How To Save Money On Overseas Cell Calls

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Last week, this post in The Cost Cutter column spoke about ways to cut your cell bills. If you travel overseas, here are some ways to cut costs since international cellular calls can be pricey.

  • Buy a phone calling card once you get to your destination and use it from payphones or your hotel, This is a good option, depending on where you are going and what your hotel charges for both toll-free and local calls. You should know that some calling cards may not work with some foreign pay phones.
  • Buy a new SIM module for your existing phone, but only if you have either T-Mobile or AT&T/Cingular accounts. The SIM module is the small circuit card that fits inside your phone, and gives your phone its identity. Most of the world's cell phones (except in Japan and a few other places), work on what is called the GSM networks that operate at either 900 MHz or 1800 MHz. The US and Canada GSM networks operate at 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. So if you have a phone that can work on at least the 850, 900 and 1800 MHz frequencies, you should be set to roam abroad.
  • If you are on Sprint or Verizon, you have no choice but to buy a new SIM module and a new phone. That is because they operate on non-GSM frequencies.

If you replace the SIM card that came with your phone with a card that works in the country you are visiting, you get several benefits. First, you don't pay roaming charges for local in-country calls, although if you are calling back to the States, you will pay international long distance charges. Second, if people in-country are trying to reach you, they don't pay for the international calls either. (Some of the networks overseas have the more enlightened method of calling party pays, but we won't go there for now.) You also don't use any minutes on your American cell accounts, which can be good if you have a limited number of minutes - when you travel, you don't think about all the time you are on calls. The trouble is if you are going to several different countries, then you need different SIMs and have to keep track of the numbers too. That gets onerous.

So one solution is to buy a SIM card from another vendor who has cheap international calling plans. Two that are well known are and Both have lower per-minute rates no matter where you are. You don't have to sign a contract, the SIMs are about $50, and you can add more minutes to your account easily over the Web and charge them to your credit card.

There is just one catch. Chances are, your cell phone is locked to your carrier that you are currently using. This means if you try to take out your SIM card and replace it with another card, your phone won't work. You might be able to receive calls, but not make outgoing calls.

So how do you get your phone unlocked? You can call your current cell carrier and ask for the unlock code. I had to call AT&T three times and plead with their customer service people before I got mine unlocked. Or you can pay an unlock service $25 or so and get the code that way (check the Web and take your pick of more than a dozen different vendors). If all else fails, you can buy a new phone -- try first, they have some good deals on unlocked phones.

Plan on taking a few weeks to negotiate all of these options so don't do this a few days before you have to leave the country. And you might want to bring along your current SIM card, just in case and so you can make calls while you are waiting in the airport to depart.

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