How Can I Make International Calls While Traveling Abroad?

Question: How Can I Make International Calls While Traveling Abroad?

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.


1. Purchase a Calling Card

Although it may not be the most inexpensive method on a per-call basis (depending on the card) and it's definitely less convenient than having a cell phone on you, calling cards are popular with international travelers because they have a fixed price and, basically, that's what most of us are used to using when we travel.

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 are slated for removal); others can't immediately reach you; it's hard to choose a phone card due to confusing pricing and a lot of bad cards out there

2. Bring Your Own Cell Phone

This, naturally, 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 -- namely, ​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.

Besides the extra fees, the key caveats include:

  1. Your phone has to be a GSM phone. Although most phones outside of the U.S. are, the majority of Verizon and Sprint phones operate on a different cellular technology, CDMA, and therefore will only work in the US. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM phones, however.
  2. 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, but only select phone models do so.

Pros: Most convenient calling option; contacts and information saved on your phone travel with you

Cons: You need to have a certain type of phone; roaming charges are expensive (especially if you have a smartphone that constantly eats up data); even if the phone works, voicemail may not; you may need a dual charger

3. Rent a SIM Card for Your Cell Phone

If you have a cell phone that meets the criteria above, 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. Most cell phones are locked so they can only be used on the cell phone company's network. 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.

Pros: Typically less expensive than renting a cell phone; take your current phone, which you already are familiar with, on your trip

Cons: You need to have a certain type of phone; can be complicated to get your phone unlocked; your contacts -- if stored on your SIM card -- aren't accessible with the rental SIM card; you need to give out a new number for people to contact you

4. 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 wherever you are.

Pros: Cell phone rentals available in over 150 countries worldwide (many international prepaid mobile broadband providers offer international cell phone rentals); you can avoid surcharges and extra connection fees -- no huge bill surprises

Cons: Your contacts -- if stored on your SIM card -- aren't accessible with the rental 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

5. Use VoIP calling services from a computer

Using Internet-based phone services like Google Voice or 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 also 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 wi-fi or at an Internet cafe

Cons: Others can't immediately reach you; you have to be at a computer to make calls; may be more expensive depending on method of connecting

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