Using Your Cell Phone When Traveling Abroad

So you’re going abroad this spring or summer, and you want to stay in contact with stateside family and friends while you’re gone. Just pop your cell phone in your purse or luggage and you’re all set, right? Wrong. Dealing with telephone communications when you’re on a different side of the ocean is not quite that simple.

Issues from compatibility and accessibility to price will affect the ways in which you can best communicate. While I’m looking at this issue from a U.S. perspective, the same issues can apply regardless of location. The fact is, when you move from one zone to another, your phone may not be prepared to make the move with you.

The Quandary of International Calling

If you normally have a U.S. phone and calling plan, there are a variety of problems that may face you when traveling abroad:

  1. Your phone may not be compatible. Different phones use different cellular technology, and depending on the available networks in the country you’re visiting, you may not be able to use your phone without adjustments. Most phones use GSM or CDMA technology. While GSM is the standards of most Latin American, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, CDMA is used in many European countries. U.S. carriers Verizon and Sprint PCS use CDMA technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile operate on GSM. Your phone must also be able technologically to make international calls; some phones can only be used domestically.
  1. Your costs may be prohibitive. Depending upon the calling plan you currently have, you may be hit with astronomical international roaming charges when you are abroad. And even with an international plan, calling rates for individual countries can run up to several dollars per minute.

What Are Your Communication Needs when Traveling?

When considering what phone arrangements you need to make before heading overseas, start by considering three variables:

  1. How long will you be gone? Taking a 3-4 day long weekend tour won’t require the same communication arrangements as an entire summer abroad. And if you’re a constant globetrotter dealing with international calling on a constant basis, you need a permanent solution.
  1. Where are you going? Going back to the issue of cellular technology compatibility, check to see the available networks in the country you’re visiting, as well as calling rates
  1. What will be your primary type of phone usage? Your phone needs will vary, depending upon whether you’ll be using your phone to make calls to friends and family, recieving business calls, or calling mostly within the country.

Next Steps

Before you toss your phone out the window in frustration, check with your cell phone carrier. Find out about any compatibility issues for your phone, and check about its available international rates. Some carriers have global phone loaner programs and other options for travelers, so gather all the facts before you make a decision on the best solution for you. Find your provider’s online international services link as a place to start.

Possible Solutions

There are several ways to handle phone communications when you’re going abroad, including the following:

  1. Using your own cell phone with an international calling plan;
  2. Purchasing or borrowing a global phone from your U.S. carrier;
  3. Purchasing or renting a cell phone in your destination country;
  4. Using a VoIP service such as Skype;
  5. Using an international SIM card with your own cell phone.

The viability of a particular option is going to be based on what you’ve found out about your phone, and how you’ve determined you’ll be using it abroad. For example, an international SIM card will only work if you have an unlocked GSM phone, so Verizon phones, for example, are excluded from this option. Or if you’re making a low volume of calls primarily to the U.S., renting a cell phone in another country won’t be very cost-effective. Check online and familiarize yourself more with each of these options before you make a decision.

Final Tips

Once you’ve decided on the best phone option while you’re gone, make sure you also do the following:

  1. Check the voltage requirements for the country you’re visiting and bring a compatible power converter for your phone charger.
  2. Save frequently used phone numbers, emergency contacts, transportation and hotel numbers in your phone’s address book. Make sure you enter the numbers using the international dialing format; e.g., “+011.”
  3. If you use a smart phone, turn off the “Automatic” function for checking emails and set it to “Manual.” You’ll reduce data roaming charges, and you can wait to check messages when connected to free WiFi in a hotel lobby or café.

By doing your homework and following a few simple tips, you can make your overseas phone experience much easier and more affordable.

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