International Cell Phone Service
If you're buying an
international 'world phone' be sure it operates in all three
bands and is 'unlocked' to allow it to work with any service
provider in the world.
Part 1 of an
9 part series - click for Parts
For most of us, as soon as we
leave North America, our cellphone switches from being an
essential business tool to a useless piece of junk, due to
incompatibilities between the American cellphone system and the
GSM system almost universally adopted elsewhere in the world.
This week we talk about how to
get a cellphone that will work everywhere in the world. In
part two we talk about the most
affordable way to get inexpensive airtime as you roam around the
world, including a strategy that will allow you unlimited free
incoming calls, and in part three
we offer a strategy that gives you one number that will work
anywhere in the world. Part
four summarizes the four different options you have for
getting cell phone service internationally and helps you to
choose which is best for you, while
helps you choose the best type of phone for service in the
countries you travel to.
showcases a very low cost solution for infrequent international
seven offers you another international SIM option,
tells you all you need to know about satellite phones, and
summarizes seven different ways to get international phone
service and helps you choose the best option for you.
Why Aren't All Cellphones
There are two answers to
this question. First, there are various different types of radio
frequencies and encoding services which different cell phone
services use - and if your phone doesn't receive the frequency
and encoding of the local service, it becomes, of course,
The second problem is a
commercial problem - your phone will only work on other
companies' services if there is a cross-billing (ie roaming)
agreement between the companies. Roaming is common within the
US, but becomes more problematic internationally. We talk about
roaming in part two of this series.
To get cellphone service in
another country you need both a compatible phone and a
compatible account. You can either buy or rent a cellphone,
either in the US or overseas, but be sure you get one that will
be compatible internationally in the countries you plan on
traveling to (see
part six). And you have several different
ways of getting airtime as well. Read on for an explanation of
all these issues and suggestions on the best way to get a phone
Frequency and Compatibility
The good news is that almost
everywhere in the world (except for the US and Canada) uses GSM
type digital cellphone service. This service was originally at a
frequency of 900 MHz and now increasingly is being upgraded to
an 1800 MHz service. If you have a GSM phone, in theory you can access
service in 212 different countries! (As of Nov 04)
Although the US and Canada
have some GSM service (in the US, offered by T-mobile and
Cingular (including the former AT&T), in Canada, by Microcell/Fido and Rogers/AT&T) most cellphone service is of a different type (CDMA or
TDMA, or, in Nextel's case, iDEN) and a different frequency as well!
Unfortunately, the GSM service
in North America is in
different frequency bands to the rest of the world - 1900 and
sometimes 850 MHz
instead of 1800 and 900 MHz. And there is no way that a
1900MHz phone will work at 1800 MHz (or vice versa). Frustrating, isn't it!
Note that not all other
countries use regular 900/1800 MHz GSM. Notable exceptions
include Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, and some Central/South
American countries, although there may be some limited coverage
GSM networks in these countries, and/or GSM networks at the US
1900MHz frequency. These issues are discussed in detail in
Some phone manufacturers (eg
Siemens, Ericsson and Motorola) have started making dual and
triple band phones to enable you to have a phone that will
receive 1900MHz (and sometimes 850MHz) in the US and either or both of the
international frequencies as well.
This is a wonderful solution
if you want one phone to work both locally and internationally.
If you are going to choose one of these phones, it is very
strongly recommended that you get a triple band phone that
includes both the international frequencies as well as the two US
frequencies. Murphy's Law being what it is, if you get a phone
with only one of the two international frequency bands, you'll
surely end up in black spots with no service much more
frequently than if you'd bought a full triple band phone.
So - bottom line summary :
You need a 'tri-band' or 'quad-band' GSM phone that operates at
900/1800/1900MHz for maximum compatibility.
Dual Band Phones
This is an ambiguous term.
It might mean a phone that has both the international
frequencies (900/1800 MHz), or it might mean a phone that has
one international frequency plus the US frequency (ie 900/1900
A dual band 900/1800 MHz
phone works well everywhere except the US, where it is useless.
A dual band 900/1900 MHz
phone works perfectly well on the US GSM network, and on most
(but not all) of the international GSM network.
Triple Band Phones
These are better. The
cover either both international frequencies plus one US frequency,
or both US frequencies and one international frequency.
Most modern phones are
tri-band. We recommend you should choose a tri-band rather than
A Warning about 'Triple Band'
Now that the US is using two
frequencies for GSM service (see the next section on Quad band
phones) some phones are being sold as triple band phones which
feature both US GSM frequencies and only one of the
international frequencies - the 1800 MHz band.
Unfortunately, the 1800 MHz
band is less commonly used than the 900 MHz band in the
rest of the world. This makes these types of triple band
phones not as useful as a triple band phone with both international
frequencies while traveling out of the US.
If you're buying a triple
band phone, make sure you understand which three bands it
Quad Band Phones
Aaagh! The GSM
providers in the US are now (late 2003) starting to 'recycle'
some earlier frequencies that were first used for the original
analog cell phone services almost 20 years ago.
These frequencies are in the
850 MHz band. The benefit of this band is that cell sites
can have slightly longer range with the lower frequency than
they do with the higher 1900MHz, which makes them useful in
This makes sense for them,
but really complicates matters for the handset manufacturers,
and for us as handset purchasers.
And so, if the service
providers continue to develop their 850 MHz cells, it will be
necessary for US-only phones to be dual band (850/1900 MHz) and
for full international compatibility, they will have to be quad
band (850, 900, 1800 & 1900 MHz).
Fortunately quad band GSM
phones are becoming more common and less expensive.
US GSM Service
If you want a phone that
will work in the US as well as internationally, you'll need to
sign up with a carrier that provides GSM service in the US.
