Reducing your Mobile Phone Bill when Travelling Abroad (Part 1 of 3)

December 1, 2009 at 2:10 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Q: How do you travel internationally and use your mobile phone … without running up a huge bill?

A: Buy service locally, at the lowest rates. It is possible to save 80% on your cell phone bills when traveling abroad and to limit your expenditures. People often ask about this, so I thought that I’d post the best practices, while supporting a variety of choices, from using your own phone and service plan to purchasing a phone abroad, international dialing, electrical adaptors for charging, and more. All of which you’ll need to know. My primary recommendation is to purchase service when you are there using a “Prepaid SIM.” While the simplest choice is to take your existing phone, the least expensive is to purchase Prepaid service abroad (that works for many countries).

Benefits: 80% Savings and Limit Your Cell Phone Charges

In addition to major savings, another major benefit of using this recommendation is that you can budget and control the amount of money spent on cell phone use when traveling. I’ll describe this for a hypothetical student/traveller who is traveling abroad for the first time, but the recommendations apply to anyone traveling abroad and who is calling locally or back to the U.S.

  • Budget: The amount that you wish to allocate to spend calling home is entirely up to you.  With a prepaid account, you can not accidentally run up a large cell phone bill when traveling. You can deposit a budgeted amount into your Prepaid account, and add to it if you wish.
  • Savings: For example, if you send a text message a couple of times per day and makes a long phone call every other day or so, over a 3-week trip you’ll spend only $13 (and save $50 or more). To see the current rates, go to the PrePaid GSM web site for a summary of links to all of the Pre-Paid services, by country (sorry, no comparison table; you have to do some looking yourself to compare apples and apples).

Simplest Plan: Take your existing phone

If you already have a cell phone, they you may be able to take your existing phone with you, but be prepared to pay very high rates for voice and text—over $1/minute and $0.35/text—since you will be Internationally Roaming and making International calls/texts. This is a great option to use if you expect that your son/daughter will hardly ever use the phone. This option is possible if you already have a GSM phone (the world standard for mobile phones, provided by AT&T, T-Mobile and others); if you have service from a CDMA carrier (Alltel, Sprint, Verizon) then your existing phone will not work abroad and you will have to get a new phone (your existing carrier offers special, WorldMode phones that can work abroad, but these phones are very expensive). If you are unsure whether you have a GSM phone and can use your existing phone, then please check out this post (with clear illustrations).

iPhone update (5/2012): You can use your iPhone when traveling by unlocking your iPhone (contact your provider) or by purchasing an unlocked iPhone (as I have). If you have completed your initial contract obligation, your carrier will likely unlock your phone at no charge (as AT&T promised, in early 2012).

What to Do, Before You Depart

Just call your carrier’s Customer Care department (just dial 611 from your cell phone; it is a free call) and let them know that you want to use your phone when traveling internationally. Things to check on this call, before you depart:

  • Is my phone capable of making calls on international networks?
    (Your phone needs to support the international GSM frequencies, which are different from those used in the U.S.  Your phone should be a “Quad band” phone that works on 900 MHz and 1800 MHz frequencies)
  • Does my service plan allow me to roam internationally and make international calls?
    (To reduce fraud, most service plans have this option disabled, so you simply need to ask to turn it on. This will not incur a charge, but it allows you to make calls to the U.S. while roaming abroad)

Avoid Unwanted, Incoming Calls: To avoid unexpected charges from incoming calls while you are abroad, you may also wish to keep your phone turned off until you desire to use it to originate a call or text message. You would be surprised to find out, when you return, that you are charged international rates for calls that ring your phone—even those that you do not answer and that go to voice mail—for the amount of time that the caller is speaking.

Avoid Data Charges: To avoid exorbitant charges for mobile Internet (“data” charges, for web browsing, location-based services, email, etc.), you may wish to turn off data services on your phone or to simply avoid using the device for data services. International charges for data services are very costly and additional to your regular plan, and unwary travelers can incur bills of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Cheapest Plan: Take your existing phone and get Prepaid service there

The least expensive way to make calls abroad is to (a) take a phone that is compatible and (b) obtain prepaid service from a European mobile carrier. You will be able to call the U.S. for $0.07/minute and send text for $0.15—nearly as inexpensive as calling within the U.S.! Additionally, you can budget and control the amount spent on cell phone use (since the charges are quote different than those incurred at home, they can unexpectedly add up!).

