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Trust me: having a working cell phone when you're on a trip can help a lot. You can double-check reservations, receive emergency calls from the cat-, dog- or babysitter, and soothe culture shock with a minute or two of a familiar voice. Unfortunately, making calls from other countries isn't as simple as just taking your phone and turning it on.

Along with being a Frommers.com columnist, I'm also the cell phone expert for PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com), so I'm pretty familiar with the troubles of folks trying to get their phones to work while on the road. Let me boil down the situation for you.

First of all, do you want to bring your phone with you, or will you need to get a special one for your trip? Not all phones work in all countries, and roaming rates can be really expensive. Here are Sascha's Simple Rules For Bringing Your Phone:

  • If you think you're going to make or receive more than an hour's worth of calls in Europe, Canada or Mexico, or 15 minutes' worth anywhere else, don't bring your own phone. Skip to "Getting a local phone" below.
  • If you're going to Canada or Mexico, skip to "Getting Permission" below.
  • If you're with Cingular or T-Mobile, go to www.phonescoop.com to find out if your phone works overseas. Click on "Phones," then the name of the company that made your phone (it's usually written on the outside of the phone or under the battery), then the little picture that looks like your phone. Scroll down to the first line of the chart, the one that says "modes." If it includes GSM 900 or GSM 1800, congratulations! Your phone works overseas. But skip to "Getting Permission" below. If your phone doesn't work overseas, go to "Getting a Local Phone."
  • If you're with Sprint, see if your country is on this list. If you're with Verizon, see this list. For Nextel, the list is Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Israel, Singapore, Jordan, South Korea, Guam, and the Philippines. If your country is on the list, go to "Getting Permission." Otherwise go to "Getting a local phone."
  • There are a few exceptions -- Sprint, Verizon and Nextel phones that work in more countries. If you have one, you probably know it already. Go to "Getting Permission" for those.

Getting Permission

Hurrah! Your phone works where you're going. At least, technically.

Know two things: You're going to have to get permission, and it's going to cost you. Expect it to cost at least a dollar a minute to make or receive calls, depending on where you are. (You can ask your carrier's customer support line exactly how much it will be.) In other words, use your phone for emergencies.

Now call one of the numbers below and ask to have international roaming activated on your account. Also, ask them for a non-800 number to call them back at later. When you get to your destination, you may find that the phone still doesn't work. Because you can't call 800 numbers from many foreign phones, you're going to have to call the non-800 customer support number to yell at them. This has happened to me twice.

  • Sprint: 888-226-7212
  • Verizon: 800-922-0204
  • Cingular: 866-CINGULAR
  • T-Mobile: 800-937-8997
  • Nextel: 800-NEXTEL6

If you have Cingular or T-Mobile and want to save some money, jump down to "Getting a Local SIM."

Getting a Local Phone

Okay, so your phone doesn't work overseas. Guess what? Mine doesn't either, and I travel a lot. I just bought a cheap foreign phone and fill it with local SIMs.

I'll explain the local SIMs in the next section. For now, there are two easy ways to get hold of a cheap foreign phone to use overseas. The first, and less expensive way: search eBay for "GSM 1800 unlocked". You'll find a bunch of phones. Buy one. Jump to the next section.

If eBay scares you, buy one of the phones from Telestial (www.telestial.com). Their phones start at $99 and come with good things like warranties and tech support that you won't get for some random guy on eBay selling his old phone for $20.

Renting a phone from a company like TravelCell (www.travelcell.com) used to be a good solution, but it's gotten less economical as phones and calls get cheaper. A rental phone might make sense if you're taking a once-in-a-lifetime, one or two week trip. But if you even intend to use it twice, buying a cheap global phone becomes a bargain once you count in rental services' delivery fees and much more expensive airtime than local-SIM-card solutions.

Getting a Local SIM

So now you have a foreign phone, or you want to find a way to make cheaper calls with your Cingular or T-Mobile phone. Here's how.

Your phone uses a little chip called a SIM card which holds your phone number. (Not you, Sprint and Verizon people. Your phones are different.) If you take out your expensive American roaming SIM card and replace it with a cheaper SIM card designed for travel, two things happen:

  • Your phone number changes, temporarily, until you put your regular card back in.
  • Rates go way down.

To make this happen if you're using your own phone, call customer support back and ask to have the phone "unlocked" so it will accept other SIM cards. Your carrier will want to know why. Tell them you're going overseas for a while. If you've been a Cingular subscriber for six months or a T-Mobile subscriber for three, they should say okay and tell you how.

SIMs generally cost around $25 and contain $10-$15 in airtime. You can then replenish them by buying "top-up" cards at newsstands and punching a code number into your phone.

If you intend to roam around, you can buy a "roaming SIM" with low rates in a range of countries. The rates are never as low in any one country as a single-country SIM, but they beat buying several SIMs. Telestial is a good, reliable, US-based retailer of roaming SIMs with English-speaking technical support. They have two useful cards: the Explorer and the Passport. Check the rates on both for the countries you'll be traveling to, to see which one will be a better choice for your trip.

If you're traveling to one country only, get a SIM just for that country. It will only work cheaply in that one country, but it will give you the lowest rates. You can buy those SIMs from Telestial, or from a cell phone shop in your destination country. You'll save $15-$20 by buying your SIM locally, but the advantage of buying it in advance from Telestial is that you'll get English-speaking help and you'll be able to give your foreign phone number out before you leave the US.

I'm simplifying; this rabbit hole goes very deep. Go to www.prepaidgsm.net if you want all the options. My warning: There are a lot of options.

Odd Situations

There are three locations that generally break the rules: cruise ships, Japan and Korea.

Japan uses their own mobile phone system which isn't compatible with 99% of phones sold in the US. (If you really want to know, there's one model, the Cingular 8525, which works there.) So you should rent a phone. Local rental firms are much, much cheaper than US-based firms, and you can pick up and drop your phone off at the airport on arrival and departure. Make sure to make reservations in advance over the Internet, though. Compare rates and make reservations from Narita Airport's official cell phone rental page. JAL's rental fee of 250¥/day looks to be the lowest right now. GO Mobile (www.gomobile.co.jp) charges more for the phone (around 420¥/day) but calls to the US cost half of what most other rental places charge, 100¥/minute as compared to 200¥/minute.

In Korea, Sprint and Verizon phones work at relatively reasonable 69¢/minute rates but Cingular and T-Mobile phones don't work at all. Korean mobile phone operator KTF offers rental phones at Incheon, Gimhae, Busan and Gwangju airports for a winning $3.25/day, with outbound calls within Korea 65¢/minute and incoming calls free. You can knock that rental fee down to $2.16/day by signing up for free at Tour2Korea (http://english.tour2korea.com).

Your mobile phone also might work on cruise ships. The down side: it's $5 a minute. Keep the phone off and turn it on only if the boat begins to sink, to call for help.

Yes, There Are Exceptions

I'm simplifying a lot for this guide. For instance, the Nextel i930 and Sprint/Verizon Samsung A795 work more like Cingular/T-Mobile phones than like Nextel or Sprint phones, giving you more options. But this guide should cover most scenarios. If you're interested in delving more into the technical details of international roaming, check out my cell-phone reviews at www.pcmag.com and ask on the discussion boards over there.

To talk about traveling with your cell phone with other travelers, on the other hand, post on our Message Boards today. Happy calling!