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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.