International Cell Phone Guide

International cell phone options are as varied as travel styles. The always-on-the-go globetrotter who spends her morning in Europe and goes to sleep in North Africaprobably carries her own high-tech international calling device. The college student studying in Italy may have a local cell phone that only works in his overseas home. The leisure traveler who wants a cell phone in case of emergency on her yearly vacation may rent a phone and drop it in the mail when she returns home.

Given the ubiquity of cell phone usage in the United States, it’s not surprising that many travelers feel naked without a cell phone tucked in their pockets. If you’re longing to flip open a personal phone on a cruise or text your friends from the Eiffel Tower, read on. We’ve outlined the pros and cons of each cell phone option abroad so you can figure out which one is right for you — and your budget.

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Using Your Own Cell Phone with an International Calling Plan
Most major U.S. phone companies give you the option of choosing a plan that allows you to make international calls. These plans may be offered on an ongoing basis or as a temporary service that you can set up for a single month when you know you’ll be leaving the country. Each company offers different plans for various prices that work for a number of phone models and in designated countries. Major cell phone providers have coverage maps that show in which countries your network works. Per-minute calling rates vary for different countries.

Some cell phone companies have calling plans for specific regions, such as Canada or Mexico. Other providers let you specify the nations where you need your phone to work (the more countries you choose, the higher the monthly rate). Although you can probably find a broad international phone plan from your current cell phone service provider, you will not be able to make calls from every country on earth; be sure to check that your plan covers the destination in which you plan to travel.

To make an international call from a cell phone, your carrier network must be compatible with the country you’re visiting. If you are traveling to Europe, you will most likely find a suitable calling plan. In Africa, the Caribbean or South America, plans may vary. In addition, your phone must be technologically capable of making international calls — many of the cheaper phones offered by popular cell phone stores can only be used domestically.

Fortunately, many major provider Web sites offer detailed roaming maps and prices so customers can sort out the complexities of international cell phone service. To see if your current phone has what it takes to work overseas (or to find out more about roaming prices and plans), check out the following links:

  • AT&T International Roaming
  • Sprint International Services
  • T-Mobile International Services
  • Verizon International Services

    Another option besides making a traditional cell phone call is using a Voice Over IP (VoIP) service such as Skype, which connects calls via an Internet connection. Skype is often used on laptops, but it is now available on cell phones as well. (There’s even a Skype mobile app.) Skype users can talk to each other for free, and can make calls to landlines and cell phones at affordable rates. However, remember that even if you’re not making international calls over your phone’s cellular network, you’ll still need to have an international plan in place to avoid exorbitant data charges.

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    Travelers who spend a lot of time overseas and don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of renting or purchasing a new cell phone should consider using their own cell phone abroad. If you are looking for the most convenient way to make a call regardless of cost, using your own phone is your best bet.


  • There’s no need to switch plans or purchase a new phone if your current phone is capable of making international calls.
  • Your cell phone number will stay the same.
  • The names and numbers that are currently programmed into your phone will still be available to you overseas without your having to transfer them to another device.
  • Calling the States will be less expensive than if you get a local phone plan in your destination.
  • If you’re using Skype, you can call other Skype users for free (not counting any data charges).


  • cell phone mobile key padInternational calls can get pricey! Major phone companies’ calling rates in countries such as Argentina, Tanzania or Turkmenistan can be as high as $5.99 per minute.
  • Expensive cell phones can easily get lost or stolen in another country, and an American chatting on a pricey mobile phone can be a target for thieves. Just as you wouldn’t wear your best watch when traveling, perhaps you should opt for a less flashy phone than your $500 device that can connect to the Internet, play MP3’s, provide GPS service and predict the future.
  • Not all U.S. cell phones can be used globally.

    Purchasing an International Cell Phone
    Depending on your destination country, you may be able to purchase a local phone with a domestic calling plan. Local plans are often similar to the one you have on your current cell phone; domestic rates are cheap, and the most basic cell phone models are quite affordable.

