Sunday, October 07, 2007

International Cell Phones

Over the past couple of years, we’ve experimented (and “experiment” is often the operative word) with a variety of international cell phone options. We’ve used country-specific chips as well as “international roaming” chips.

First, an overview. Most countries of the world use a type of phone and service called GSM. There are several GSM frequencies, but if you purchase a tri-band or quad-band GSM phone, you’ll be OK almost anywhere in the world. Secondly, these phones use SIM chips – replaceable little memory cards that you purchase from a cell-service provider. Third, the individual cell providers in each country usually offer a “pre-paid” plan (where you buy a chip and phone time, and when the time runs out you buy more) or a typical monthly service plan, as most Americans are familiar with. (Unless you live in or spend long periods in a country, the pre-paid option is the only real choice.) Finally, you can purchase single-country SIM chips (UK, Kenya, etc.) or an “international” chip, which theoretically allows you to roam in many countries.

To summarize our experiences, we’ve tried the 09, Riiing, United, and Mobal “international” chips. In our tests, they work poorly, are very costly, are terribly cumbersome to use (requiring PIN numbers, call-back systems, manually selecting networks, and other awkwardness), or simply don’t work at all. We’ve also tried single-country SIMs (mostly from the UK), and have been pleased with the service. Some roaming costs have been high (sometimes $1-2 per minute), but new EU rules should cut that at least in half.

Currently, our suggestion is to purchase a tri- or quad-band before you leave (we’ve seen many decent phones in the $50-100 range), then go to a local phone shop at your destination and purchase a SIM chip. Make sure when you get the chip that you “enable” or set up international roaming if you plan to use the chip outside its home country. This seems to work well across most of Europe. We even saw several Brits using their UK cell phones with no problems in east Africa. The cell situation in Europe has recently changed, and international roaming costs have been lowered across the EU. This should make this option even more practical. Your new chip will have a “local” number, so you’ll have to call or email your contacts back home with that number. Be sure they know how to dial internationally, and that you understand how to dial out internationally from your phone

If you’re tempted by the international chips: buyer beware. We’ve tossed more useless chips than we care to admit – after paying anywhere from 25-50 Euros each for them. (The Mobal chip has no up-front cost, but their per-minute rates are high, and in our experience their coverage isn’t as widespread as advertised.)

Note also that some U.S. phone services may allow you to set up international roaming. We use Verizon in the U.S., which is a different system from GSM, so not an option for us. T-Mobile and Cingular are GSM operators in the U.S., and they may be able to set you up with international roaming – be sure you know coverage and rates.

The best overview we’ve found for GSM options is the PrePaidGSM website, at

A tri-band flip phone, a quad-band phone, and 4 SIM chips.