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Dear Gabbey: What about cell phones abroad?

"Dear Gabbey, I am about to embark on a multi-country journey and I am confused what I should do about communicating with my friends and family back home.  I want to be able to call home for cheap (or free if possible) but am not sure what the best options are out there for me."

This week’s question comes to us from Bill.  Bill is not a real person. The reason Bill is asking this week’s question as a fictional character is because NO one submitted a question for Dear Gabbey this week (so sad).  So how about you help me out, and submit a question for next week by filling out this form.

So Bill, finding a cheap cell phone plan while you are traveling abroad can be a pain in the you know what.  We get so used to our own country’s dialing system that it is difficult to adjust to not only new country and dialing codes, but also how cell phone plans work in other countries.  This is also a different question to answer considering you are not from the US (Bill is from Iceland) and the answer to this question is somewhat dependent on how cell phone plans work back home.  However, the following is my general advice for anyone traveling in a country not their own.

Option 1: Buy an international plan on your existing phone

Option 1 is not a good option, in my opinion, but I put it out there because some people are rich.  I know, it’s not fair, but it’s true.  So for those of you who are rich, this is your option.  International plans are expensive and can be unreliable as you are assuming the contracts your cell company has worked out with it’s international affiliates will work how it should, which isn’t always the case. As an example, my current iPhone plan in the US would break down like this:


iPhone (US) through AT&T

iPhone (US + International) through AT&T

450 Anytime Minutes (w/ Rollover)


$31.99 plus $1.29/minute (for a one minute call from Ireland to the US) or add $5.99/month and get discounted call rates ($0.99/minute for the same one minute call from Ireland to the US – a good deal if you plan on making more than $20 minutes of phone calls)

iPhone 3GS Data Add-on


$32.00 plus $0.0195/KB or approx $0.30/e-mail, $19.50/website visited, $2.93/foursquare check-in. Or $199.99/month for 200 MB of data with standard rates to apply after 200 MB.

Text messages


Incoming included, $0.75/message for outgoing or $9.99 for 100 Intl Outgoing messages


According to a study done by Validas on, the average iPhone user uses 273 MB data/month, Blackberry 54 MB/month and 150 MB/month for all other smart phones. That equates to data add ons of $5,323.50 extra for an iPhone, $1053 for BB and $2,925 for all other Smart Phones.  That’s a slippery slope and not something I want to fall into accidentally.  If you are a short term traveler, or are not going to be in one specific area of the world for more than a month, this may be a viable option, but in my opinion, it’s not that great.  When I traveled with my Treo 650 about 2 years ago, I came home from a 2 month stint in Europe with a $350 cell phone bill. Contrastly, I’ve been in Ireland for 2 months and have spent $0 in addition to my normal iPhone plan and have shelled out about $50 for a local Irish cell phone #.

Option 2: Bring a cheapo SIM unlocked phone and use on any GSM network abroad

This, in my opinion is the best option for most users.  Basically how this works is you bring along a cheap SIM enabled (ask your carrier if your phone is SIM – I believe only Sprint and T-Mobile in the US still do not use SIM cards) phone and when you arrive in a specific country, you buy a prepaid SIM card for that country.  For example.  I have a Samsung SGH-J700i slider that I bought for $25.  When I arrive in a country, I walk into the first mobile Carphone warehouse store (one that sells plans on multiple carriers) and I ask for the cheapest pre-paid SIM card.  They will usually let you start out with about $10-20 credit which will get you about  200 text messages or cell phone minutes.  Most of my minutes actually count mobile to mobile (as I’m calling people on my network, O2) and so most of the time you end up getting a lot more than that.

With a SIM unlocked phone, you can switch out your SIM card every time you go to a new country and, although you have to get a new number each time, you can remain relatively free of the traditional contractual charges from your home-based cell plans.  It’s also pre-pay, so there’s no real chance of you going way OVER your allotted usage.  Save all of your phone calls to back home for Skype (a free internet based service that allows you to call other computers for free, or unlimited calls to landlines and cell phones in a certain country for $5/month.

If you have an iPhone, your ability to make even more cheap phone calls increases with a combination of Google Voice and Skype for iPhone.  If you’re interested in learning more about that, take a look at the post I wrote on setting up an iPhone for international usage. HOWEVER, the iPhone (although SIM enabled) is NOT unlocked and can only be unlocked by Jailbreaking it (a process I do not necessarily recommend) so do NOT think you can switch out your iPhone SIM card for a local version.

In Summary

Buy an unlocked SIM enabled cell phone at home (if you don’t already have one) and when you arrive in your first destination, pop into the first Carphone Warehouse you see (or equivalent) and buy a prepaid SIM card. Use this phone for making travel arrangements and contacting any friends you meet locally. Save the long boring phone calls to Aunt Milly back home for Skype.

Reader Comments (6)

I'm so glad my iphone is unlocked. It allows me to bring my favorite toy with me and not some elcheapo thing I'll hate to use.

@Chris - I hate you Aussies and your unlocked iPhones. I met someone a couple days ago with one and I hated her instantly. My poor baby iPhone will forever be locked and doomed and I'm so sad about it. Maybe I'll just buy one while I'm there....... hmmm.......

March 5, 2010 | Registered CommenterAbbey Hesser

I highly recommend unlocking your iPhone. It takes about 10 minutes and is fully reversible. Data is often pretty cheap on the road as well, depending on where you go of course.

I travel with an iPhone 3G (unlocked) and another phone (Palm Centro) as a backup for my shadier destinations.

Why o why does everybody always forget about android? There are some android phones on the market that are way better than the iPhone, and they are unlocked!

That being said, how easy do you think it is to get a dataplan in every county? I wouldnt want to miss out on mobile internet :( google maps always saves my ass!

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElke

OH man, I so so so want an unlocked iPhone. I'm going with Option 2 in the meantime, though. T-mobile was kind enough to unlock my phone with them.

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

As much as I would love to have access to a phone overseas, especially to call my girlfriend while I am traveling, I am going unplugged. My only form of communication home will be my netbook and skype. Its much cheaper to have free computer-to-computer access on skype with a webcam and purchase a year of VPN for those pesky blocking countries than it is to deal with a cell phone.

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

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