Want cell service abroad? Try a cheap local phone
Not all phones will work abroad, and even if yours does, you could end up with roaming charges unless you sign up for an international calling plan before you go.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Boffa, a musician and teacher who lives in Vermont and travels overseas infrequently, quickly learned that staying in touch with home would be more complicated than he'd thought. A salesman told Boffa and his wife, Maya, about service plans that provide international roaming, but said they couldn't use their own phone overseas.
Then the salesman took pity on them and gave them some good advice: "Let me tell you how I do it when I go to Bosnia. Just get a cheap phone and put a new SIM card in it and just use up that card."
And that's what the pair will do.
While almost anyone, anywhere, can log onto the Internet and read e-mail with easily recognizable technology, things aren't nearly as simple when it comes to communicating by voice. U.S. travelers face a bewildering array of options when they plan a trip to another country.
Not all phones will work abroad, and even if yours does, you could end up with some very expensive roaming charges unless you sign up for an international calling plan before you go. Some carriers, like AT&T, can pro-rate an international plan so that it's only in effect for the duration of your trip.
One reason for the complexities is that there are two main cellular technologies: GSM, or global system for multiple communications, and CDMA, or code division multiple access. GSM, used here by AT&T and T-Mobile, is the standard in most of the world. CDMA networks, used here by Verizon and Sprint, are also used in Canada, Latin America and parts of Asia, and roaming options are very limited. GSM phones have SIM cards, portable memory chips that can be switched from one phone to another, while CDMA phones do not.
"When you go to Belgium or Denmark or Germany or Italy or France or Spain or Lichtenstein or Switzerland, everyone has their own rate structures, and they have their own networks," said John Walls, vice president of public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a wireless phone industry group for the major carriers. "That's why Europeans quite often will load up with three or four different SIM cards to put in their device, so depending on where they are, they'll slot one out and in, because the roaming charge might not be as expensive on one than another. That's the normal relationship that they've accepted."