Tip #4: Using Mobile Phones Overseas

Most of us are tied to our mobile phones in our daily lives. So, when we travel overseas, we don’t want to be cut off from the world. However, taking your U.S. mobile phone overseas isn’t as easy (or cheap) as it sounds.

But, here are a few tips to make it easier:

1. Mobile Phones 101* = The standard mobile phone network in Europe (and most of the world) is called GSM. Within this network, different regions run on different bands. The U.S. uses 2 bands and most of Europe uses 2 different bands. A GSM U.S. phone that’s tri-band or quad-band operates on both US bands, plus one or both European bands (so it works in the U.S. and abroad). *source Rick Steves “Europe Through the Back Door”

2. If you have a tri-band or quad-band phone, you can contact your provider and ask about international data/voice plans. Most providers offer a temporary international solution. Also, check to see if you have corporate discounts. My international plan (unlimited data but roaming charges for phone calls) is less than $60/month with AT&T.

3. Global Cell Phone Rental for Verizon Customers: If you would like to take a cell phone abroad and you are a Verizon Customer, Verizon offers a rental service for global phones for travelers who will be out of the country for 21 days or less (Global Travel Program). Service costs vary.  The global value plan is put into effect when the phone is activated, and the plan is pro-rated, so the user is only charged from the day the phone is activated until the day the phone is deactivated; thus, the user may end up paying less than the $4.99 for the month of the global value plan.  It typically takes two business days to receive the phone via FedEx (signature required) delivery and users can activate the phone by calling Verizon or by going to a local Verizon store. Additionally, the Verizon customer can keep his or her current phone number.  To arrange for a phone rental, Verizon customers should call Verizon Customer Service and ask to speak to the Global Services department about Global phone rental.  If you aren’t sure whether to rent a phone or add service to your smart phone, Verizon has a pretty comprehensive page on their Global Services with a Trip Planner to help you decide on the type of service you will need based upon travel type (cruise vs. land) and country. 

4. Another great option is Cello Mobile. If your cell phone provider doesn’t offer an international plan (or the rates are too steep), this is a cheaper alternative and it has received rave reviews from users. I have identified a promo code for 10% off rental of the phone but it’s only valid if you travel for 15 or more days (promo code 1520). I’m not sure how long it’s valid for.  Quick Tip: I usually do a Google search with the “name of the company + promo code” to see if I can find any valid coupons. I have success about 80% of the time.5. If you are an iPhone user and just want to use the phone overseas for WiFi only, then you will need to disable roaming. To disable roaming on an iPhone — go into settings and select “Airport Mode”, and a small icon of an airplane will appear in the upper left corner of the screen. Consider that the iPhone also has WiFi capability, so in theory you can tap into any free WiFi source with the iPhone and surf the web. If you choose to do this, I would recommend staying at a vacation rental or hotel that offers free WiFi.

6. International Rate info by Service Provider
a. AT&T
     i. How to keep data charges predictable when traveling abroad 
     ii. World Packages   
b. T-Mobile
     i. International Roaming
7.  Rail Europe offers an “eKit” (pre-paid phone card and international phones) for purchase. They run various promotions throughout the year offering credit based upon the type of service your purchase.
Need travel apps for your phone?  Check out my post here for recommendations.  Any updates or feedback on using mobile phones overseas?  Please comment so I can keep the information current and correct.  Thanks!

16 thoughts on “Tip #4: Using Mobile Phones Overseas

  1. WWWayne says:

    Just take a prepaid international SIM card. If it’s Europe you’re heading to specifically then look for one that is tailored to Europe (i.e. the call rates in those countries are cheaper). Best one I’ve seen for travelers from the US is SIMsmart Prepaid (www.simsmartprepaid.com).

    $20 and you get really cheap rates on calls back to the US and they delivery in America. You can also get yourself a cheap international phone that will work across Europe and the rest of the world.

  2. Tvor says:

    I’m in the UK every year so i own a cheap phone that i bought there and top up the sim card online or lend the phone to friends if they go over. You can get phones, locked or unlocked, really cheap there and sim cards can be bought for next to nothing plus a top up.

