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A Voice from Afar: Phoning Home from Afar

Copyright 2005 by Michael Brochstein

There was a time, now passing before our eyes, when sending postcards during vacations was all that passed for staying in touch with family, friends and work colleagues. Only an emergency would situation would warrant use of a telephone. Modern wireless phone systems now make it easy and relatively inexpensive to stay in touch wherever one is in the world. This article will discuss cell phone use by travelers around the world as well as the use of satellite phones.

Most countries around the world now have cell phone networks. Some only cover cities and larger towns while others cover virtually every square inch of a country. In order to use the cell phone network of another country one needs a cell phone that can communicate using that country’s cell phone network and an account with one of the cell phone network providers in that country. Many cell phone network providers have agreed to support users of cell phone carriers from other countries (i.e. a British cell phone on the UK based Orange network will work in Germany).

In Europe and most of the rest of the world one technical standard dominates. It is called “GSM” (see www.gsmworld.com for more info). If one has a GSM cell phone that works in London then it is likely that this phone will also work in France as well as in most other countries in the world (i.e. Israel). It is not that there is only one cell phone provider in each country, just that all the providers have agreed to use the same technical standard so that cell phones on one provider’s network can work on the network of another provider.

In the United States, we have robust competition in the cell phone market but no one national technical standard. This means that a cell phone designed to use the Verizon cell phone network can not use the Cingular network and vice-versa. This is because Verizon’s network (which uses the “CDMA” standard) uses a different technical standard than Cingular (which uses the GSM standard).

A friend of mine with a T-Mobile (GSM) phone recently traveled to Europe was able to receive calls from people using the same cell phone number that they used back home in the US. Callers from the US called the regular cell phone number for this person and it rang on her cell phone in Europe. The caller had no idea that my friend was out of the country.

It would be great if talking on your regular cell phone all over the world was as simple as buying a GSM compatible phone locally and subscribing to a domestic cell phone provider that used the GSM standard. Unfortunately there are a few more details to explain.

There are four sets of radio frequencies, commonly called “bands” that GSM phones work on worldwide. A phone that works on two of these bands is generally referred to as a dual band phone, on three bands a tri-band phone and on all four bands a quad-band phone. In Europe the two bands that dominate (900 and 1800) do not overlap with the two bands that dominate in North America (850 and 1900). A cheaper dual band cell phone bought through an American GSM based cell phone provider will probably not work on any of the common bands used in other countries.

The other key issue that needs to be considered in discussing whether a GSM phone can work on a cell phone network other than the one you bought it for is whether the phone is “locked” or “unlocked”. A “locked” cell phone is programmed to only function on the network of the cell phone provider that you brought the phone for. An “unlocked” phone can work on any network providing it operates on the frequencies (bands) of the carrier you wish to use. That is, an unlocked dual band phone bought in the US may not work elsewhere because it can not communicate on the frequencies (bands) in use elsewhere but not because it is “locked” to an American cell phone system.

The good news is that almost all GSM cell phones can be easily unlocked. Some carriers do it for free, some charge a fee, some web sites publish instructions for unlocking certain phones and some independent places will unlock a phone for a fee. An unlocked phone can still operate on the system it was originally bought for (i.e. Cingular) but will now also work on any other network that operates on the frequencies in which it is capable of operating on.

If you currently use a GSM phone then the first thing you must determine is whether your phone can transmit and receive on the frequencies / bands used in the country you intend to travel to. You can generally figure out which bands your phone operates on by consulting your manual or the manufacturer’s website. The web site www.gsmworld.com lists which frequencies are used in most countries in the world and has coverage maps to see if where in the country you will be traveling is covered by a cell phone network.

If your phone can communicate on the appropriate bands then you need to figure out whether your carrier has a method of using your regular cell phone number in the countries you will be traveling to. I would suggest also checking the roaming fees as they can be steep and other methods discussed here of using a GSM phone internationally may be much cheaper. If your current phone and carrier support international travel and the fees are reasonable to you then you are set.

