Travel and Cell Phones: What Makes Sense for You?

Gear Guide, Travel Tips — By Alexi Ueltzen on March 25, 2010 at 10:23 am

More than just “a way to call people”, cell phones are more like an extension of your body.  Texting, checking email, googling things, and taking videos of fights on public transit are daily occurrences, and very important aspects of our lives. But when it comes to traveling with that phone, all sorts of confusing coverage, cost and call issues crop up, but finding the right cell phone plan for your travels is a confusing business.

All we know is that surprise roaming charges (see the comparison between major cell phone companies and countries’ charges) are a terrible thing to come home to after a vacation.

Let’s see the breakdown:

Option #1: Purchase an unlocked international cell phone (also known as a GSM mobile phone)

Facts: Basically, this means buying an unlocked (“not locked into a service plan with a specific provider”) cell phone that is SIM-card compatible. These phones can get coverage nearly anywhere in the world (varies depending on the model and package you purchase) and cost starts at $50 per phone, plus charges per call. An international cell phone, with the right SIM card, can provide coverage in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim including Australia. A world cell phone with the GSM 1900 frequency will also include the United States, Canada and part of South America.


  • A potentially cheap option
  • Lots of different phone, plan and coverage options
  • has an excellent selection of unlocked GSM phones, including used ones
  • You can also rent an international phone for as low as $18 a week, with coverage to over 200 countries and low rates on incoming and outgoing calls


  • Phone must be unlocked to accept other carriers and SIM cards (in the US, this includes AT&T and T Mobile)
  • Your current cell phone may not qualify

Option #2: Take your phone (if it meets the requirements above) with you, and buy prepaid local SIM cards

Facts: Good for long visits to one country, and there are lots of plans and providers with different payment options (some of which are very cost-effective). Most new phones today are SIM card-compatible.


  • Cheap
  • Allows you to make local phone calls with local calling rates…and a local number.
  • Can use with your existing phone (if it accepts SIM cards)


  • Not all US phones take SIM cards, and phones must be unlocked
  • Cannot use your normal cell phone number
  • It’s expensive to send and receive calls outside of the country you’re in
  • Can be expensive to buy SIM cards for multiple countries (if you’re planning on visiting multiple countries, purchasing a roaming SIM card might be the way to go. Check out BootsnAll’s excellent post on prepaid SIM cards, and the difference between local and roaming ones)

Option #3: Skype or VoIP (Voice over Internet)

Facts: A cheap way to chat with people if you’re traveling with a laptop or have regular access to computers. Allows you to nimbly sidestep all the which-phone-plans-work-in-which-countries questions.


  • Cheap
  • Video, phone and IM-ing options when using Skype
  • Free to set up
  • Easy to add money to account for each call


  • Requires a laptop or desktop computer and internet connection, or a smartphone with Verizon
  • Incompatible with AmiPhones

Option #4: Purchase a prepaid calling card

Facts: A toll-free access phone number and a personal identification number (PIN) are printed on each card. To make a phone call,  dial the access number and then enter the PIN. An automated voice will ask you to enter the phone number you are calling, and tell you how much time you have left on your card. It might also give you other information or options. Prepaid calling cards allow users to make long distance and/or international calls for a predetermined time and rate, one that is usually cheaper than other long distance rates in the area.


  • Often have cheaper rates on international and long distance calls
  • Users can get voicemail access
  • Cards are sold nearly everywhere
  • Sites like Pingo have really helpful rate breakdowns and convenient card options, and you can buy a prepaid cell phones (similar idea, but the phone comes with it) at Trac Phone.


  • Cards can expire, and some have undisclosed fees
  • You can buy any phone card and use it from your cell phone, but if using a prepaid cell phone or a phone that doesn’t have unlimited minutes, the call will count against your minutes, similar to dialing an 800 number.

Option #5: Buy a Mobal phone

Facts: The more you pay, the more countries you can make contact with. Plans start at $50 (150 countries) and go up to $180 (170 countries); pay this one-time fee plus calling charges. Mobal’s goal is to provide the highest quality and best coverage for mobile phone users internationally and users get a Motorola-model phone when they sign up.


