How to avoid pricey mobile charges when traveling abroad

There are ways to cut the costs and hassles of international mobile phone use

One of the joys of travel can be the surprises that await you. But some international travel surprises can be unpleasant, particularly if you take your mobile phone.

"You go overseas, call your friends to tell them you're coming, call home and, when you get back home, you get the bill and you're in for a big surprise," said Derek Kerton, principal of the Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting firm. Kerton travels abroad frequently and has experienced this problem firsthand.

The high cost of international cellular roaming is not just a problem for vacationers but also for companies that depend on traveling employees. And it pertains to both cellular voice and data. However, while it will probably always cost more to talk while you're abroad than it does at home, Kerton said there are ways to minimize the expense and prevent other phone-related hassles. All it takes is some knowledge and planning before you leave.

"For years, if you went abroad you often couldn't connect and, if you did, you were gouged," Kerton said. "But the situation is finally starting to improve."

Expensive roaming, different technologies

In these days of national calling plans and widespread coverage by the large U.S. cellular operators, it's easy to forget about roaming. Domestically, all cellular carriers have struck deals, so when subscribers roam out of their operator's coverage area, calls are automatically picked up by another operator.

The same is true when you travel abroad, but the prices are radically different. At home, the price of roaming is often folded into your regular monthly charge, particularly if you have a national service plan. But overseas roaming charges of $4 a minute were once common, and such charges still aren't unheard of. Roaming rates of between $1 and $2 a minute are the norm now.

One reason for the high rates, according to Kerton, is that there is no incentive for foreign carriers to keep prices low since they aren't trying to entice you to be a permanent customer. While you're visiting, they can pretty much charge what they want.

Another problem you can run into is that cellular technology differs throughout the world. The most significant difference is between cellular networks based on Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology and those based on Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology. GSM is, by far, the more common and is used by all European carriers and the majority of other carriers around the world.

The largest U.S. carrier, AT&T Inc., and the fourth-largest, T-Mobile USA, use GSM technology. However, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Corp. and most regional carriers, such as Alltel Wireless, use CDMA. The chances are good that if you're a CDMA subscriber, your phone won't work in most of the rest of the world, although CDMA networks are available in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brazil and a handful of other countries.

Even if you subscribe to a GSM carrier, however, you still may not be able to connect while abroad. That's because U.S. carriers use the 800-MHz and 1900-MHz portions of the wireless spectrum while many other nations, including those in Europe, use the 900-MHz and 1800-MHz bands. If your phone doesn't support those "foreign" spectrum bands, you can't connect.

Fortunately, in recent years, so-called world phones, also known as quad-band phones, have become common. These phones support all four commonly used spectrum bands. If you're planning to use your mobile phone while overseas, make sure it supports the bands in use where you're going.

For CDMA users, there's also been a recent upsurge in dual-mode phones that handle both GSM and CDMA technologies. Typically, these phones are about the same price as other phones. For example, Verizon recently started offering the dual-mode BlackBerry 8830, a version of the BlackBerry 8800 that is offered by Cingular. Verizon sells the 8830 for $299 after rebates with a two-year contract, the same price Cingular charges for the BlackBerry 8800.

How to save money

The key to cutting international roaming expenses and technical glitches is to think ahead, Kerton said.

"Unless you think ahead, you'll get spanked," Kerton said. "But if you think ahead, there are good deals."

The first steps are to find out whether you subscribe to a GSM or to a CDMA network and learn more about your phone's capabilities, Kerton said. If you don't know, the best way to find out is to call your carrier.

The next step is to find out from your carrier what its roaming rates are if you use your regular phone when you're abroad.

For instance, T-Mobile USA's Web site shows that roaming rates even in Germany (home of T-Mobile's parent company) are just over a dollar a minute. Verizon charges between 69 cents and $4.99 per minute, depending on the cellular technology, the country and the phone you are using. You can get more information about AT&T's international rates here and Sprint's here.

Next, Kerton advises, consider how you will use your phone. If you don't travel frequently and won't make many calls while you are away, it might be simpler and cheaper to absorb the high roaming fees. However, some carriers offer special plans for international roaming, Kerton said. This typically comes in the form of a small extra monthly fee, which results in somewhat lower roaming fees when you are abroad.

Most users, though, will benefit from more cost-effective options available from third parties, Kerton said. If you subscribe to a GSM carrier, the most cost-effective method can be to take your phone with you and buy a new Subscriber Identity Module card for your phone while you travel. SIMs are little cards that plug into GSM phones and contain subscriber information.

Particularly in Europe, you can easily buy SIMs with a specific number of minutes in them. Then, you'll be paying the same prepaid rate as other users in that country. In the past, SIMs were typically sold in tobacco stores in Europe but are now available in a wide variety of retail stores and public places such as airports, Kerton said.

This approach requires one bit of discernment: You must determine whether your GSM phone is locked or unlocked. With a locked phone, you can only use a SIM purchased from your cellular operator. Kerton noted, however, that, even if your phone is locked, carriers will now typically help users unlock their phones.

"They'll usually give you a series of keystrokes to unlock the phone if you ask for it," Kerton said.

Rent or buy

Another attractive approach is to use an online source to rent or buy a cheap, unlocked GSM phone. Many of these sites also sell SIMs with prepaid minutes that work in specific countries, Kerton said.

"For example, when I go to Barcelona, I buy my SIM card in advance," Kerton said. "I'll pay $20 or $30 for the prepaid rate and half of that will be in minutes from the [local] carrier. (The rest is from the company from which you buy the SIM.) Plus, I'll know my phone number and I can give it out before I leave."

He said that the cost when buying SIMs in this way is usually between 30 cents and 40 cents a minute. That's expensive by domestic standards but considerably lower than using your own phone. Plus, you often can use these SIMs to call from one country in Europe to another, although that rate will typically be about $1 per minute, Kerton said.

Kerton added that it may be cheaper for CDMA subscribers who are frequent international travelers to invest in an inexpensive GSM phone and buy a SIM whenever they leave home. Examples of online vendors who sell or rent GSM phones and SIMs are Telestial Inc., Cellular Abroad and WorldCell Inc.

E-mail precautions

Kerton had one caution for those using their regular mobile device while traveling abroad: Beware of data service costs, particularly BlackBerry-like services. These days, roaming overseas includes data service as well as voice, and data can be quite expensive.

"If you've configured your BlackBerry or Treo to get mail every five minutes, it'll start doing that as soon as you land," Kerton said. "You might have an unlimited plan in the U.S., but in Europe, you'll be paying what usually comes out to be about two bucks a megabyte."

IT managers in particular should consider how important mobile e-mail access is to traveling employees, Kerton said. It could be worth the money for executives or other key personnel to have their regular e-mail access, no matter how expensive. And, for true globetrotters, Verizon is offering its Global BlackBerry service for $65 a month with the BlackBerry 8830.

For other users, however, it might be a good idea to turn off automatic e-mail or set the device to automatically download only e-mail header information and not entire messages. In addition, Kerton cautioned, this is one case in which spam can be very expensive since, when you pay for data access by the byte, the cost of spam adds up quickly.

But as with other international travel issues, Kerton stressed that this potential problem can be solved with a little forethought. If you do that, you'll be able to stay in touch while you're away without experiencing unpleasant and expensive surprises when you return.

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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