Beginner's Cell Phone International Roaming Guide

This website section is an educational area to help you learn about all your different options to keep in touch while traveling. For the most part we try to be non-biased and objective, but you will find some RangeRoamer commentary and pricing comparisons interspersed here and there.

Roaming For Dummies:

International Roaming is all about being able to take a cell phone from one country to another and still be able to make and receive calls on it.

What are some of the things to consider before thinking of roaming with a cell phone?

Many US network cell phones don't work in other countries

Most US cell phones just won't work in a lot of places, including most of Europe and Asia, because they use a different technology. While most of the world uses GSM technology, many networks (and therefore phones) here in the US use different frequencies than the rest of the world. Even if your US phone is a GSM phone, the US decided to set up its GSM network on a different frequency than the rest of the world! So, some low end US-sold GSM phones still won't work in Europe.

Many GSM cell phones sold in the US are LOCKED

Locked means that it won't work if you put a different SIM card in it. It is programmed to only accept Cingular, or to only accept T-Mobile, for example. You have to ask your phone company to unlock your phone for you before you can use a different SIM card in it, like RangeRoamer's. T-Mobile and Cingular will sometimes do this for you if you call them and ask for it.

You have to sign up or activate a roaming plan and go through credit checks

International Roaming isn't turned on for everybody. There is a process you need to go through, which typically includes calling your cell phone company, telling them you want to add international roaming, picking a plan, sometimes going through a second credit check, and so on. RangeRoamer gets around all this in a simple way: we just make you prepay for your minutes. Problem solved!

What are some of the alternatives to standard international roaming? (Besides RangeRoamer, you mean?)

Buying a SIM card for each country you are visiting.

For some travelers, this is a great choice, but it really depends on how many countries you are visiting and how long you are going to be there for.

Similar to the cell phone plans you see hanging at 7-Elevens and stores throughout the US, most countries throughout the world have SIM cards you can purchase that give you a local cell phone plan in that country while you are there. After you buy it, you just snap it into your cell phone, usually behind the battery. You can use any of the unlocked cell phones we sell with this technology. Prepaid SIM cards are a cost effective option, but there are a few downsides.

Pros:

  • Usually the cheapest way to make local calls in that country
  • Incoming calls are free
  • Easy to install in a cell phone

Cons:

  • Buying each SIM card costs money (separate from airtime costs)
  • Your phone number will be different in each country you go to.
  • Roaming to more than 1 country is still VERY expensive
  • Some countries require passport photocopies and other fun bureaucratic stuff to deal with to buy a SIM card.

The Benefits of Buying a RangeRoamer SIM Card:

Since it is designed for multi-country travel, you can use just this one SIM card in 120+ countries and receive fREE incoming calls in 36 of them. If you are going to France this summer and Germany next year, just re-use the same RangeRoamer SIM for all your travels.

The main benefits of a multi-country SIM, and RangeRoamer specifically, include:

  • Keep the same phone number in all your countries of travel
  • Be easier to reach in case of emergency or for other reasons
  • You can add our toll-free forwarding service so people can call you without having to call an international cell phone number.
  • Have your SIM before you travel, so you know everything works and can spend your time doing other things instead of phone stuff.
  • No visiting the cell phone store while traveling. Go to the attractions instead!

Renting a Cell Phone

Renting a cell phone used to be the mainstream choice for anyone who wanted a cell phone for traveling. However, as cell phone handset prices have come down over the years, it makes less sense to rent a phone than it used to. Most rental companies still charge $1.40 to $2.99 per minute in addition to the cost of the rental.
RangeRoamer does offer cell phone rentals with the same low rate benefits that all our customers receive. If you are trying to keep the cost down to a minimum, a rental can cost as little of $59, which already includes $20 of airtime (about 30 minutes worth.)

Renting a Satellite Phone:

Satellite phones easily still cost more than $2000 each. It still makes a lot of sense to rent one of those instead of buying one.

Satellite Phones Airtime Rates:

Satellite phones are pretty amazing. Some of them work just about everywhere in the world. Airtime rates have come down and are actually competitive with roaming on Verizon, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint, etc. Sometimes you can roam for less than $2 per minute, which is actually a great deal if you are in the middle of nowhere, or on a cruise ship (where cell phone roaming is a whopping $3 per minute in many cases), or in a 3rd world country with very high call rates.

The main satellite phone network providers are:

Iridium

Iridium provides complete coverage of the earth. However, you need to be outside and cannot call from indoors where the satellites cannot be reached. Iridium technology is inherently secure against snooping and is therefore popular in military applications. This also means you can't be located under any circumstance (no GPS support.) Iridium phones, due to their nature, are still a bit bulky with long antennas that you pull out. But, it will work anywhere you go, and their service is very reliable. Call rates are about $2.50 per minute going down to $0.99 per minute if you buy minutes in bulk. (2000 minutes, for example.) In order for people to call you, they must dial the Iridium international prefix, and those rates are routinely above $3 per minute. That's the price of ubiquitous and seamless coverage anywhere on Earth! Iridium also has excellent data services.

Thuraya

Thuraya phone coverage exceeds 100 counties, and focuses mainly on the 3rd world and underdeveloped nations. Their phones are hybrid models which work on the cell phone networks when there is a network available as well as on their own satellite network when in remote areas. They also have GPS. Their phones are smaller, talk-time is longer, and rates are lower than the other satellite phone networks. For example, Thuraya minutes are about $1.29 per minute, and calling to Thuraya is also about $1.29 per minute. Thuraya also has excellent data services.

Globalstar

With coverage in over 120 countries, as well as most territorial waters and oceans, Globalstar provides a variety of service plans and caters mainly to oil, gas, exploration, etc. Their coverage is especially strong in the Americas. They do not cover the majority of Africa. Handsets start at about $625 and are also hybrid models like Thuraya's, but are not GSM based. International roaming is available at $1.39 per minute plus $50 per month.

Cruise Ship Phone Calls

Depending on the kind of cruise you are taking, you have a few different options. Obviously, if you are disembarking on land every few days, you can make your calls using a standard roaming cell phone service (such as RangeRoamer, or your ordinary cell phone, if it supports roaming in the country you are in.)

Newer cruise ships now run their own cellular networks on the ship. Sounds great, except that they routinely charge roaming rates of $3 per minute! If you are within several miles of shoreline, you will probably be able to pick up a GSM signal from the country nearby, in which case you can set you phone to use that network instead of the ship's, and pay lower rates. You have to do this by manually setting the network selection on your phone.

If you are out in the middle of the ocean, and you do not want to use the cruise ship's network, a satellite phone is your only choice. Satellite phones are actually cheaper than cruise ship roaming in many instances.

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