Do you use your cell phone to make calls when traveling abroad? Or do you tell your friends and family back home that you’ll talk to them in a week? Your faithful glued-to-your-hand phone doesn’t have to collect dust when you’re jet-setting—take these 10+ tips for using it without breaking the bank. You’ll be calling from Paris to Paraguay and Taiwan to Tahiti in no time.
1. Make sure your phone will work internationally.
The Issue: Just like radios (AM, FM, shortband, wideband), some phones can pick up multiple bands of frequencies. But unless you have a "quad band" phone (which will work in any country that has cell service), you should take the time to make sure your phone is compatible with the networks/countries you’ll be traveling through.
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The Solution: The big four US carriers each offer online tools: T-Mobile’s handy chart, Verizon’s Trip Planner, AT&T’s Travel Guide, and Sprint’s Travel Tips. By the way, if you’ve got an iPhone, your carrier may allow you to unlock it. Or if you’ve got cash to burn, you can buy an unlocked 16GB iPhone 4S for $549. (After choosing color, click "Or get iPhone unlocked and contract-free.")
2. Know the difference between international long distance and roaming.
The Issue: It’s easy to confuse the rates and services offered for calling from the US to other countries (international long distance) with those for making calls when traveling abroad (international roaming).
The Solution: Identify both with your carrier. For example, AT&T calls their long distance plan World Connect and their roaming service World Traveler. Knowing that difference means you won’t be making decisions based on the wrong rates.
3. Get a plan.
The Issue: Part one: To add international calling as a feature to your account, your carrier may need to approve you. (Typically they look at your history with them, but may also check your credit.) Part two: You may get better rates by adding an international package to your monthly service.
The Solution: For $6/month, AT&T’s World Traveler plan offers some savings on international roaming rates, as shown in this comparison chart. (Discounts are highlighted in bold.) T-Mobile’s Worldclass International Service offers rates as "low" as $1/minute. For $4.99/month, Sprint’s Worldwide Voice offers rates of $1.49 and up. (At www.sprint.com/sww, you can see rates for individual countries, or they offer a separate document with all their international rates.) And for $4.99/month, Verizon offers Value Plan rates with discounts for certain countries. By the way, T-Mobile also offers an international calling plan with no annual contract and rates from $0.59-$5.99/minute.
4. Treat Canada and Mexico differently.
The Issue: Although in Canada and Mexico you can dial 10-digit local numbers just like you would in the US, some special conditions apply. If you do it right, you should expect to pay less than a buck per minute.
The Solution: AT&T offers several plans that make sense if you call to/from Canada and Mexico on a regular basis. But watch out for calling from those countries back to the United States. For instance, through T-Mobile it’s a relatively reasonable 59 cents/minute for most calls in Canada, but then another 20 cents/minute surcharge to call back to the US. Coincidentally, 20 cents per minute is all that Sprint charges to call from Canada, if you sign on to their $2.99/month plan. Obviously then, the latter is a much more economical option, assuming you plan to talk more than five minutes a month from Canada.
5. Treat cruise ships differently.
The Issue: Different cruise ships use different cell frequencies and command different rates. The trickiest part is that different rates may apply on the very same ship when it’s sailing in international waters as opposed to when it’s docked in port.
The Solution: Confirm with your carrier whether they charge something different (i.e. their regular global roaming rate) when the ship is docked. As for when it’s at sea, AT&T and Verizon currently charge $2.49/minute, Sprint $2.99/minute, and T-Mobile $5.99/minute.
6. Turn off data roaming.
The Issue: In an effort to make voice calls when traveling overseas, you might be inadvertently using your data plan when abroad (and therefore getting charged astronomically).
The Solution: Turn off the potential troublemakers: email and other automatically updating data services. In this chart (which opens a PDF), AT&T offers advice on how to do that on the various smartphone operating systems. Another thing to keep in mind so you don’t accidentally incur charges is that shutting off your data like this doesn’t prevent incoming/outgoing texting, which can also get pricy.
7. Beware of voicemail.
The Issue: If your phone is on and you let an incoming call go to voicemail, you could wind up getting charged three times—once for international roaming to get the call to your device, once by the foreign carrier to send the call back to your domestic voicemail system, and once for you to actually retrieve the message.
The Solution: Keep your phone off unless you’re expecting an important incoming call or making an outgoing call. If you have to call in for messages, do so just once or twice a day (at your international roaming flat rate). Look into the possibility of having your voicemail forwarded, something T-Mobile offers.
8. Be sure your phone’s frequency band is set to Automatic.
The Issue: If your phone’s band is set to a US frequency, you won’t get a signal or be able to make a call.
The Solution: Under Settings, look for an option like "wireless and networks" and select that. Then make sure it’s set to automatically find a network when it’s roaming.
9. Hold down 0 for +.
The Issue: You’ve done all the research; you’ve got a phone and plan for calling abroad; you’ve got a signal; and you’re ready to make a call. So don’t let a simple symbol hold you up.
The Solution: On many phones, you can enter the + sign just by holding down the 0 key for a second or so. Then you just need to enter the country code, city code, and local number. Of course, before you do all that, you should check with your wireless phone carrier for proper dialing instructions within and to outside the countries you’ll be in.
10. Get help.
The Issue: On one hand, this advice may be plenty for many of you. And it’s great that the websites of all four major US carriers offer lots of info on calling abroad; but it can also be overwhelming. Sometimes, it helps to talk to a human.
The Solution: Dedicated help lines for answering questions about international services: AT&T Wireless: 800-331-0500, Sprint: 888-226-7212, T-Mobile: 877-453-1304, Verizon Wireless: 800-711-8300.
Award-winning Fodors.com Travel Technology Columnist Scott Tharler is an expert in gadgets, gambling, and travel. He’s written four books, hundreds of mobile and wireless tips, and dozens of freelance articles. In addition to his Discovery News gadget blog contributions, you can find links to other gadget articles, social feeds and lists of his current favorite gadgets at about.me/gadgetfans.
Photo credit: Cell phone via Shutterstock