What to Do, Before You Depart

If you have a compatible mobile phone, then you can take it with you and use the phone with a Prepaid account that you will obtain from a European carrier. You can either (A) purchase an account before you travel or (B) purchase your SIM card when you arrive. The trick is that you will purchase your service from the European carrier when you arrive and that will provide you with the lowest possible rates. If you lack a compatible mobile phone (e.g., you have a CDMA phone or no phone), you can still use this option: you simply need to get a compatible phone when you land.

If you already have a GSM phone, then you just have a couple of things to check with your carrier’s Customer Care (just dial 611 from your cell phone; it is a free call) before you depart:

  • Is my phone capable of making calls on international networks?
    (Your phone needs to support the international GSM frequencies, which are different from those used in the U.S.  Your phone should be a “Quad band” phone that works on 900 MHz and 1800 MHz frequencies)
  • Is my phone “unlocked”?
    Phones are typically locked—for use only with a specific carrier—when they are purchased in the U.S. with a service plan. Just ask your carrier to unlock the phone to allow you to use it abroad with another carrier’s service plan.

Budget your Spend: You can budget the amount that you will place in your prepaid account and spend while traveling. Just give your ambassador the amount that you desire to spend, and they can deposit his amount (in their Prepaid SIM account) when they land in Europe. Like a debit card, they can recharge or “top up” their account if they use up all of their account.

Any unused funds will not go to waste, as you can always use the additional minutes after (s)he returns to the U.S.! Naturally, it would be most convenient if you provide those funds in the local currency (British Pounds if you arrive in the UK, or Euros elsewhere)—just call your bank and they will happily provide foreign currency before your trip.

Now that your phone is compatible and unlocked, you have a choice: you can either (A) purchase an account before you travel or (B) purchase your SIM card when you arrive. I prefer to purchase before I go, so I’ve now purchased a Tru SIM for my upcoming travel.

(A) Purchase and receive your SIM card before you travel: Contact Truphone and purchase a multi-country “Tru SIM” card that will be shipped to you before you depart. It arrives suitable for use with nearly all phones (SIM and micro SIM form factors). If you have an iPhone 5 or a device that requires the nano-SIM form factor, contact their Customer Services and they can provide that alternative at no additional cost. For more info, read up on rates and FAQs on the Truphone web site, and I also recommend reading the objective review and recommendation from PC World magazine. Tru SIM can deliver excellent rates (similar to those that you would receive when purchasing the service in-country, since they purchase service using a SIM subscription that appears to belong to a local carriers), can be manually or automatically topped up, and provides excellent phone support.

(B) Purchase your SIM card when you arrive at your destination: You have a single, simple transaction to complete, ideally in the airport after you get your luggage (Example: Vodafone retail store in London Heathrow Airport). In the airport, go to the Retail Store of a major mobile carrier (I recommend Vodafone since they provide the best coverage across Western Europe) and ask to purchase the combination of:

  • a basic, prepaid SIM card
    (allowing you to budget how much you wish to spend on calling and SMS, and you can add funds to it at any time, e.g. Vodafone’s “Pay As You Go” plan)
  • an international roaming option that provides the best roaming rates for mobile service outside of the country that you are buying your prepaid service
    (e.g., Vodafone’s “Passport” is free) For example, to activate Vodafone’s “Passport” feature:

    • Dial 5555, Press the Green “Call” button, then
    • Choose option 2 and then Option 1
  • an international calling plan that provides the best international calling/texting rates
  • (e.g., “Vodafone International”)For example, to activate the Vodafone International call plan:
    • Dial 36888, Press the Green “Call” button, then
    • Choose option 2 and then Option 1

You are ready to travel and call or text anywhere! Just remember to dial/text using International Dialing (see “Dialing an International Number”), which includes the country code, to avoid calling the wrong party.

