Choosing the Best International Cell Phone Coverage

Stay connected no matter where you travel.

For most travelers headed abroad, keeping in touch with family and colleagues during their absence is a must. But getting the best value on international cell phone service can be a daunting task. Knowing your travel habits and asking the right questions are the best ways to get the most out of your plan.

Having a cell phone at your fingertips while you’re traveling outside the United States can make your life easier, or even save it in certain situations. But this convenience doesn’t come cheap—U.S. wireless providers may charge up to $5 a minute for international roaming.

With some upfront planning, plus a good understanding of your options and your anticipated phone usage, you can get the international cell phone service you need—without blowing your budget.


Use your own quad-band GSM phone if:

  • You want to use your U.S. mobile number and access information (like contacts) on your U.S. SIM card while abroad
  • You like your handset, but want to use a local SIM card and local phone number (unlocked phones only)
  • Note: If you’re going to Japan, you cannot use your own GSM phone unless it’s a 3G device. Japan uses its own wireless technology, so your GSM phone will not work.

Rent a local or global phone if:

  • You don’t have a GSM phone or you have a GSM phone that can’t be unlocked
  • You’re an occasional traveler or you don’t plan to use this phone for more than a few days
  • You’re traveling to multiple countries and want one phone and phone number you can use everywhere
  • You’re traveling to a remote destination where this is the only option (i.e., renting a satellite phone)

Buy a local or global phone if:

  • You don’t have a GSM phone or you have GSM phone that can’t be unlocked
  • You’re a frequent world traveler who regularly visits multiple countries
  • You plan to spend a few weeks at a particular destination or you’re likely to make several return trips

Note: Quad-band GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) phones can operate on the four frequencies used in most countries around the world.

Smart Savings

Ask your wireless provider these questions:

  • • How are incoming calls charged under international roaming plans? Incoming calls to some countries may be free, while calls to other countries could cost you.
  • • How do standard international roaming rates compare with the “discounted rates” offered with international calling packages? Depending on where you’re going, a package may not save you money. For example, AT&T’s standard international roaming rates for Argentina are $2.29 a minute; AT&T World Traveler rates are $1.99 a minute. But for Iceland, under both plans, the rate is $1.29 a minute.
  • • What’s included in a phone “bundle”? You want to be sure the bundle has everything you’ll need—a handset, some prepaid minutes, a SIM card and a charger.
  • • Read the fine print. One U.S. wireless provider, for example, will charge you a $200 restocking fee if you return a phone from its global phone rental program more than 30 days after the company ships it to you—even if you don’t use the phone.
  • • If you buy a new quad-band phone, make sure it’s unlocked.
  • • If you buy or rent a global phone, ask whether the company can also provide an 800 number so U.S. callers can reach you toll-free (you pay for the call, not the callers). This feature is especially useful if you think clients or family back home will need to reach you.
  • • Disable data roaming on your iPhone or sign up for an international data plan before you leave the United States. Without a data plan, international data roaming on the iPhone gets very expensive very fast. Just downloading a three-minute, 2MB YouTube video will cost about $40 under standard pay-per-use rates.
  • • Limit outgoing calls (especially if you’re using international roaming). If possible, have people call you—incoming calls in many countries are free with several international roaming services.
  • • Use a computer—not your phone—to access email and the Web while traveling.

Know Your Options

When it comes to cell phone coverage overseas, you have three basic options.

Use international roaming

Use your quad-band handset, your U.S. phone number and your wireless provider’s international roaming service. The two major U.S. wireless providers, AT&T and T-Mobile, offer this service on a per-call basis, or through plans that offer discounts of up to 35% on calls from selected countries. To activate this service, call your wireless provider before you leave.

Buy a SIM card and prepaid minutes in your destination country/countries

Use your quad-band handset with any wireless provider’s service (provided that your quad-band phone is unlocked). Simply replace the SIM (subscriber identity module) card you normally use in the United States with a SIM card from a wireless provider in the country or countries you’re visiting. You’ll get a local phone number, and your phone calls will be charged at local rates.

Rent or buy an international, global or country-specific cell phone

You might not want to use your quad-band phone while traveling. Or perhaps you want a local phone and phone number. In these cases, renting or buying a phone for use outside the United States is a good solution.

International cell phones operate at 900 and 1800 MHz; they work in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim (including Australia).

Global cell phones operate at 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz; they work in the regions above, plus the United States, Canada and a growing number of South American countries.

Mobal, Telestial and several other companies rent and sell a variety of international and global phones, and will even ship them directly to your doorstep.

You can also rent or buy a country-specific cell phone at your destination—but do you really want to waste your precious time in Luang Prabang shopping for a phone?

Choosing the Right Option

These questions will help you find the best international cell phone coverage for your specific situation.

