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Overseas Roaming for North Americans
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So you're heading overseas for a vacation, business trip, or longer term and would like to take your cell phone with you. What do you need to know about roaming overseas?

Still have questions after reading this article? Post them on our forums at GeckoBeachForums.com.

Is your current phone compatible?

Most of the world uses GSM (Global Systems for Mobiles) technology, which is gaining popularity in North America, but still is not as widespread as it is overseas. If you own a relatively new phone then most likely it is either CDMA, GSM, or possibly iDEN technology. If you're not sure, then the easiest way to tell is by looking for a small access door either in the back of your phone or under your phone's battery. If this door is present, you'll likely discover a small card underneath called a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module). SIM cards are present in GSM phones only and give your phone its identity. If you own an iDEN phone then you might have a SIM card as well and this will let you roam overseas. If you are still unsure what technology your phone uses then ask at any cellular phone store or call your service provider. SIM chip
GSM phones contain a SIM card that gives your phone an identity and they are not much bigger than a penny.

To roam in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and some parts of South America you will most likely need a GSM phone and the rest of this page talks specifically about GSM roaming, but see the bottom of this page to find out where your CDMA phone might work.

What frequencies does your phone use?

Okay you've narrowed down your phone's technology, now what frequencies can it use with that technology. For GSM phones there are many different frequency bands, including 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz. Your phone may have this listed on the back or it can be found in the user's manual under the technical specifications section. If you don't have the manual then visit the phone manufacturer's website and look for your particular model.

GSM phones sold in North America use 1900 MHz and some of the newer models may also be able to use 850 MHz. These are the only two frequencies available for GSM in North America and neither of these frequencies is used outside of North America, with the exception of a few South American countries. Therefore you will need to check to see if your phone can use either or both the 900 and 1800 MHz frequencies that are in use overseas. If your phone is able to use either 900 and/or 1800 MHz then you can use use your phone overseas.

Does your service provider offer roaming in counties you plan to visit?

To roam overseas you'll need to check with your service provider to see if they have roaming agreements in place with carriers in countries you plan to visit. If your service provider does not have a roaming agreement in place then you will not be able to use your phone, but there are other alternatives discussed below.

Here are some links to the larger GSM service providers in North America and who they currently have roaming agreements with along with their prices:

Would it make more sense to purchase a new SIM card?

If you expect to make or receive a lot of calls while overseas, it might make sense to purchase a SIM card from a local service provider in the country you are visiting. This will give you cheaper rates plus incoming local callers will not have to dial international long distance to reach you.

Because GSM phones are considered 'dumb' until you add a SIM card, sometimes people carry a few different SIM cards with them since one provider might offer cheaper long distance over another and so on. SIM swapping is not very well known in North America, but in Europe many travelers carry multiple cards to minimize roaming charges in different countries.

In order to swap SIM cards your handset cannot be SP-locked or "locked" to your local service provider. Most tri-mode (i.e., multiple GSM frequency) handsets that are now sold in North America are not locked, but any inexpensive GSM phone (e.g., retail price <$200) likely is. Your service provider can tell you if your handset is SP-locked or you can test yourself by placing another service provider's SIM card in your phone. If your phone is locked then a message such as "invalid SIM" will be displayed.

MTC Tango cards
A pre-paid local service might be an alternative. These are Namibia's MTC Tango cards.

If you do purchase a new SIM while overseas, look for a package that includes a SIM card and an amount of pre-paid airtime. Often the SIM card is free with an initial purchase of airtime vouchers, although there might be a small set-up charge.

I have a GSM phone, but it only is 1900 MHz -- can I still travel overseas?

Yes, because your SIM card provides the identity of the phone, you can make any phone yours by popping your SIM into a unlocked handset. You can arrange to rent a handset either at home or upon arrival in the country and use your own SIM card in the handset.

Alternately, some people just purchase an inexpensive GSM pre-paid handset in the country they are visiting. This might be more economical if your stay is a week or longer since phone rental might be $10/day. The handset will likely be locked to the local service provider and completely useless once you leave the country unless you arrange to continue to top-up the pre-paid plan for future visits.

Activate international roaming

Before heading out of your home country make sure to contact your service provider and ask for international roaming to be activated on your account. This is a free service, but it is best to do this at least 48 hours before you leave. If you are not on a pre-authorized debit account with the service provider then they may ask for a credit card number and may even perform a credit check which you will need to authorize. This credit check is to ensure that if you do rack up a sizable bill then they can recover the fees from you. You may be asked which countries you plan to use your phone in and approximately how much airtime you plan to use.

Note that roaming in Canada and the US usually doesn't need to be activated, but roaming in Mexico and the Caribbean often does. It is best to make sure that is activated before you leave.

If you return home and don't plan to use your phone overseas in the near future then call your service provider and have them re-restrict the international roaming on your account to prevent unauthorized calling.

International roaming fees

If you decide to continue to use your own SIM card overseas, either in your own phone or a rental unit, be aware of the fees involved in making or receiving calls. These fees are set by your own service provider and include a mark-up on whatever fees that they have negotiated with the foreign service provider. Fees do vary between foreign service providers within the same country and this applies to both local calls and long distance. I would recommend visiting your service provider's international roaming rates page (see links above) and write down the rates for roaming on different providers within the country you plan to visit. You can even put a little sticker on the back of your handset of the preferred roaming service providers. Most roaming charges for local calls vary between $0.75-$2.50/minute, although I was able to make local calls in Zimbabwe for $0.13/min a few months back. Service providers in places like Tajikistan might charge upwards of $6/min!

When turning on your handset overseas, most phones search for the strongest signal. If you wish to change to the most economic service provider then you'll have to do a manual network selection and then instruct your handset not to automatically select networks.