    Research cell phone companies in the country you will visit or look for a local cell phone store. Just make sure that the cell phone company you choose is popular and well known. Do not buy a cell phone from someone on the street just because you think you’re getting a “deal.”

    Frequent travelers who spend a lot of time in one international location will be best served by purchasing a phone in their destination. Students studying abroad and travelers with international vacation homes or family in another country should also consider purchasing an international cell phone.


  • You’ll enjoy low rates for calling within a foreign country.


  • Fees may be quite high for calling the United States.
  • You may run into a language barrier when trying to buy a phone. If you don’t fully understand the contract you are signing, do not sign your name!



Renting a Cell Phone
airport mall shop shopping travelLast-minute travel purchases often take place in airport malls. If you’ve forgotten a book, a snack or a pair of pants, you’re likely to find a replacement at any large airport. The same goes for international cell phones — the forgetful caller can rent a phone at airports around the world from companies like TripTel.

Cell phones can also be rented online at sites such or The company mails you a phone, and your rental includes a return shipping label so you can return the phone after your trip.

The phone you’ll receive will be a local phone, good for making calls in the country in which you are traveling. However, if you are spending more than a week or two in one destination overseas, you may save money by purchasing a local phone and subscribing to a local phone plan, as rates for renting a phone can quickly surpass the cost of a cheap cell phone in a few weeks. Also, domestic calling rates for rental phones are significantly higher than rates offered by local cell phone service providers.

Rates for rental phones are typically twofold; renters pay a daily, weekly or monthly fee for the cell phone rental and an additional fee for calling minutes. This means that even if you’re not using your phone, you can still be charged the minimum fee for the rental unit. Some rental phone plans have higher rates for calls outside the country, and some don’t — compare plans to see which is best for you. Incoming calls on rental phones are your cheapest option, as rates tend to be lower than for outgoing calls; if you are using your rental phone to call home, have your friends and family call you at a designated time and you will save some cash.

Renting a cell phone is best if you’re making a lot of calls but not going on a lot of trips. On a single trip where you make just one or two calls, you may end up paying more for the actual cell phone rental than for the calling minutes; in this case, skip the cell phone altogether and use an international phone card.

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  • If you’ve made no other arrangements for your international calls, grab a phone rental at an airport and you’ll avoid the high costs of calling from a hotel room.
  • If your usual cell phone won’t work overseas and you’re an infrequent traveler, you save money by renting a phone instead of buying one.


  • Beware of hidden charges. Minimum minute stipulations, charges for incoming calls or steep roaming rates may apply to your rental. Always make sure you read and understand the fine print.
  • To avoid steep charges if you lose a rental phone, you may want to purchase rental insurance at an additional cost.

    Using Your Own Phone with an International SIM Card
    A similar option to purchasing a phone abroad is to purchase a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card to use in your own cell phone while you’re traveling internationally. A SIM card is the part of a cell phone that holds the identity information and other personal data; if you switch your own SIM card for one that you purchase in another country, you can have all the benefits of a local phone (such as low in-country calling rates and a local phone number) without having to buy a whole new phone.

    cell phone woman girl coffee table sidewalk cafe cityYou can also purchase an international SIM card that can be used in many different countries. This is a good bet for multi-country trips or for travelers who travel regularly to many different regions around the world. However, the option of replacing the SIM card is only available on unlocked GSM phones. Ask your phone company if your phone’s SIM card can be unlocked.

    You can purchase prepaid international and country-specific SIM cards from Web sites such as Telestial or MAXROAM. As always, you’ll want to do some comparison shopping before you purchase to find the best rates for the country or countries you’ll be visiting.


  • Rather than buying a whole new phone, you can simply buy a SIM card for your existing phone — which is cheaper and takes up less space in your luggage.
  • You’ll enjoy low local rates for calls within whatever country you’re visiting.


  • It may be very expensive to call the United States.
  • This option isn’t available to travelers with phones that are locked or don’t operate on the GSM network.



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