Be prepared: taking your mobile phone with you

Have you ever been traveling internationally and wished you could just make a phone call easily? Say you’re traveling as a family, and dad takes the kids to a park but wants to let mom know they’re going to play a while longer. Often this means finding a pay phone, but in some countries you need a phone card to make a call, and where are you supposed to find the phone card? So in the spirit of “be prepared when going global with kids” here are some tips on using mobile phones overseas.

The first thing to know is the difference between CDMA and GSM technologies. In most countries around the world, GSM is the standard for mobile telephony. Since more than 80% of the world uses GSM, if you have a GSM phone it is easy to use your own phone in many other countries.  Unfortunately, in the US only TMobile and AT&T have GSM service, so if you have a different provider you probably can’t use your phone overseas.  Another caveat is that GSM service operates on different frequencies in other countries, so if you’re taking your GSM phone overseas make sure it’s a “quad-band” phone.  To find out what companies provide GSM service on which frequency in the country you will be visiting, see the GSM World website.

So you’ve got a GSM phone that works where you’re going.  Now you need to make sure your phone is “unlocked.”  In the US, most people get a phone at a discount by signing a multi-year contract with the service provider.  In order to prevent you from just switching to a different GSM provider, these phones are “locked” to only work on the contracted network.  However, phones can be unlocked with a code so that you can switch the SIM (subscriber identity module) card inside the phone and use a different network.  TMobile will do this for free if you’ve been a customer in good standing for 90 days, and AT&T might do the same.  Other methods for unlocking your phone are also available.

Once your phone is unlocked, you can buy a new SIM card for any network you choose.  SIM cards can be found readily at convenience stores or supermarkets in most countries, and usually cost between $10-20.  You will also need to buy prepaid minutes for your phone, which usually comes as a card with a scratch-off number that you enter into the phone to top-up the minutes.  Ask the store to help you put in the code the first time you do this, since following the voice prompts in another language can be difficult.  The good news is that minutes are usually very inexpensive, even for international calls, and many networks will not charge you for incoming calls.  Do a little searching on the web before you travel to find out which networks are available and where to buy the SIM cards.  There are other options, such as buying or renting a “world phone” or roaming on a partner network for your home provider, but these are usually much more expensive.

As you can see, taking your phone overseas requires some legwork, but being able to easily communicate while traveling adds a level of safety and convenience that we find very useful, especially with a child.  Have you used your phone overseas or have any specific tips for mobile phones in countries you’ve been to?

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2 responses to “Be prepared: taking your mobile phone with you

  1. We were in the Cayman Islands, on the beach, and decided we wanted to call family to tell them what a good time we were having and how beautiful it was. We did nothing in advance, but the call worked fine. I think it did cost a bit extra on our final bill, but the phone did work. It sounds like we were lucky. 🙂

  2. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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