American cell phones work fairly well across most of the United States, but what about when you travel to, say, Paris?
With newer phones that support international standards, reducing roaming rates and allowing you to take advantage of local rates, it's now easier and cheaper to stay in touch using cell phones when traveling overseas.
The place to start is with a GSM phone. Just as radios operate on different standards (AM vs. FM) and frequencies, so do cell phones. Two of the most popular cellular standards are GSM (global system for mobile communications) and CDMA (code division multiple access), each of which uses different frequencies (think radio stations).
For travelers, GSM is the driving force behind easier roaming, since it's the standard used in most countries (though some, like Japan and South Korea, use others). GSM is also the main network for American carriers such as Cingular and T-Mobile, while others, including Verizon Wireless and Sprint, have recently released hybrid phones that include GSM for roaming. Without a newer hybrid phone, a traveler on a non-GSM network will have limited international roaming options.
In recent years, Cingular, T-Mobile and other companies have begun selling phones and service plans that can be used in both the United States and other GSM-based countries.
Susan Simmons, vice president of strategy at the Management Network Group, a communications-industry consulting company, said that the move is aimed at "the average consumer, student or businessperson traveling abroad who doesn't want to worry about the hassle or expense of renting an international world phone."
For example, Cingular's World Basics Plus Western Europe Plan ($5.99 a month) has a flat 99-cents-a-minute roaming rate in 23 countries. Users need a GSM phone with the frequency for the country they're visiting. Sites such as www.gsmworld.com (click on "roaming," then "coverage maps") list GSM bands for each country.
The right phone
With the purchase of a global phone, Verizon Wireless customers can obtain GSM roaming rates of $1.29 a minute (plus long-distance charges) for many countries. In some that use CDMA, like Canada, Bermuda, Israel, Mexico and South Korea, the rate is just 69 cents a minute.
"Verizon has done a good job of creating solutions where customers can use their phones overseas," said Delly Tamer, founder and CEO of LetsTalk.com, a San Francisco-based online wireless retailer. He notes that Verizon Wireless has two new phones - the Samsung SCH-A790 and Motorola A840 - that are compatible with both GSM and CDMA networks.
For a $36 fee and $6 a month, Sprint customers can get GSM and lower roaming fees - for example, $1.50 a minute (including long distance) with a Samsung IP-A790.
But there are drawbacks to these hybrid phones, said David Rowell, founder of the Travel Insider, a Web site and online newsletter that focuses on travel and technology (www.thetravelinsider.info).
"For someone who wants the most flexibility, a hybrid phone is not the best choice, since it has fewer frequency bands and locks you into a service," Rowell said. "Hybrid phones that work on CDMA and GSM don't currently work in as many countries as a normal GSM phone."
On top of that, hybrids are expensive. For example, Sprint offers the Samsung IP-A790 for $399.99 (online price with activation), and Verizon Wireless the Samsung SCH-A790 for $349.99 with a two-year agreement.
Conversely, Cingular offers the GSM-only Siemens CT66 for as low as $29.99 with a two-year agreement, or the Nokia 6230 for $99.99 after a rebate.
`Unlocking' the phone
Once you have a GSM phone, you need to make sure that it is "unlocked." American carriers usually configure the subsidized phone that you receive when signing a service contract so that you can't simply use that phone on another network.
Unlocking that configuration allows you to use other carriers' SIM cards - removable chips that determine the phone's network and number - and potentially obtain cheaper rates. Web-based companies like www.unlock123.com will unlock phones for as little as $5. Rowell said that while most American companies won't unlock phones for their customers, T-Mobile will do it after 90 days in a contract.
With an unlocked phone, "you can simply walk into any cell-phone store in the foreign country you're visiting, purchase a new, local SIM card and some additional airtime, pop the SIM card in your phone and be making calls," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco.
This new SIM card gives you a local phone number, making local calls inexpensive. Incoming calls (even international) are free in many countries, so you can have friends or associates call you at less expensive U.S. rates while you can talk free as long as your battery holds out. But your voice mail may or may not work, and you may have to manually dial your voice mail number.
Sites such as www.telestial.com offer prepaid SIM cards for foreign countries, saving travelers the need to find a store. For example, a Virgin Mobile SIM card for Britain with $6 of airtime credit costs $40 from Telestial; rates to the United States are about 37 cents a minute, at $1.87 to the pound.
Even after you buy a SIM card, you may want to do as Tamer of LetsTalk.com suggests and buy a separate prepaid phone card to save money on international calls. "Instead of eating up local minutes," he said, "you can call the equivalent of an 800 number and obtain much cheaper rates."