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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 Africa probably 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.

woman on cell phone by pool

Many travelers feel naked without a cell phone tucked in their pockets, but don't want to spend a fortune on roaming charges or international calls. 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.

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 calls, send texts and access data while traveling abroad. These plans may be offered on a daily 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. Per-minute calling rates vary for different countries.

Some cell phone companies have calling plans for specific regions, such as Canada or Mexico. Other plans work in a broad range of countries. You probably 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.

T-Mobile is worth a mention for its Simple Choice plans, which include unlimited texting and data in more than 140 countries, not as a special add-on but as part of its regular coverage. The plan also features reasonable rates for international calls.

Note that while the majority of U.S. phones now work overseas, some cheaper or older models can only be used domestically.

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 Services
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 can be used on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. 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 (or find a free Wi-Fi connection so you don't have to use your data).

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People who don't want to deal with the inconvenience of renting or purchasing a new cell phone should consider using their own phone abroad. If you are looking for the most convenient way to make a call or send a text, regardless of cost, using your own phone is your best bet.

Pros:
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).

Cons:
If you forget to add an international plan, you could find yourself paying hundreds or even thousands in roaming charges. Even with a plan, it can be pricey if you exceed your data limit or make a lot of calls.

Expensive cell phones can easily get lost or stolen in another country, and an American chatting on a mobile phone can be a target for thieves.

Not all U.S. cell phones can be used globally.

To learn more, see Avoid Smartphone Sticker Shock: How to Pay Less Overseas.

woman on phone at airport

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 carrier 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.

Pros:
You'll enjoy low rates for calling within a foreign country.

Cons:
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.

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Renting a Cell Phone

If your phone doesn't work abroad or you don't want the hassle of adding and removing a pricey international plan, you may want to look into renting a cell phone through a service such as Cellular Abroad, TravelCell or Triptel. 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 may be 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 and texts on rental phones are your cheapest option, as they are often less expensive than outgoing calls (or even free). 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.

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Pros:
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.

Cons:
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 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.

You 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 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 websites such as Cellular Abroad, 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.

Pros:
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, texts and data within whichever country you're visiting.

Cons:
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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--updated by Sarah Schlichter

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