Options to Fill Overseas Cellular Bill

elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

Have you become so accustomed--or perhaps, addicted--to the convenience of your cell phone that you wouldn't go anywhere without it?

Well, if you're headed out of the country, you'll have to change your tune. Your cherished gadget will be useless--reduced to dead weight in a pretty package. Don't even consider packing it unless you are among the few who have a so-called world phone that works with all the different cell phone systems, plus an international service plan that matches your destination.

There's no need to panic. Though you'll probably have to leave behind your completely customized, go-everywhere U.S. phone, you can still go wireless on the international circuit.

First, however, you might want to know why your U.S. cell phone is so inept in foreign lands. The central reasons are that this country's dominant technologies are incompatible with those used in many other lands, and, in places where the underlying technology is a match, the overseas systems often operate on different radio frequencies--or your carrier doesn't have an applicable roaming agreement.

In Europe, the most popular destination for U.S. travelers, the wireless networks use a technology called the global system for mobile communications, or GSM. The majority of cell phones sold in this country operate using code-division multiple access technology (such as Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless and others), or time-division multiple-access technology (primarily AT&T; Wireless). Neither is compatible with GSM.

VoiceStream Wireless Corp., Cingular Wireless and a few other U.S. carriers use GSM in all or part of their networks, and are thus technologically compatible with Europe. But the vast majority of phones sold by those carriers won't work in Europe or other GSM countries unless there are overseas roaming agreements in place and the handsets have extra parts built in to make them work on the radio frequencies used in foreign networks.

To fix the problem, wireless carriers are starting to sell mobile phones that work with several technologies and on multiple frequency bands. These are not the phones that come with budget plans, but most are priced in the $200 to $300 range--about the same as today's higher-end phones.

In the U.S., the best world phone options come from Nextel Communications Inc. and VoiceStream Wireless (which does not serve California). Existing customers with a Europe/United States phone can add international service at no extra monthly charge, but there will be steep roaming charges, and VoiceStream adds long-distance charges too.

These specialty phones constitute Solution No. 1 to the overseas cell phone dilemma. They allow you to keep the same phone number and are probably the best option for business travelers and frequent visitors to Europe, such as Tom Kowaleski, General Motors' executive director of product and brand communications.

"In Europe, it's wonderful. . . . This is the perfect solution," said Kowaleski, who kept separate phones handy when he lived in Europe--one for home and one for the U.S. "It's just a convenience to have just one phone instead of two."

Customers who don't have or can't get a world phone, but still want to keep their U.S. phone number while overseas, can rent the necessary phone from their carrier and use a smart card filled with their billing information. This is Solution No. 2, and it's available to existing customers of VoiceStream (with or without a separate card), AT&T; Wireless and Sprint PCS.

Kowaleski's wife fits the bill for this option. When heading to France for the Le Mans auto race, she rents a phone from AT&T; Wireless and uses the company's WorldConnect smart card.

She paid a $25 one-time fee for the card and pays $8 a month for service, plus a phone rental fee and steep calling charges (more than $1.30 per minute for calls within France).

Solution No. 3, and perhaps the best option for vacationers or sporadic business travelers, is to hand the problem over to a cell phone rental company. The largest firms catering to U.S. customers include Cellhire USA, International Mobile Communications Inc. (known as WorldCell) and Rent Express Communications Inc. These are the companies often hired by government agencies, rental car companies and organizers of trade shows and special events.

Peter Broderick of Santa Monica's Nextwave Films is a typical Cellhire customer. He takes six major trips a year to international film festivals in Cannes, Toronto and Berlin as well as Japan and others spots around the world and rents phones for overseas service in weekly increments.

His routine for Cannes, for example, is to rent a phone with a French number from Cellhire. Weeks in advance, he prints labels with the cell phone number and slaps them on the back of business cards so people can reach him during the festival. Then he arranges to have the phone delivered to him in the U.S. or once he arrives in France.

