The Easiest Ways to Make International Calls While Traveling

More options are available than ever before

Options for making international calls while traveling aren't limited to using calling cards and hunting down phone booths. Keep in touch with friends, family, and co-workers while traveling abroad by renting a mobile phone or SIM card, using VoIP applications on your laptop, and, in some cases, using your current cell phone. Here's a look at the pros and cons of these international calling options.

Purchase a Calling Card

What We Like
  • Easy to budget.

  • Works anywhere with phone access.

  • No unwanted calls while on vacation.

What We Don't Like
  • Payphones are disappearing.

  • Reaching you can be difficult.

  • Confusing phone card pricing.

Although it may not be the least expensive method on a per-call basis (depending on the card), and it is less convenient than having a cell phone on you, calling cards are popular with international travelers because they have fixed prices and are familiar to most people.

Bring Your Own Cell Phone

What We Like
  • Most convenient calling option.

  • Contacts and information on your phone travel with you.

What We Don't Like
  • Must have GSM technology.

  • Expensive roaming charges.

  • Voicemail may not work.

  • Need adapters to charge the phone.

The most convenient option is to bring your current phone with you when you travel abroad. If you have a GSM phone, you'll most likely be able to use it wherever you go. Most of the world (more than 80% according to the GSM Association) operates on GSM.

Mobile service providers may charge high roaming fees. Many providers offer special packages for international travelers that can be set up before your trip.

In addition to the extra fees you may incur when using your phone while traveling internationally, the phone must meet these requirements:

  • The phone must be a GSM phone. Although most phones outside of the U.S. are GSM, some Verizon and Sprint phones in the U.S. operate on CDMA cellular technology; these work only in the U.S. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM phones.
  • The GSM phone must operate on the right band or frequency. U.S. GSM uses the 1.9GHz and 850MHz bands. Europe GSM operates in the 900MHz and 850MHz bands. When traveling internationally, use a tri- or quad-band GSM phone for compatibility. Check with your phone manufacturer to find out if your model has this.

Rent a SIM Card for Your Cell Phone

What We Like
  • Typically less expensive than renting a cell phone.

  • Take your current phone on your trip.

What We Don't Like
  • Need an unlocked GSM phone.

  • Contacts stored on a SIM card aren't accessible.

  • Uses a different phone number.

If you have a cell phone that meets the technical requirements in the country you're traveling to, avoid data roaming fees from your local carrier by renting a SIM (subscriber identity module) card that works in your destination. This is typically less expensive than using your current provider's international pricing or renting a cell phone.

The GSM tri- or quad-band phone must be unlocked. Most cell phones are unlocked from their networks and most service providers will help you unlock a phone. Locked phones can only be used on the network of the cell phone carrier from whom it was purchased. Search the web to find cell phone unlock codes, hacks, and services.

Rent a Cell Phone

What We Like
  • Cell phone rentals are available in more than 150 countries.

  • Many international prepaid mobile broadband providers offer international cell phone rentals.

  • Avoid surcharges and extra connection fees.

What We Don't Like
  • Contacts and information stored on your phone aren't accessible.

  • Need to give out a new number for people to contact you.

  • Phone choices can be limited, may need to learn to use an unfamiliar phone.

Though more expensive than renting a SIM card, renting a GSM cell phone that works at your destination allows you to be reachable at all times and to make calls.

Use VoIP Calling From a Computer or Phone

What We Like
  • Can be very inexpensive (even free) using a Wi-Fi connection.

What We Don't Like
  • Others can't reach you immediately.

  • May be expensive, depends on the connection.

Using internet-based phone services such as Skype, which rely on VoIP (voice over internet protocol) technology, can be the cheapest way to make international calls. It might even be free if you use a free Wi-Fi hotspot (are free Wi-Fi hotspots safe?). Using VoIP from an internet café can be relatively inexpensive, but both Wi-Fi hotspots and net café usage depend on your physical presence at a specific location. There are a handful of free VoIP apps that can connect you with the rest of the world.

You can also use VoIP on your laptop using prepaid international mobile broadband.

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