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Don’t Take Your Regular Cell Phone Abroad

7 Cheap Alternatives to Handing the Phone Company All Your Money

Cheap alternatives to taking your cell phone abroad

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 smartphone 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 or 4G connection and only use it when in a Wi-Fi 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.

(Note: For those who wish to bring their home cell phones along as an emergency backup, or for a sense of the familiar, T-Mobile has introduced a less expensive and flexible plan with far cheaper roaming charges and plans for cell phones internationally, but not all major phone companies have followed and their plans usually provide small rations of data while usually costing more where 3G and 4G are even available. Check carefully with your carrier to see if they offer such international plans, what is included, and get their rates for comparison to the other options outlined below.)

7 Cheaper International Cell Phone Alternatives

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 Wi-Fi with Your Laptop

Some short- and long-term travelers actually go without a phone during your time abroad. For those backpacking around the world, Skype is a beautiful thing and one of the cheapest. Many Internet cafes have the service installed and headsets plugged in. If you are traveling with a laptop, you can use Skype at any of the many multiplying Wi-Fi hotspots, 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.) Skype even has cheap plans for setting up call forwarding and a voice mailbox using your choice of area codes, which can be very convenient for long-term travel in conjunction with a cheap cell phone package abroad.

2. Prepaid International Phone Cards

For a quick call when not online, it’s usually far cheaper to use a phone storefront or a calling card and a pay-phone, 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!

3. SIM Card Swaps

If you will need to make or receive a lot of calls in a foreign country, the best bet is to purchase 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. Here is a comprehensive list explaining how cheap SIM card swaps work abroad by country and where to purchase them. Before leaving home, you can get an international SIM card from a company such as Telestial.

4. Cell Phone Purchase on Arrival

If you don’t already have the 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 more in Europe, less in Latin America. Then the phone is yours to keep using elsewhere with a new card.

5. 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 a 4G phone first from the likes of Mobal for a long trip of a month or more, 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.

6. Wi-Fi Phones

If you have the new iPhone or another device that can make calls through Wi-Fi, 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. Whatsapp allows free conversations, chat, and more from any smartphone with the privacy of true end-to-end encryption, often with astonishing sound quality.

7. 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 RebTel, you use an app that manages to use local routing to bypass international charges. These methods may add a layer of hassle, but will route you away from the oligopolies.

Tim Leffel is author of several books, including A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. See more on his Cheapest Destinations Blog.

Cheapest Destinations travel blog
A Better Life for Half the Price

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