What If I Lack a (compatible) Cell Phone?

If you do not have a compatible mobile phone (e.g., you have a CDMA phone or no phone), you can still use the lowest-cost option. You simply need to get a compatible phone first: before you travel (at an AT&T or T-Mobile store) or when you land (at the Retail Store for a European mobile provider, such as Vodafone). If you are unsure whether you have a compatible phone, please read this post “Can I use my existing phone?“. After you get your phone, go back and complete the following section “Cheapest Plan: Take your existing phone and get Prepaid service there.”

I have no cell phone and want to start using one

To get a phone before you leave, you could go to the local wireless store and sign up for a GSM service plan: monthly or prepaid. But be clear about your intent to use the phone with a different carrier’s prepaid account while abroad and insist that they unlock the phone before you purchase anything. Also, be sure that the phone is compatible for use on International networks (you’ll want a “Quad-band GSM phone” that operates on the standard, international frequencies).

  • Prepaid Plan
    This can be an excellent way to start using cellular service if you do not yet have a cell phone plan. You can start cellular service that you can use when you return and get a phone that you can use abroad. Your initial costs will be slightly higher as you are paying for the mobile phone up front (instead of paying for is over many months of a service plan). I strongly recommend prepaid service for early cell phone users, as it allows you to budget your expenditures and can be far less costly than a monthly plan. You will get a GSM phone (which comes with a SIM card representing your U.S. prepaid plan). I recommend T-Mobile as they offer the lowest rates and best customer service, although you’ll want to be sure that the carrier provides good service where you’ll use it—check their online coverage map before purchasing.
  • Monthly Plan
    Your initial costs will be lower since you are paying for the cell phone in monthly installments as part of your monthly plan, which you are obligated to pay for many months.

I have no cell phone and do not want to start using one

You may avoid buying a phone for use internationally (avoiding a significant cost) and simply borrow a friend’s phone for a moment to make a call/text using her phone and your service plan—by placing your SIM card in her phone before you call/text and removing it after you are done. Simply follow the section “Cheapest Plan: Take your existing phone and get Prepaid service there” and purchase a Prepaid Service plan from a European mobile provider when you arrive and periodically use a friend’s phone (see “SIM card?” section, below, for details).

Unlimited, Free Talk (using Wi-Fi)

An advanced option (that requires a bit more work, but well worth it if you want unlimited, free international calls) is to get a UMA-capable phone and use any Wi-Fi hotspot to make free calls as if you were at home. Check out T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi Calling service, free

T-Mobile Wi-Fi Calling summary

with your existing, monthly T-Mobile account. T-Mobile lets you make/receive all of the calls that you want when you are connected to them via a W-Fi network. This includes international locations. So you could, for example, talk for an hour from a coffee shop in Rome to friends at home … for free. Or, if you are a business traveller, you could return all of your calls on your mobile for free when travelling abroad, avoiding thousands of dollars in roaming fees.

NEXT: Part 2, How to Reduce your Mobile Data Costs, when roaming internationally.



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  1. You raised very nice and important questions for compatibility of mobile phones because it is important question and issue also.

  2. Can you buy an iPhone 4S in Europe and use different pre-paid SIMs as you travel from country to country?…

    Yes, and *even better*, you can probably purchase one (1) SIM and avoid the cost and inconvenience of purchasing multiple SIM (pre-paid service accounts). Identify where you will be travelling, and purchase a single prepaid account from an Operator tha…

  3. I live In Australia and am going to USA how do I avoid large bills?

    • To reduce your mobile phone bills when visiting the United States, please see the articles about using your existing phone and obtaining prepaid service while traveling. Although they were written with perspective of a US traveler, they apply equally well to somebody visiting the United States.

    • Check out the 3-part article “How to: Reduce Your Mobile Data Costs, when Traveling Internationally.” T-Mobile offers a good set of prepaid plans That should work well during your travels in the U.S.

  4. This site was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me.
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