Those without a GSM phone that will work on the appropriate bands can buy an unlocked GSM phone which does work on the appropriate bands here and/or internationally. An unlocked quad-band phone will work on any GSM network as long as you have an appropriate SIM card (more later). Locked and unlocked GSM phones can be bought in many places including on Ebay. Used GSM phones that will work in most of the world can cost as little as $25 on Ebay.

All GSM phones everywhere have inserted into them (usually near the battery) a small card called a SIM card. This card has the identification information that the phone uses to give it a “personality”. One could theoretically have an Israeli SIM card and an Cingular SIM card. When one of these cards is inserted into the phone (phones only hold one SIM card at a time) then the phone becomes what the card says it is. That is, it may be an average Cingular customer in NY with a NY area telephone number or with another card, an Israeli cell phone customer in Jerusalem with an Israeli cell phone number. Seasoned travelers may buy a SIM card for each country they will be in as that is usually the way to have the cheapest cell phone rates. SIM cards for use anywhere in the world can usually be bought online in various places including Ebay.

When one rents a phone for travel internationally they are usually getting a GSM phone with a SIM card that will work in the country they are traveling to. The phone may only work on frequencies that are used overseas (a dual-band phone) and not in the US. Companies such as TravelCell rent phones such as this. Owning your own GSM phone and buying your own SIM card can usually be much cheaper than renting in the long run.

When one buys a SIM card for their own unlocked GSM phone it usually comes with a local telephone number in a particular country and some initial amount of airtime (minutes). While some SIM cards are set up for use in many countries (over 100), most are optimized price wise for use in one country. Refilling a SIM card with more airtime is usually done via the Internet, on the phone or by purchasing minutes in the country you are visiting from a variety of locations (i.e. a newspaper stand). The purchaser of additional minutes gets a card with a code that is then entered into the phone to enable additional minutes. If one is visiting a country where prices are low then buying additional minutes in that country can be inexpensive as the minutes will be priced for local inhabitants (who may not be as rich as the average American) to buy.

Satellite phones

Sometimes one is truly “off the grid” and no cell phone coverage of any kind is available. This can happen in Alaska, remote parts of the continental United States as well as in many places around the world. For someone who desires to be able to communicate with others under these circumstances a satellite phone may be the only realistic option. Satellite phones are not cheap, small or as lightweight as cell phones. They generally cost much more than cell phones (check Ebay). Airtime is also more expensive than the average cell phone.

As with cell phones, there is more than one technical standard and satellite phones built up for one can not work with the other. Each satellite system typically has its own standard. Two well known satellite systems (and satellite phone standards) are the Iridium and Globalstar systems. The Iridium system covers the entire planet while Globalstar covers a good percentage of the more populated parts of the world. Other systems cover less than that. Some satellite systems only cover a regional area (i.e. the Bgan system).

Unlike a cell phone, a satellite phone generally needs to be used outdoors where it can “see” the satellite hovering above the earth that it is communicating with. This makes satellite phones less practical to use than cell phones in cities and other populated areas.

Satellite phones can be bought just like cell phones (check Ebay) and some systems (i.e. Iridium) also have SIM cards available which contain a fixed number of minutes.

Anecdotal Experience

First please note that I have no financial interest in any of the vendors or systems mentioned in this article.

I have rented cell phones from TravelCell on a multiple of occasions and once rented an Iridium satellite phone from Outfitter Satellite and have been happy with all of these experiences. I have also been happy with purchases of unlocked GSM cell phones and SIM cards on Ebay.

More to Come,... (as of February 2006)

One way of further lowering the cost of calling home from abroad is through the use of a callback service such as the one provided by GlobalPhone Corporation. Another inexpensive way to communicate worldwide is through the use of Skype, an Internet based solution.


The Travel Insider - Lots of useful information about GSM telephones and networks.

Comments: Michael_Brochstein@MABsystems.com

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Last revision: February 15, 2006

Copyright © 2008 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.