  • They’re currently America’s best-selling international phone service
  • Multi-country coverage
  • No monthly fee
  • Free inbound calls
  • Only pay for phone calls when you make them
  • Get one international phone number to keep for life
  • Satellite phone options for people visiting remote locales


  • Outbound calls can be pricey
  • Charges for outbound calls and text messaging
  • No web-surfing or smartphone capabilities
  • Visitors to Korea or Japan will need to rent a specific phone model for those countries

Option #6: Switching your current cell phone plan to “international” or “worldwide” for a limited time

Facts: The cost of this varies from provider to provider, so it may be worthwhile to see if your provider’s plan is better than other options listed above. Make sure you specify that you want to pay for this service for a limited time only to avoid paying for it after you’ve stopped using it. You should also double-check that their international coverage includes the country you’re visiting.


  • Can continue to use your current phone and phone number


  • May be somewhat expensive
  • Roaming charges may still apply
  • Coverage can be limited
  • Call quality may not be as high as with a local SIM card or international phone

Have any traveling phone-use tips? Roaming charge horrors stories? We want to hear them! But don’t call us – just leave a comment below.

[photos courtesy of FaceMePLS, jessicafm, Tomasz Seinicki, Wesley Fryer, iMorpheus, Mobal, emilio labrador]

Tags: ATT, budget, calling, calling card, cell phone, cheap, gsm, mobile, phone, plans, prepaid, SIM card, skype, travel, unlocked, verizon


  • Spencer Spellman says:

    I just finished up a post on the pros and cons of using an iPhone, droid, BB, etc. while traveling and most of the remarks were the importance of knowing country and provider laws, fees, etc. I’ve heard so many horror stories of people using their own phone or an iphone while traveling. This is definitely one of those times you want to talk to locals and do your research so you don’t get burned.

  • Nelly says:

    If you have friends coming to the States on vacation get them a Net10 phone as a welcome gift and they will be thrilled! You can get a really good basic phone for $20.00 which comes with 300 free minutes already loaded and thereafter their calls will cost them 10c per minute and texts 5c each and there are no roaming charges! It’s a really lovely way to welcome people!!

  • Alexi says:

    Nelly – what a great idea! Will definitely think about that next time my German cousins come into town.

  • Rachel Greenberg says:

    Another option is to buy a cheap used phone at an electronics store when you get to your destination and then put money on it with Vodophone. You can use your ATM card and put money on the phone at many ATM machines and it’s pretty idiot proof.

    This is great if you are a) going to be somewhere for a while and b) aren’t planning on talking a lot since it’s kind of expensive. When you’re done, you can just sell the phone back and recoup at least some of your losses! Great for studying abroad.

  • Alex Resnik says:

    Wow, very helpful post! If you’re going to Japan, I’d recommend getting one of the local phones (you can buy a used prepaid phone at many used electronics stores, especially around Akihabara). Japan’s cellular network is a little wacky compared to other countries’, so often even international GSM phones won’t work there. Plus, the phones themselves often have some pretty awesome features:

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  • Mrs. Bieber says:

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  • Charlie Rowlands says:

    I really like how you catch the essence of the concept, truly good writting approach, I enojoyed it!

  • Octavio Casario says:

    I’m having a slight dilemma here. I want to get a new unlocked phone and can’t decide on which phone to choose. To begin with, i am considering the Samsung B3310. My buddy has one. It appears pretty tough, and it all seemed alright, but then i began looking at others. Now my biggest problem is choosing between the Nokia 5070 and the Samsung i8910 Omnia HD 8GB. Any advice is welcome.

  • Alexi says:

    Hi Octavio,

    I can’t tell you with confidence that one phone model you mentioned above is better than the other – sorry. If your friend is a strong advocate for the Samsung B3310, and it’s a hardy phone, those are two points in its favor. Best of luck with the decision!

  • John says:

    Nice post. I would choose skpe as it is free 🙂

  • Shubert says:

    Great post. Lot of information. Thanks for sharing these tips

  • Suzanne says:

    Great insight on calling…
    But I will stick to skype 🙂 I carry my laptop almost everywhere & it’s free!!


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