Jun 30, 2023

(+)Using a Cell Phone When Traveling Overseas

NOTE: The following article does not contain any genealogy-related information. 

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Planning a Europen (or other foreign) vacation this year? You might be aware that using a U.S. cell phone while traveling to other countries (or vice-versa) usually will either be (1.) impossible or (2.) very expensive. Some American cell phones don’t work at all in other countries. The North American cell phones that do work overseas use the Global System for Mobile Communications (usually abbreviated to GSM) protocol; but, using North American GSM phones in foreign countries can be very expensive. 

In short, here is the situation for most American cell phone owners

A CDMA cell phone purchased from a U.S. company  generally will not work in Europe, the British Isles, nor in many other European countries. These are CDMA phones, a system not used in Europe, the British Isles, not in many other countries. 

A GSM cell phone purchased from T-Mobile, AT&T, Rogers (in Canada) and a few other cellular companies should work in Europe, the British Isles and many other foreign countries as these are GSM phones, the same standard used in most other countries. However, leaving the original SIM card in the phone will usually result in high roaming charges. 

An unlocked GSM phone purchased from a third-party should work at reasonable prices in Europe, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries if you purchase a local SIM card in that country. This will work only on UNLOCKED GSM phones which often are not sold by the North American cell phone companies.

See the note below about “dual mode” phones that are capable of operating on both GSM and CDMA networks.

All of the solutions I will describe do cost money. The casual traveler who is planning a single trip overseas may find it cheaper to simply carry a normal GSM cell phone purchased from a North American cell phone company and to pay the roaming charges for calls placed or received while traveling. However, for the frequent traveler, or the person who makes a lot of phone calls, or the person who wishes to give a cell phone to a child or grandchild who will study abroad for a semester or longer, the following ideas could save hundreds of dollars in unnecessary expenses. Another solution is to wait until you arrive in Europe (or elsewhere) and then purchase a local cell phone there. However, for a short trip, that may be the most expensive solution of all. 

First, U.S. cell phones operate on one of two different standards: GSM or CDMA. GSM is the cell phone standard used throughout Europe, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and in mother countries. However, in the U.S., only AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. Most others (with a few exceptions) use CDMA. The two standards do not work with each other’s cell towers. GSM phones can only communicate with GSM cell towers, and CDMA phones can only communicate with CDMA towers. 

GSM is the standard in Europe, and is one of several protocols available in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. GSM is the best choice for global travelers who want to take their phone when they go abroad. Sadly, several U.S. cell phone companies’ phones do not use GSM and therefore will not make a connection in many overseas countries. Even those that do use GSM, they may be “locked” to only work on one particular (North American) network and therefore will be useless when overseas.

NOTE: You can purchase a special (and more expensive) dual-mode phone that operates on both GSM and CDMA. Dual mode phones are available at rather high prices from several companies. 

With GSM phones, all the information about your cell phone number and the provider you use is stored in a plug-in SIM card. If you can swap SIM cards, your GSM phone then switches instantly to the provider of the new SIM card. Switching to a new SIM card also provides a new phone number, one that is assigned to the country where the SIM card was purchased. However, not all GSM phones allow for swapping SIM cards because the phones are “locked” to only one network..

In contrast, converting a CDMA cell phone to a different provider is considerably more complex. With CDMA, it is cheaper and easier to purchase a new phone than to convert an existing unit.

You would think that simply purchasing a GSM phone before you leave on your trip would give you everything you need, right? Unfortunately, the more cost-effective solution is a bit complex. To be sure, all the GSM phones will work in Europe and in many other places, although the cell phone companies in those countries will charge high roaming charges if you use the SIM card that came with the phone purchased in the U.S. from AT&T or T-Mobile.

In the U.S. and Canada, most cell phone companies only sell phones that are “locked” to their own networks. This is even true for GSM phones. If you purchase a GSM phone from AT&T, it will only operate if an AT&T SIM card is inserted in the phone. The same is true for T-Mobile phones: a GSM phone from T-Mobile purchased in the U.S. normally only works when a T-Mobile SIM card is used. If you insert a SIM card from any other cell phone provider, an error message will be displayed and the phone will not work. However, GSM phones purchased from third-party merchants often are “unlocked.” That is, they will operate properly with a SIM card from any cell phone company.

Both the AT&T and T-Mobile phones are true GSM phones, so you can take them overseas and make phone calls with them, even with the original SIM card in the phone. You can also receive incoming calls that were placed to your U.S. phone cell phone number. However, you will normally pay roaming charges for use of the cell phone with your “home” SIM card while in another country. The roaming charges vary from country to country, but they can be as high as $2 a minute or more in some places.

NOTE: The first time I took my new GSM phone to England and used it frequently, my next monthly bill was for mode than $300 (U.S.) for “roaming charges.”

Luckily, you can purchase “unlocked” GSM cell phones from a number of vendors – just not from a cell phone company. I have seen unlocked GSM cell phones sell for as little as $20 although that is probably for a cheap and cheesy phone that may not work well. There are a lot of cheap cell phones with marginal performance sold in third-world countries, and they occasionally show up in the American market as well. I’d suggest purchasing only well-known, reliable brands of phones, such as Motorola, Nokia, Apple, LG, Samsung, HTC, Kyocera, Google, Sanyo, and others. If you have any doubt about the phone you are considering, you might want to enter its model number followed by the word “review” in Google to find reviews of that model written by previous purchasers.

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