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The Wired Expat and the Smartphone

Don’t Take Your Regular Cell Phone Abroad

5 Wise Alternatives to Handing Your Phone Company All Your Money

When Eileen Kugler and her husband spent a month volunteering at a school in South Africa, they got a nasty surprise when returning home: a “staggering $440 bill” from AT&T Wireless. They thought they were being prudent. They spent extra for an international plan before leaving and only used the phone to communicate occasionally with their elderly parents. Like most who are telling a story like this, they are shocked that so little conversation time could result in such an outrageous cost.

It doesn’t take much talking or data usage to run up a staggering bill, however. In almost all cases, the cell phone you use at home is better off left at home. It is commonly $1 to $3 per minute for calls from another country to the U.S., plus you’ll probably pay for every text message. The charges can hit $5 a minute in parts of Russia and China. Forget getting a break in North America though; cross the border between Canada and the U.S. and you’ll be paying sky-high international rates. On top of all this, you’ll pay extra taxes and often nefarious “connection fees.”

Many people return home from a one or two-week vacation to bills of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Las Vegas resident Mamta Odhrani had a typical reaction after her $400 surprise from T-Mobile following 10 days in India and Hong Kong, “I felt like I hardly ever even used my phone.”

It might sound very convenient to carry a smart phone around the world, but data charges can be even more costly than voice calls. Every email, every map lookup, and every Google search can generate charges ambiguously billed as something useless like “0.016 per kb.” Some vacationers have learned the hard way that their phone was actively downloading emails continuously while it was sitting unused, to the tune of over $100 a day.

Unless you have an unlocked quad-band phone that allows you to swap out SIM cards and buy pre-paid local minutes, you should not be using your home cell phone abroad. Yes, that includes the fancy iPhone you own or are lusting after—unless you never even use the 3G connection and only use it when in a WiFi hotspot. As it stands now, most of the U.S. and Latin American cell phone carriers will charge you a fortune to roam elsewhere. Most European phones are sold unlocked, but you’ll still pay a fortune in roaming charges if you don’t swap out the SIM card.

So how do you stay in touch? Here are the best alternatives. Use these to avoid paying a month’s traveling budget to your predatory cell phone carrier.

1) Skype and Phone Cards

For those backpacking around the world, Skype is a beautiful thing. Many Internet cafes have the service installed and headsets plugged in. If you are traveling with a laptop, you can use Skype at any wireless hotspot, including your own hotel room. Either way you’ll pay pennies per minute to make phone calls to anyone from your preloaded account. (Skype to Skype calls are free.)

For a quick call when not online, it’s usually far cheaper to use a phone storefront or a calling card and a payphone, especially in Latin America. A call from a Mexican pay phone or kiosk, for examples, costs around 50 cents a minute to the U.S. Using your own cell phone will cost you two or three times that amount—with spotty coverage and call quality. In countries such as Peru or Panama, you can pop into any phone kiosk or Internet café and make an international call for 5 to 25 cents a minute, routed over a VoIP system. You can check your own voice mail messages, then respond to any of them that need a reply—and use the savings for a nice dinner!

2) Cell Phone Purchase and SIM Card Swaps

If you will need to make or receive a lot of calls in a foreign country, the best bet is an unlocked international tri-band or quad-band phone. When you arrive at a new destination, you simply switch out the SIM card for a local one at any phone shop (even at the airport) and pay local rates thereafter. Once the minutes have expired, you can reload the card nearly anywhere, including convenience stores.

If you don’t already have the phone (Telestial offers such a phone), just buy that on arrival as well. In Thailand, $100 will get you a basic unlocked quad-band phone, the SIM card, and around 80 minutes of talk time (at 60 cents a minute) to the U.S.—with free incoming calls. You’ll pay a little more in Europe, a little less in Latin America. Then the phone is yours to keep using elsewhere with a new card.

3) Phone Rentals

If it’s a short trip or you’re doing a lot of quick country hopping, your best bet might be a rental phone set up before you leave. You either buy the phone first from the likes of Mobal for a long trip, or rent it from a company like Travelcell for a short one. Either way, you pay only for the minutes you use. Incoming ones are free in some locations, with outgoing ones generally the same or lower than what your own carrier charges. These services are usually “carrier neutral”, so they roam on whatever local network is the strongest, resulting in better call quality. These services work best in Europe and parts of Asia where there is competition and a common standard. For Latin America and much of the Caribbean, you will still pay dearly to stay connected no matter what.

4) WiFi Phones

If you have the new iPhone or another device that can make calls through WiFi, adjust your settings so that the only time you are using the data function abroad is when you are in a hotspot. That way you surf for free or whatever you are paying for the wireless Internet connection. With a software plug-in like Truphone, you can also make cheap voice calls over the same WiFi network. Don’t expect the calls to sound perfect though, especially if the network is busy with lots of users.

5) Software Solutions

If you’re willing to work a little harder to get cheap calls, there are ways you can do it on your regular cell phone. With an application called Jahjah, your calls get routed over a VoIP connection and you pay anywhere from nothing (in some countries, if both of you have it loaded) to 35 cents a minute. With RebTel, your recipient calls the number showing on their phone and that connects to you with only local charges. These methods add a layer of hassle, but will route you away from the oligopolies.

TIM LEFFEL is the author of some classic books on budget travel and travel writing. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.

Click on the covers below for more on Tim Leffel's books and to order.
Tim Leffel's World Cheapest Destinations
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