Network selection
Do a manual network selection and disable automatic network selection to force the handset to one network.

Incoming calls

Unlike the North American telephone system, realize that originators making calls to cellular phones in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Australia pay the airtime on the call. This means that if you are mainly receiving calls while overseas, you will not pay local airtime as this is paid for by the call originator. However, if you make calls from a landline to a cell phone then you pay the airtime to call that phone. Make a call from a cellular phone to another cellular phone and you pay double airtime.

If you decide to obtain a local number overseas and give this to people at home, then calls from home to your phone will pay the long distance to the country you are in plus airtime charges. This is why you often see in fine print on your landline long distance fact sheet "calls to overseas cellular phones are higher".

Other access fees

You can use your handset to send and receive SMS messages just like at home. In fact, SMSing is extremely popular outside North America, so don't be surprised if you find yourself using it a lot more. In the UK, I even found that some pay phones even could send SMS for a few pence per message.

Your service provider may also have roaming agreements with foreign service providers for GPRS access. Since GPRS is relatively new to many GSM networks, don't expect access on too many networks yet. GPRS rates are charged per Kb and typically range between 3-5¢/Kb with a minimum charge of 10Kb per GPRS session.

Don't forget your phone charger

Remember to bring along your phone charger and any adaptor plugs that you may need. Newer phone chargers may be able to handle 100-240 VAC, but make sure to check before leaving home since you might need a step-down transformer to convert 220-240 VAC to 110-120 VAC. North and South America typically use 110 VAC, Japan uses 100 VAC, and most other places use 220 VAC. In a pinch you can likely use the razor plug in a bathroom since these typically provide both voltages and sometimes even accept several different plug styles.
Welcome SMS
Many overseas providers will send you a welcome message when you initially register on their network. This SMS is free of charge.

Dialing patterns and numbers

When your phone is roaming overseas it should take on the local dialing pattern in use, but this isn't always the case. If you have never been in the country before then you may have to play a bit to figure out what digits you need to dial to make a local call. Most overseas countries use a dialing pattern like this:

[+] - [Country Code] - [City Routing Code] - [Local Number]

Where [+] is the international access code, [Country Code] is the international code for the country you are dialing (1-4 digits), [City Routing Code] specifies a region, such as a city or province/state (similar to the North American 3-digit area codes) and [Local Number] is the local number. Note that overseas cellular phones may be assigned to a different City Routing Code than landline numbers to allow billing at a higher rate while calling a cellular phone.

To dial a local number while overseas your phone sometimes takes on the local pattern, so for a local call you would just dial the [Local Number]. Sometimes you do need to add the [City Routing Code], and sometimes if there is a "0" as the first digit of the [City Routing Code], you drop it for a local call and sometimes you add a "0" if it is a local call! There's no harm in trying combinations of numbers and you'll be told when you are wrong. Quite often I just find it easier to just ask someone, or if you can't speak the local language, show someone the phone number and then have your phone there and they will punch in the correct combination of digits for you.

Alternatively you can dial the local call as an international long distance call. The prefix of "+" is added to all international calls, so for North Americans this is the same as dialing a "011" before a number. The "+" prefix is valid anywhere around the world and instructs the local cellular network that you are dialing international long distance. If your call is local then the network will recognize it as local and just bill you airtime and not long distance charges. Again, you may have to try a couple of combinations since extra zeros may need to be added or removed infront of the [City Routing Code]. All of these dialing patterns also apply to any SMS messages that you may send.

If you need to access emergency services then 112 is the international code to dial from a cellular phone. Local access numbers similar to the North American "911" vary between countries, but 112 will always access the emergency local number.

If you are having problems making calls or if there is network issues then dial 611. This may connect you to the local service provider that you are roaming on or it may connect you to your home service provider. This is a free call.

Remember to switch terminology! If you're in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Australia, or some South-East Asian countries then your handset is called a Mobile Phone, not a Cellular Phone. Of course, many people will recognize the term "Cellular" from American movies through. "Cellular" is used in Southern Africa, South America, and some Eastern Asian countries.

CDMA roaming

If you own a CDMA phone, then you can still roam overseas but your choice of countries is much more limited.

In general, most CDMA phones can roam in the US, Hong Kong, and some parts of Mexico and the Caribbean. CDMA services are also available in Australia, New Zealand and some African countries, but North American CDMA service providers are not as responsive to setting up roaming agreements with CDMA providers in these counties. As such, your phone will be able to see the foreign network and you can make emergency calls, but that's about it. Some foreign networks will allow you to make calls using a credit card, but this is expensive and only allows outgoing calls. Check with your service provider to see if they offer CDMA roaming in the counties you plan to visit. If they don't and the country does have a CDMA provider then make sure to ask if there are any plans to offer roaming.

CDMA and GSM roaming is available in several Central and South American countries, but it depends on the roaming agreements between your service provider and foreign service provider. Check with your service provider for more details.

No Service
Sometimes there's just no service, such as at this base in Antarctica.

Special phones

Both South Korea and Japan use a variation of CDMA and GSM, but it is incompatible with the rest of the world. You can arrange to rent a phone from your local service provider that can be used in each of these countries or rent/purchase a phone when you arrive there. Some GSM handsets might be able to use 3G GSM services offered by J-Phone in Japan, but check with your local service provider if your handset will work. South Korea uses 1800 CDMA, which is not supported by North American, Australian, or New Zealand CDMA handsets.

Some other Asian, Russian, and Northern European countries also use special frequencies and technologies, so if you need to use a phone in these countries then it is best to arrange a phone when you get there.

Do you have some experiences with international roaming that you'd like to share? Then drop me a line.


Mobile Roaming