIM card for that particular country is the most cost effective way to go. SIM cards can be bought in most countries at convenience stores, book stores, gas stations, etc. Rates are usually reasonable and can include incentives like free minutes and free incoming international calls. If you don’t want to spend time after your arrival finding the nearest convenience store to buy a SIM card, you might like to buy one before your departure. SIM cards for many countries can be bought through Telestial and delivered to your doorstep before you leave.

Quick Tips for mobile phone decision making:

  • ask

    for a GSM phone

  • ask

    if the phone is locked. If so, how can it be unlocked?

  • ask

    what frequency the phone uses (most countries use 900/1800 MHZ)

Note: If you’re traveling to Japan, it is one of the few non-U.S, countries that does not use GSM.

Now let’s discuss a few more advanced issues and alternatives to a cell/mobile phone.  First, why is GSM technology important for international travel and how does it work?  As I stated above, most of the world (over 200 countries) uses GSM technology, so you will gain the greatest mobility through this choice. Second, an unlocked GSM phone is not tied to any particular service provider. In the United States most mobile/cell phones are associated with particular providers and won’t work in areas the providers don’t cover. With unlocked GSM phones, you can purchase SIM cards (which stands for Subscriber Information Module) to access providers in the countries where you are traveling .

SIM Cards

SIM cards vary in cost depending on the number of minutes they provide as well as other features. $30-$60 US is average. These may come with perks such as free incoming calls (including international incoming calls) or a number of free outgoing minutes. Per minute rates with SIM cards are usually significantly cheaper than global roaming rates you would pay with a home provider. In addition, multi-country SIM cards can be purchased, allowing you to move through several destinations on one SIM.

Some people choose to purchase GSM phones from their U.S. mobile phone service and activate the global roaming feature. If you make this choice, ask about the cost per minute for calls from your destination country. Charges can reach $6.00 US per minute. Don’t get slammed with a huge bill on your return. On the other hand, if you’re only looking for the ability to call out in an emergency and won’t use your phone otherwise, this may be a good option.

Perhaps now you have decided that a GSM phone is essential to your journey. Now you have a second choice to make – renting or purchasing? In my internet search I found unlocked international GSM phones to range from $100 to $700 US depending on features (you can compare prices on a variety of phones at Telestial). Rental rates average about $50 US per month with an average $20 US delivery charge (found at Cellular Express).

To make the

buy/rent decision

you’ll want to consider:

  1. How long you’ll be away.
  2. How often you travel.

Call Back Service

(also called Return Call Service) is an alternative way to avoid high international rates for outgoing calls. Return Call Rates at times may be better than a SIM card/GSM unlocked phone combination. Here is how Return Call Service works. First, through the service you are given a unique telephone number that is based in your home country (examples of providers are Telestial or China Mobile). When you have reached your destination, you place a call to the unique number using any phone (mobile, or landline, it doesn’t matter). After one ring you hang up. Thus, you are not charged for an international call. The Return Call Service records the number you have called from and calls you back a few moments later (China Mobile numbers offer a feature that instructs hotel personnel to connect the call to your room). When you receive the call back you then dial the number you wish to reach. Think about it. Most cell phones do not charge for incoming calls, most hotels don’t charge for incoming calls, and some SIM cards also offer free incoming international calls. Thus, you do not pay for the incoming call, you only pay the per minute fee of the Return Call service. My search found fees to be around .14 cents per minute for U.S./France calls and .20 cents per minute for U.S./Thailand calls.

A

word of caution

about Return Call Service: Certain Global Roaming SIM cards block this service. However, you should be alright with single country prepaid SIM cards.

Benefits of Return Call Service:

  • No set up fee
  • Pay as you go
  • No special equipment. In fact, you could use a land line and chuck the mobile altogether.

Satellite Phones

This mobile phone alternative will appeal to those most adventurous types who travel beyond the boundaries of mobile phone services. You can shoot the breeze with the folks back home while you plant your flag on the North Pole. Satellite phones include all the features of most mobiles without any of the geographic limitations. But – you will pay the price. Expect to pay $700-$2000 U.S. to own one or rent one for $7 to $19 per day from Telestial.

A

word of caution

about satellite phones: In addition to the cost of purchase or rental be prepared for rates around $1.70 U.S. per minute for outgoing call, as well as set up fees. Also, be aware that not all satellite phones reach to every corner of the planet. Some cheaper brands have more limited coverage.

Benefits of satellite phones:

  • You can get service on 100% of the globe.
  • Good signal strenght

 Skype

Probably the most versatile alternative for voice communication, Skype allows you to speak worldwide through your mobile phone for very cheap rates or leave the phone at home and speak with others completely through your laptop. Open a Skype account (for free) and by attaching a headset to your laptop you can then “Skype Out” or place a “Skype to Skype” call to anyone anywhere. You can call any telephone or other Skype enabled computer in the world from your laptop. If you are placing a call to another Skype enabled computer  (a “Skype to Skype” call) the service is absolutely free.  However, even Skyping Out rates are extremely reasonable and better than any phone rate you can probably find. And Skype accounts come with voice mail just like your phone.

A new service offered by Skype called “Skype to Go” allows your Skype account to work through your mobile phone so that you’re not stuck sitting at your laptop.  With this service you can reach numerous countries and pay the outrageously low Skype rates.  You must be a Skype Pro subscriber to access this service but this subscription is very reasonable as well ($3 US per month at the time of this writing).

A

word of caution

about Skype: be sure that you will have access to a good high speed connection if you intend to use Skype through your laptop for important conversations. Without a good connection you may experience substantial noise. However, with a good connection, calls are crystal clear.

Benefits of  Skype:

  • The best rates overall of any voice communication alternative.
  • Ability to communicate without a telephone and from any place with high speed internet.
  • Possibility of completely free communication in a Skype to Skype scenario.

See our aricle on Connecting to the Internet When There’s No Cafe in Sight—GPRS