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Using a Prepaid Phone Internationally

international phone call

One of the cheapest ways to keep in touch with friends while traveling abroad is to use a prepaid phone instead of your normal phone. Depending on the country you are calling to or from, international rates can be extremely expensive with both prepaid and postpaid phone plans–if you have international calling at all.

Here are a few things to consider when you are looking to travel abroad:

How long will you be traveling?

This is probably the most important thing to consider when looking at using a mobile phone abroad. Depending on how long you’re going to be in the foreign country you might or might not want to bother with a prepaid international SIM or a local SIM.

For example, if it’s only for a few days, setting up an entirely different number and prepaid account probably isn’t going to be worth the time. Just use free WiFi to call your friends on Skype or wait until you get home to tell everyone about it. If you intend to be there for several weeks or simply need to have a mobile phone for your stay (say, for business purposes), then getting some sort of international plan is definitely something to consider.

If you already have a prepaid account, check with your provider to see if they have any prepaid international calling and how much it will be to call to and from the country you are traveling to before you decide. Many pre and postpaid providers offer international minutes, but the cost per minute is oftentimes outrageous.

International Roaming SIM vs. Foreign Local SIM vs. Neither

If you have decided that you need to have some sort of mobile phone and your carrier’s rates are too horrendously expensive to contemplate, then you have a few options for making calls in foreign countries.

International SIM: These can be purchased online ahead of time, which means that you can give your contact information to loved ones so they can reach you while you’re away. Calls to the U.S. are usually cheaper with international roaming SIMs, and a lot of times you can keep your international number when not in use, so if you travel a lot you can always have access to the same number. However, the downside is that calls, texts and data are going to be more expensive than on a foreign local SIM.

Local SIM: You can also get a sim local to the country you are visiting. There are both pros and cons to this. The best part is that the prices will be a lot cheaper than international roaming SIMs. However the downsides are that you’ll probably have to spend your time finding a carrier and SIM while on your vacation. Additionally, the activation for foreign local numbers is often in the local language. So if don’t speak the language it can be a problem.

WiFi: Alternatively, you can just choose to wait until you find free WiFi at hotels and restaurants in the country and make calls via Skype, Google Hangouts or other free (and dirt cheap) online calling services with your phone or laptop. This is a little more tricky, because there is no guarantee that you will be able to find free or reliable WiFi, but it is still an option.

Is my phone compatible?

The U.S. mobile carriers mostly use one of two networks: CDMA or GSM. To use your phone internationally, you will need to have a GSM phone, as CDMA phones can’t pick up the right bands and usually don’t have removable SIM slots. Both T-Mobile and AT&T use the GSM network and are probably compatible.

Now, to use your GSM phone internationally, you’ll have to get it unlocked so it can access the proper networks. Here is article on how to unlock your phone. Generally, you’ll need to contact your carrier and the phone will have to meet certain requirements before they will unlock it. However, for traveling internationally sometimes they will waive a few of those requirements, so be sure to talk to a representative to see what they can do if you’re still on contract/have a new account/still paying for the phone.

Also, some carriers offer internationally-ready phones, so if you intend to travel a lot and you are in love with your Sprint/Verizon service, you should contact them and see if you can purchase an unlocked international phone, which will have a SIM slot for an international SIM of some sort.

Where do I get a new SIM?

 There are several companies that sell international roaming SIM cards. Some of them allow you to rent phones while others simply sell SIM cards and minutes. Here’s a short list in no particular order of some of the companies I found that provide these services:

  • Go Abroad eKit – You can not only purchase SIMs with reloadable funds, but you can also rent a phone if yours is not internationally ready. Their prices start at $0.39/minute.
  • Brightroam – One of the more popular options, Brightroam sells unlocked international phones, SIMs and data plans.
  • TravelSim – TravelSim is also pretty popular but only seems to sell SIM cards. However, their minute rates are pretty high for some places; all the way up to $3.77/minute, so be sure to check the rates. Some of them are pretty good.
  • Go Sim – Unlike other carriers, GoSim doesn’t charge for incoming calls and their site claims they only begin charging when the outgoing call is picked up by the other line. Their rates are decent, and the SIMs a little expensive.
  • Telesital – they have SIMs, phones and international data plans. They also rent satellite phones.
  • One Sim Card – looks pretty similar to Telestial and the others
  • World Sim – World Sim offers dual sim phones, SIM cards and data roaming gadgets.

You can also talk to your carrier, and they may be able to help you out, depending on where you are.

What about my old number?

Unfortunately, when you get a new SIM, you are probably going to get a new number. Depending on who you get your service through, you might be able to forward your U.S. calls to your international number. If you can’t, then you should change the voicemail of your U.S. number to list your temporary international number so that contacts know how to reach you. You may be able to set up an auto reply to texts as well, depending on your phone and carrier.

Other Tips and Tricks

Of course, there are a lot of things to consider when taking your phone abroad. Not all countries use the same voltage, so you’ll have to get an adapter to charge your phone. And you might be surprised how often you use data, which will be extremely expensive abroad. Huffington Post has a great list of 9 hacks for traveling abroad and another article full of tips for using phone abroad that you should read as well. CNet also has a pretty informative article about using international SIMs as well if you need more help.