      • Tvor says:

        It’s worth it to buy a cheap phone if you visit somewhere frequently. Roaming charges and even prepurchased packages from your phone company can still be expensive over time. If all you need is a non-smartphone to keep in contact, it’s worth it.

    • Nikki says:

      Thanks, George!!! I so appreciate your kind words!! I love Italy too!! I’m always trying to bring a little bit of that wonderful country to mine…and I think your lemoncello recipe is just the thing I need!!

    • Nikki says:

      You did!! So glad that it worked well for you!! Thanks for the feedback! I find that I need to be connected with a mobile when travelling internationally…don’t want to miss anything 🙂

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  4. andy says:

    I have to STRONGLY disagree with the comments here regarding CelloMobile. Our experience with them was AWFUL…

    Now let me say from the start that in the end CelloMobile did refund all of the money I paid — but that’s very little comfort when you are overseas; need to use a phone; have paid a bunch of money for a phone; and that phone “works” but does not allow access!

    In short: The CelloMobile phone I rented did NOT work as promised, and their Customer Service was abysmal.

    Here’s my story:
    It was unfortunate, but I needed to take care of some work while I was on vacation in Costa Rica. To deal with this circumstance I decided to rent an international calling phone from CelloMobile, and paid what I considered to be quite a bit of money –$25/day– for a smartphone, with a spare battery pack, which would also serve as a WiFi hot-spot. I needed to be in touch for business via phone and email, so the phone was to provide access to the internet, apps, and phone service. This is what I needed, it’s what the CelloMobile website promised, and what I expected.

    My problems began immediately upon arrival. The phone was supposed to be able to access any of the cell networks in Costa Rica, and be able to function on these networks as an internet hot-spot. The phone provided to me by CelloMobile regularly showed 4 bars of coverage (4G), and it detected 3 networks (CLARO, MovieStar, I.C.E.) but it refused to connect to any of them — either giving an error message that the SIM card does not allow connections to the network (Moviestar, ICE), or that service is not available (CLARO)….. On some occasions, after repeated manual restarts/resets it would sometimes connect to CLARO, but never once did it connect to any other network — nor did it ever provide access as a WiFi hot spot.

    I would understand that coverage might be a bit sketchy when we were travelling through more out of the way places in Costa Rica — but the phone didn’t even work when I was obviously in covered areas. Example: I was in a restaurant in Jaco, one of the busiest tourism spots on the pacific coast. Everywhere around me everyone else is using their cell phones — for calls AND data. The CelloMobile phone showed coverage, but refused to connect.

    From the very first day when I discovered problems, I contacted CelloMobile (which was difficult since MY PHONE DIDN’T WORK). I repeatedly called and emailed –I spent HOURS dealing with these phone problems– and as the week wore on not only has CelloMobile NOT fixed the problems, my service has got even worse. These issues kept me from completing the work I needed to accomplish, and it put somewhat of a damper on my vacation.

    The fact that the phone & data service that CelloMobile sold me was non-existent is appalling. But even worse is that CelloMobile Support represents what is perhaps the worst customer service I think I have ever experienced anywhere. Their supposed 24 hour support does not exist. They regularly close early, and take days off… When I could get them on the phone all they ever said was that they ‘started a ticket’ and sent an inquiry to the Costa Rice network carriers; but there was never a reply to my repeated emails to the CelloMobile support & tech staffs. A gal from their billing department did email back with profuse apologies and promises to refund my money, but that really wasn’t much help when I’m sitting in Costa Rica and need to communicate for a job.

    All in All, a terrible experience.

    Final Note:
    When I first researched what rental cell phone & WiFi services were available in Costa Rica I found several comments online suggesting it’s better to use a local company there in the country. I only found one outfit which had smartphone / hot-spots available — “Cellular Connections”. I emailed and called them to try and set up a rental, but unfortunately they didn’t get back to me for five days, and by that time I had given up hope and rented from CelloMobile. There’s no way to know how that would have worked out, but it certainly couldn’t have been worse….

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