The Easiest Way to Make International Calls While Traveling

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Your options for making international calls while traveling are no longer limited to using calling cards and hunting down a phone booth (yes, those still do exist). Today, you can keep in touch with friends, family, and coworkers while traveling abroad by renting a mobile phone or SIM card, using VoIP applications on your laptop, and, possibly, using your current cell phone.

Here's a look at the pros and cons of these international calling options.

Purchase a Calling Card

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

Pros:

  • Easy to budget
  • Most cards work anywhere you have access to a phone
  • People can't bug you by calling you when you're on vacation

Cons:

  • Payphones are disappearing (even Britain's iconic red phone boxes)
  • Reaching you can be difficult for others
  • It's hard to choose a phone card due to confusing pricing; there are a lot of bad cards out there

Bring Your Own Cell Phone

This is the most convenient option; just bring your current cell phone with you when you travel abroad. If you have a cell phone that can work over the cellular data network type at your destination—specifically a GSM phone since most of the world (over 80%, per the GSM Association) operates on GSM—then you'll likely be able to use your cell phone wherever you go.

 

Keep in mind, however, that you'll also likely be charged hefty roaming fees by your mobile provider. Many cellular service providers offer special packages for international travelers that are far cheaper and can be set up before you leave for your trip.

Besides the extra fees, the key caveats include:

  • Your phone has to be a GSM phone. Although most phones outside of the U.S. are GSM, in the U.S. some Verizon and Sprint phones operate on CDMA cellular technology, and so will only work in the U.S. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM phones.
  • Your GSM phone has to be operable on the right band or frequency. U.S. GSM uses the 1.9GHz and 850MHz bands, while in Europe GSM operates in the 900MHz and 850MHz bands. The best bet for international travelers is to have a tri- or quad-band GSM phone for compatibility—check with your phone manufacturer to find out if your model has this.

Pros:

  • Most convenient calling option
  • Your contacts and information on your phone travel with you

Cons:

  • You need to have the right cellular technology to access foreign networks—usually GSM.
  • Roaming charges are expensive (especially if you have a smartphone that constantly eats up data)
  • Even if the phone works, voicemail may not
  • You'll need to charge your phone, and you'll likely need adapters for the types of plugs used in other countries

Rent a SIM Card for Your Cell Phone

If you have a cell phone that meets the technical requirements in the country you're traveling to, you can avoid the data roaming fees from your local carrier by renting a SIM (subscriber identity module) card for your cell phone that will work for your destination.

This is typically less expensive than using your current provider's international pricing or renting a whole new cell phone, but it also has its own unique caveat:

  • Your GSM tri- or quad-band phone has to be unlocked. Some cell phones may be locked, meaning they can only be used on the network of the cell phone carrier from whom it was originally purchased. Some cell phone providers will unlock your phone for you if you ask them to; for the others, there are cell phone unlock codes, hacks, and services floating around the web to help you.

Pros:

  • Typically less expensive than renting a cell phone
  • You can take your current phone on your trip

    Cons:

    • You need to have a certain type of phone
    • It may be complicated to get your phone unlocked if it needs to be
    • Your contacts, if they are stored on your SIM card, won't be accessible with the rental SIM card
    • You'll need to give out a new number for people to contact you

    Rent a Cell 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 make a call.

    Pros:

    Cons:

    • You won't have contacts and information you have stored on your own phone
    • You need to give out a new number for people to contact you
    • Limited phone choices, so you may need to learn to navigate the new phone's options

    Use VoIP Calling from a Computer

    Using internet-based phone services like Skype can be the cheapest way to make international calls; it can even be free if you use a free wi-fi hotspot. Using VoIP from an internet cafe can be relatively inexpensive, but both wi-fi hotspot and net cafe usage depend on your being physically at a specific location.

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

    Pros:

    • Can be very inexpensive (even free) if you use VoIP via WiFi

    Cons:

    • Others can't immediately reach you
    • You have to be at a computer to make calls
    • May be more expensive depending on the method of connecting
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