What type of phone do you have?

Most people have a single- or dual-band phone—the types most commonly sold by U.S. wireless providers. Single-band phones work at either 850 or 1900 MHz, the two frequencies used in North America. Dual-band phones work at both frequencies.

Single- and dual-band phones won’t work outside North America because overseas wireless networks use different frequencies (typically 900 or 1800 MHz). So if you own one of these phones, your only option is to rent or buy a dual-, tri- or quad-band phone that works at the frequencies available in your destination (most commonly 900 or 1800 MHz), plus a SIM card and prepaid minutes.

Quad-band phones

Quad-band GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) phones work on networks that use 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz frequencies. Most countries use these frequencies. So if you’ve got a quad-band phone, you’re already good to go.

Before heading overseas, call your wireless provider to see if your phone is locked. If it is, request a SIM unlock code. Most providers require that customers meet certain conditions, like a minimum length of service, to “qualify” to have their phones unlocked. But if you have an iPhone, you’re out of luck—these phones cannot be unlocked because of Apple’s exclusive arrangement with AT&T.

If your wireless provider won’t unlock your phone, a cell phone unlocking service might be able to help. []( offers “postal unlocking” services for more than 500 phones—you send them your phone, and they return it to you unlocked.

If you can’t unlock your phone, but you still want to use it outside the United States, international roaming is your only option.

If you don’t already own a quad-band phone and you think you’ll need a phone overseas on several occasions, a quad-band phone may be a worthwhile investment.

Where are you going?

Depending on your destination, roaming charges may be exorbitant. You’ll pay about $5 per minute to call the United States from Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and Vietnam under standard international roaming for most major U.S. wireless providers. Using a local SIM card and phone number, or renting or buying a local or global phone may be the most cost-effective options.

If you’re heading for a remote area like Patagonia, roaming may not even be possible; renting a satellite phone may be your only choice.

How much will you use your phone?

If you expect to make or receive many calls on your GSM phone while you’re away, contact your wireless provider before your trip to find out whether an international calling package makes sense.

If you’re not planning to use your GSM phone, and you’ll be away for an extended period, buying is usually the best option. For example, you can buy a Japanese cell phone from Modal for $179 and pay $.89 a minute for calls to the United States, or rent one for $7 a day and pay $1.79 a minute. If you were away for 30 days, buying a phone would definitely be the best bet: Assuming 15 minutes of calling time each day, you’d pay $579.50 to buy a phone versus $1,015 to rent one. But for a weeklong trip, renting would make more sense: You’d pay only $236.95 to rent versus $272.45 to buy.

Will you use your phone for more than just calls?

Email and other data services cost extra. If you plan to use your own GSM phone, ask your wireless provider about data packages or data global “add-ons” before you leave to avoid costly international data roaming charges.

Will you need your U.S. mobile number while abroad?

The only way to keep your U.S. mobile number while you’re traveling is to use your U.S. GSM phone and SIM card and activate your wireless provider’s international roaming service.

Selected Companies

“International” means multi-country, not including the United States and Canada.
“Global” means multi-country, plus the United States and Canada.

Sells quad-band GSM phones and offers international roaming for contract customers with compatible phones. Also offers calling plans for Canada, Mexico and worldwide travel. For $5.99 a month, AT&T’s World Traveler plan provides service in more than 200 countries and discounted international roaming rates of up to 35% in 85 countries.

Cellular Abroad
Rents and sells international and global cell phones, plus international and local SIM cards. Also rents satellite phones with free unlimited incoming calls. Rent the company’s National Geographic Talk Abroad Travel Phone for 1–56 days and use the phone in more than 160 countries. Free incoming calls in more than 60 countries.

Mobal Communications
Rents and sells international cell phones, satellite phones and global SIM cards. Its flagship product, the $99 Mobal GSM World Phone, works in more than 170 countries (price includes SIM card, $99 call credit and travel adapter set).

Range Roamer
Rents and sells international and global cell phones and international SIM cards. Service in 142 countries. Free incoming calls in 40 countries. Includes a U.S. 800 number so U.S. callers can reach you toll-free.

This Australian company rents and sells international and global cell phones and satellite phones. Also sells global and some local SIM cards. Service in more than 140 countries. Its featured “Quad Pack” bundle includes free incoming calls in more than 50 countries. Includes a U.S. 800 number so U.S. callers can reach you toll-free.

Sells quad-band GSM phones and offers international roaming and international Internet service in more than 182 countries for prepaid and contract customers with compatible phones.

Verizon Wireless
Verizon’s Global Travel Program provides existing customers with a phone that works in the United States and Europe for up to 21 days. Global Rental program offers international voice and text services in more than 230 countries and principalities.