Still, renting can be pricey. Cellhire, for example, requires a $600 deposit for a European phone and typically charges $112 for a 14-day rental plus $2.50 for an itemized bill, plus per-minute charges of $1.50 for calls within France and $2.10 for calls back to the United States. Incoming calls cost $2.10 per minute.

"I just saw the bill from Cannes, and there were a couple really, really expensive phone calls that were probably only 15 minutes but cost $20 to $30," he said. "Those calls can add up pretty quickly."

The top rental firms also have services catering to travelers who plan to stay overseas for long periods, for months or even more than a year. Some also rent satellite phones for remote regions, and specialty subscriptions for regular but less frequent travel to certain parts of the world.

For the hard-core globe trotter with off-the-chart frequent flier miles, the best option--Solution No. 4--is to sign up for local mobile service in the destination country. This is by far the cheapest route for intensive users, but it's an option open to only those who have a local billing address overseas or lots of money for an outrageous deposit.

As in this country, choosing a foreign carrier and plan is confusing, but the typical European service charges a variation of per-minute charges for local and out-of-country calls. Some plans include a monthly fee (about the same price as U.S. plans); others allow you to buy blocks of minutes as you need them. The biggest benefit is that in Europe, inbound calls to cell phones are free for the recipient--a feature that produces substantial savings.

David Zeller is the perfect candidate for this option. His employer, the translation-services firm D & D International Group, has offices sprinkled across the globe, making it easy for Zeller to arrange for local service contracts on several continents.

"Because international roaming is still so expensive, it's much more cost-effective to have a local phone for the country you're in," Zeller said. "I have a sort of a locker with phones. . . . I have phones for each continent."

If you're heading to Japan, your options are limited because cell phone systems there use a unique technology. Renting is the only option, and the best bets are Cellhire, Planetfone and InTouch USA.

Remember that the traditional mobile phone caveats apply overseas just as at home: Watch out for fine print and hidden fees, be prepared for dropped calls and other service woes and don't expect all features to work in all markets. (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Skinny

Want to use your cell phone in Paris or Prague? It's not easy or cheap, but it can be done using the options listed below.

1. Use a "world phone" from a U.S. service provider.

Pros:

* You can use your existing cell phone and number.

* Starting and stopping international calling capabilities can be handled easily through the user's existing carrier.

Cons:

* Only Nextel and VoiceStream offer phones that can be widely used overseas.

* None of today's world phones works in Japan.

2. Rent a world phone from your U.S. provider.

Pros:

* Almost all U.S. carriers offer this option to existing customers.

* In most cases, you can keep your existing phone number.

* You pay international rental fees only when you need to.

Cons:

* Expensive rental fees.

* Most carriers have no phones that work in Asia.

* You use a different phone.

3. Rent a mobile phone through a specialty firm.

Pros:

* You can get phones that will work in most countries, including in Asia.

* No-hassle extras, such as free phone delivery before your trip or at your destination, mail-back packaging, plus power adapters, batteries and chargers.

* You get the option of choosing either a U.S. phone number or a local number for the country you're visiting.

Cons:

* Rental fees (ranging from $8 per day to $99 per month) and per-minute pricing can add up quickly for frequent travelers.

* Your phone number changes with each rental.

* Rental firms require credit checks and a large deposit. Loss or theft of the phone triggers pricey replacement fees, even if you buy special insurance.

* Loss or theft of the phone triggers pricey replacement fees, even if you buy special insurance.

4. Sign up for service in the destination country.

Pros:

* By far the cheapest route for frequent travelers to the same country. Calls within the country typically are priced as local.

* In Europe and many other regions, you will not be charged for incoming calls.

Cons:

* Most overseas carriers will not provide service to U.S. travelers unless they have a local billing address or they are willing to provide a very large deposit.

* You must pay the local monthly service fee.

* If you travel to a variety of continents, including Asia, you would have to pay for several phones and services to ensure mobile service using this option.

*

Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass covers wireless technologies.

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