What You Need In An International Cell Phone: GSM? Unlocked? Rent vs. Buy?

What You Need In An International Cell Phone: GSM? Unlocked? Rent vs. Buy?

Whether we’re traveling for work or for play, it’s good to have access to a cell phone of some sort, just in case of emergencies. That said, we’ve heard stories of people returning to the States only to be hit with $800 in roaming charges—and we refuse to join their ranks.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Planning Ahead Will Save You Money

Many service providers charge $1 to $5 per minute for roaming, so planning ahead is crucial. Simply turning on your BlackBerry in another country can rack up data fees, even if all you do is leave it in your purse. Note that many American cell phones will block service overseas to prevent fraud. If you want to use your phone, call your provider beforehand.

2. In General, AT&T And T-Mobile Are Best For Travel

Some phones are readier for international travel than others. To find out your phone type, read the instruction manual, look it up online, or call your provider. If your phone is “tri-band” or “quad-band” and “GSM-compatible” (AT&T and T-Mobile phones are, as well as Sprint and Verizon “World Phones”), it works abroad. From here on out, we’ll just call a phone that meets those requirements a “Ready Phone.”

3. A “Ready Phone” Works Nearly Everywhere

With a Ready Phone, you can talk in over 100 countries worldwide, though you’ll pay in roaming fees. If you truly plan to leave your phone turned off and at the bottom of your bag for your whole trip, then you can keep your Ready Phone with you and plan not to turn it on unless there’s a real emergency. But, that’ll be way too expensive if you actually plan to talk. Get around this by unlocking your phone, which lets your device work with a new SIM card. Many companies won’t give you the code to unlock your phone, so the best bet is to go through a third party such as The Travel Insider, which will do the job for $25. Then, buy a local SIM card for the place you’re going, which will set you back $29 to $59. One site we like for purchasing cards ahead of time is Telestial. If that process is too expensive, consider renting or buying an international phone, instead.

4. If Your Phone Is Not A “Ready Phone,” You MUST Rent Or Buy

Non-Ready Phones won’t work outside North America. If you’re traveling for fewer than two weeks, we suggest you rent rather than buy. Providers like Sprint and Verizon offer world phone rentals to current customers, but their rates tend to be higher than those for universal rentals. To find an unlocked phone to take with you, search online, particularly on Amazon or eBay.

5. Decide When To Roam And When To Get A Phone With Local SIM

If you’re going to talk for over two hours, buy a local SIM and insert it into your current Ready Phone. Otherwise, rent or buy a compatible international phone.

Here’s how the options stack up among a handful of popular destinations:


*(Cents Saved Per Minute x 120 Minutes) – (Cost of SIM Card + Unlocking Fee)

**Korea and Japan don’t use GSM, which makes it extremely difficult to use your own phone in those countries. If you’re there for more than two weeks, buy a local phone, and if you visit for a shorter period of time, rent a phone with a prepaid plan.


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