The two major suppliers of
GSM service in the US are currently
Note that the merger between AT&T and Cingular has now been
essentially completed, and so for new service your choice is
essentially either T-Mobile or Cingular.
thought to possibly also provide some GSM service. Other
carriers that exist in small parts of the US can be found listed
on this site (make sure the listing on the page refers to a
carrier with current GSM service!).
Do You Really Want One Phone
It sounds like the perfect
solution - one phone that works everywhere in the world. But if
you decide this is what you want, you'll probably find that the
GSM network in the US is much more limited than the more
established networks of the pre-existing major TDMA and CDMA
network operators, and fewer service plans from fewer suppliers.
Maybe it is better to have a
phone with one of the major established services for the US and
a second, separate phone, to use when overseas?
Locked or Unlocked?
If you're buying a phone, it
is very desirable that it be 'unlocked' - this means that it
will allow any SIM (SIM's are explained next week) from any
service provider, anywhere in the world to be used in it.
This is one of the magic
features of GSM. All your account information is in this
replaceable SIM - to change carriers, you simply change SIM
cards - but only if the phone allows you to do this.
Obviously, many phone
companies hate to make it easy for you to ever use another
carrier's service! For this reason, it is disappointingly common
that some phone companies will electronically 'lock' the cell
phone you buy from them and restrict it to only work with SIMs
they supply. Try never to buy a locked phone, because you truly
are then a captive of that phone company.
Of the three GSM services in
the US, AT&T stubbornly does not provide unlocked phones - their
supposedly 'global' phones will only work if you're prepared to
use your US AT&T phone account and pay their very high
international roaming rates.
Some Cingular phones are now
sold unlocked. Others are claimed to be unlocked, but,
alas, prove to be locked. And others are sold locked.
Some people report being able to subsequently persuade Cingular
to unlock locked phones, but generally they have no success at
this. Buying a locked
phone from Cingular would seem to be a poor choice, due to the
uncertain nature of ever getting it unlocked.
T-Mobile has the fairest policy - they will unlock your phone
days after you've activated service, and it is a quick simple
process to arrange this to happen. Apparently they only
will unlock one phone per account.
For this reason, you
should preferentially buy phones from T-Mobile, never from AT&T
and preferably not from Cingular. At the time of writing (Aug
04) T-Mobile also seemed to have the best plans and range of
added value services.
If you already have a locked
GSM phone, or if you want to buy a phone that will be locked
when you receive it, this page tells you how
we can unlock
many types of phones for you, quickly and easily.
Where to Buy a Phone
Tri-band phones are
available from about $100. A good one costs little more than
$200, and the top of the line, ultra-deluxe unit complete with
color screen, can be had for about $500. Prices are of
course cheaper if you buy the phone together with new phone
service. You have four main ways
to buy a phone.
You can buy a phone together
with a service plan from a US carrier such as
- the advantage of doing this is that the phone will
probably be discounted below the normal selling price. Of
course, you'll also have to sign up for a year or more of
service. In addition, make sure that the phone is not
'locked' (or that you can get the phone unlocked
You can buy direct from the
manufacturer - check out their websites. This is
usually the most expensive option.
You can buy on eBay - amazing
values can be found on eBay - go to this page for a current
list of auctions. At the time of writing, eBay were listing
1200 different GSM phone items and accessories for sale! If
buying on eBay, all the usual cautions apply, of course -
buy from sellers with positive feedback and pay by credit
You can buy from a specialty
supplier. I've used
and been very pleased with their service.
Mobal offer very inexpensive GSM phones (as little as
$49) complete with bundled service through their provider.
You can buy while overseas -
but in such a case, you may not be able to conveniently
research the phone alternatives open to you, and most
likely, the phone will not then be also compatible in the
US. You might also find yourself spending substantial
amounts of your travel time attempting to arrange this
purchase, it may be several days before you succeed, and you may end up paying more than you would for the
same phone in the US.
Maybe you just want to rent
a phone? Count on a minimum rental cost of about $75-100, even
if only for a week, and you may be required to use a more
expensive carrier for calls as well with a rental phone. For the
cost of only one or two rentals, it is much easier to buy your
AT&T also rent phones (as
well as sell locked GSM phones and GSM service), but the
representative I spoke to told me that they only rent phones to
their existing customers, and the process seemed to be
incredibly complex and unwelcoming. Other companies also provide
phone rental service, including
Planet Omni and
Things to Look for in a Phone
In addition to ensuring that
the phone is a tri-band (900/1800/1900 MHz) or quad-band GSM phone, there are
several other things that you should check for :
The battery charger must be
'dual voltage'. It needs to operate on all voltages from
about 110V to 240V and on frequencies between 50-60Hz.
The phone needs to be
unlocked so it can operate with any SIM, anywhere in the
can unlock many phones for you)
Try and get a phone with a
Lithium-Ion type battery - these are much better than the
Nickel Metal Hydride batteries. And definitely do not get a
phone with an old fashioned Nickel-Cadmium battery.
Cell Phone Driving Laws
including parts of Canada, all of Britain, and some states
within the US, have different laws that may restrict your
ability to use a cellphone while driving an automobile. Here's a
handy list of countries/states and any restrictions that
might exist on your cellphone use. Getting in trouble with
foreign police is never pleasant - it pays to know this
Hopefully, after following
through this, you're ready to buy a phone. In
Part Two we'll talk about how to
get connected overseas at the lowest cost, and in
part three we offer an alternate
strategy to give you a single phone number that works everywhere
in the world. Part four
summarizes the different ways to get cell phone service
internationally and helps you choose which is best for you.
Part five discusses in detail which frequency bands you need
your phone to have, and
part six reviews another single number
world phone service, similar to that in part three.
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8 Mar 2002, last update
08 Jul 2017
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.