Los Angeles Times

Going mobile outside U.S. can be a tough call

Can you hear me now, in Paris? Or Hong Kong? Or Lagos?

Probably not, if you're using a cellphone bought in the United States.

Almost the entire rest of the industrialized and even not-so-industrialized world uses a cellphone technology standard known as the Global System for Mobile Communications, or GSM. That means you can travel from country to country throughout most of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia using the same phone.

But we're different. Americans use a variety of standards, all of which are compatible with one another but not with most of the rest of the world. We even use GSM but on a different frequency band from those used overseas.

And although it's good to stand alone in some cases, it's not so great to stand in line for a pay phone in a foreign country when it comes time to change a crucial appointment at the last moment. Not to mention that business contacts are going to want a phone number where they can contact you.

If it's any solace, two other major countries are even more restrictive. Japan and South Korea each use non-GSM cellphone technologies that are incompatible with anyone else's -- and each other's. Travelers in those countries wishing to use a cellphone must rent or buy special phones.

There are solutions -- some elegant and costly, others requiring more fuss but relatively inexpensive -- that allow overseas U.S. travelers to fit into the rest of the cellphone world.

More than 200 countries and territories use GSM on the 900 MHz and/or 1800 MHz band.

In the U.S., three of the major cell service providers -- AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile -- also have GSM service but on the 850 MHz and/or 1900 MHz bands.

So for travel to overseas countries with the most-of-the-world standard (you can look up a particular country at www.cellular-news.com/coverage to check its GSM frequency), you'll need a dual-band, 900/1800 phone. If you are with one of the U.S. cell providers that has GSM, you probably can buy or rent one from them for your travels.

If you want all your mobile capability combined into one phone, tri-band 900/1800/1900 phones are increasingly available, if often more expensive.

Many of the countries in the Western hemisphere already use the 1900 MHz band, so you probably won't need a special GSM phone for them. The major exception is Brazil, which goes the 900/1800 route.

The big advantage of getting your foreign phone and service through your regular provider is that you can use your regular, domestic cellphone number overseas.

Even if your provider does not offer GSM, it might be able to arrange for that. Verizon Wireless, for example, offers no domestic GSM but has a deal with the Vodafone Group network in London that allows Vodafone to offer overseas service with Verizon numbers.

(If your cell provider offers no foreign service, you'll have to buy or rent a phone, with a different number, from another service or independent dealer -- more on that below).

The rewards of using your regular cell number are obvious. You don't have to keep handing out numbers depending on what country you're in. And even if someone who calls you doesn't know you're traveling, your phone probably will ring in Beijing, London or wherever you happen to be.

The disadvantage is cost. Each of the major providers has a different pricing structure, but the charges are fairly stiff and always include both incoming and outgoing calls. For instance, if you are using your T-Mobile service in any of the 900/1800 countries, cellphone use costs between 99 cents and $4.99 per minute.

Some examples: Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom are in the 99-cent category; Australia and Taiwan are $1.49; Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are $1.99; Israel and Philippines are $2.99; and Russia and Uganda are $4.99. Those rates apply no matter where your call is going to or coming from -- whether across the street or a continent away.

At those rates, costs add up quickly. However, because many hotels charge high fees for long-distance calls, you still might save money. And if you are traveling on a fulsome expense account, it won't be much of a worry anyway.

But you can reduce overseas cellphone costs drastically -- especially if you do a lot of calling -- if you give up on using your regular cell number.

First, you get a dual- or tri-band GSM phone from an independent service. Make sure it includes the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands.

You can buy or rent, but unless your travel is limited to only a few days a year, it's probably more economical to buy.

One of the better-known independents is Telestial Inc. (www.telestial.com), which offers no-frills, dual-band phones for as low as $99.

Wherever you buy the phone, you must make sure that its all-important SIMS card slot is electronically unlocked. (Regular cell providers might sell a phone that is locked, allowing only its service to be used.)

Then you order a SIMS card for the country in which you'll be traveling. This small plastic card -- costing about $30 to $80, depending on the country -- easily snaps into the back of the phone. It provides you with several minutes of talk time and gives the phone its number.

The card is available through Telestial and other services, including Cellular Abroad (www.cellularabroad.com).

You can get the card when you arrive at many international airports or cellphone stores, sometimes for less. But if you have the card ahead of the trip, you can give out your phone number to contacts and colleagues before stepping on the plane. When the card runs out of talk time, you can buy additional minutes at numerous locations overseas -- even small grocery stores. (What you buy is a scratch-off card that reveals a numerical code used to boost the time.)

The card lets you make calls for far less than if using a U.S. service. For example, if you are using your own SIMS card in the Philippines, calls within the country are between 7 cents and 15 cents a minute, depending on the time of day. A call to the U.S. costs 28 cents to 40 cents a minute.

And all incoming calls are free. (The person on the other end pays to reach you, at the regular rate from wherever he is to the Philippines.)

A disadvantage is that when you go to another country, you have to get a different SIMS card and thus a different number. Global SIMS cards that work in numerous countries are available, but the talk rates are more expensive.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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