Cellphones Abroad: Rent or Buy?

If you don’t frequently travel internationally and are going on a short trip (three weeks or less), renting a cellphone is likely to be the best option. For trips longer than a month, or for people who frequently travel outside of North America, purchasing a cellphone that works internationally may be less expensive than renting as the cost of a phone that works internationally is usually equivalent to two or three rentals.

If you buy a phone for international use, the best bet is an unlocked GSM phone with quadband support. “Unlocked” means the phone can be used with any wireless service provider; “GSM” is the Global System for Mobile Communications; quadband means the phone supports the two bands — wireless operating frequencies — used in North America as well as the two used elsewhere in the world. You’ll also need a SIM card to use in your phone (see the SIM section below for details).

In the U.S., most cellphones are “locked.” They will not work with other carriers’ networks. Elsewhere, people pay more for their phones but can choose what networks to use them on. Your locked U.S. phone may work internationally, depending on whether it supports GSM, alternate bands, and who provides your wireless service. If your provider is Verizon, Sprint or Nextel, it’s possible that your cellphone is not a good international traveler. If your provider is Cingular/AT&T or T-Mobile, your phone may well work elsewhere. Check with your carrier to find out whether your phone works internationally.

Even if your U.S.-based phone does work outside of the country, you may find it less expensive to rent a phone for an international trip than to pay your provider’s international roaming rates. AT&T for example, charges $1.29 a minute for service in London ($.99 if you sign up for the World Traveler plan at $5.99 a month) while a rental cellphone plan from Travel Cell bills at $.59 a minute for local calls and $.69 a minute to call North America. You also need to factor in the cost of the rental phone — Travel Cell charges $29.99 a week for the phone — against the cost of the calls to figure out whether rental will save you money. If you expect to make a lot of calls, a rental may be cheaper. If you anticipate limited usage, your own phone may be the least expensive option.

Michelle Delio