The Complete Guide to Using Cellphones Overseas

In the past half-decade or so, cellphones have gone from being convenient calling accessories to indispensable mini-computers, with phone calls and text messages being among the most rudimentary and, in many cases, least-used of their functions. For no segment of the population has this been more felt than international travelers.

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In the early 2000s, for example, a transatlantic traveler may have been reticent to even bring his phone over the pond with him, due to high voice and text roaming rates. These days, thanks as much to the widespread implementation of high-speed Wi-Fi networks to smartphone features – GPS maps and directions and online restaurant/attraction guides – that take advantage of wireless technology, cellphones and tablets have become even more essential to travelers.

Unfortunately, using a cellphone is only rarely as simple as bringing your phone over international borders and using it as you would at home. Thankfully, a number of ways to economically and easily use mobile devices abroad exist – if you do wish to use them, that is.

Out-Of-The-Box Cellphone Usage
Although it’s possible to simply roam on one of your cellphone carrier’s partner networks when you’re abroad, doing so is expensive – and, depending on how out of the way your destination, may be impossible. If you haven’t received explicit notice from your company or a wealthy family member that they’ll be paying the bill, you should plan on using your cellphone abroad just as you would at home.

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Unlocking Your Cellphone
The easiest way around incurring astronomical roaming charges is to use your cellphone on a local carrier’s network. If you use a GSM cellphone – in other words, one that uses a SIM card – this is as simple as taking your phone to a third-party repair person, unlocking it to be used with any SIM, then purchasing and inserting a SIM from your new carrier upon arrival at your destination. If you use a CDMA phone without a SIM, however, this isn’t possible.

Buying a New Cellphone
For those travelers who own CDMA cellphones and certain GSM cellphones whose security features don’t allow them to be unlocked, the next-best option is to purchase a new, inexpensive cellphone and use it while abroad. This can be obnoxious if you use a smartphone at home and, for financial reasons, buy a cheap Nokia or Samsung, but might be your only option if you aren’t made of money and need reliable cell coverage.

Using Wi-Fi
If being able to call constantly and whenever you want isn’t an issue, you could simply use your locked device only when connected to a nearby Wi-Fi network. This enables you to use the Internet, email and Web-enabled apps, which including calling and messaging tools like Skype and WhatsApp. Want to stay connected at all times? Invest in a mobile broadband modem, available from reputable mobile carriers abroad.

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Old School: No Cellphone at All
Of course, you could just do like people have done for all of eternity before cellphones and travel without one. Need to make a call? Use a pay phone or visit a call shop. Perhaps the best part about selecting this option is that people have to keep their word about being at a certain place at a certain time.


About the author

Robert Schrader is a travel writer/photographer and editor of the blog Leave Your Daily Hell, your source for destination information, travel photos, practical travel advice and inspirational travel essays. Robert’s writing and photography has been published on websites such as CNNGo, Tripping and Shanghaiist and in print publications like That’s Shanghai and East & West magazines. Robert’s travels have thus far taken him to more than 40 countries and to all six inhabited continents. Follow the Twitter feed, “Like” the Facebook page or add Robert to one of your Google+ circles.


Published: March 19, 2012