International Cell Phones & Data

Spend time on your trip having fun, not trying to find an internet connection

My last article covered a few travel tips for Wi-Fi and access to electricity.  This week I want to focus on cell phones.  As an infrequent international traveller, I had a bit of an education on my recent trip to Costa Rica.  Fortunately, power is the same there so I didn’t need to buy adapters.  But the same was not true for my cell phone.  International cell phone companies are frequently different than domestic carriers.  You have to do your homework to be ready to go when you hit the ground.  Here are a few tips to make that easier.

There are two types of cell phones used here in the states – GSM and CDMA.  That’s the underlying radio technology used to connect your phone to the cell tower.  Of the big carriers, Verizon and Sprint are CDMA based, while AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM based.  The two types of phone are not interchangeable at all, although there are “world phones” that have both CDMA and GSM built in.  Cell phones internationally are almost exclusively GSM based, with a few exceptions.  So you need to check to see what kind of coverage is available in your destination to find out if your phone will work at all.

Additionally, there are four different frequencies of GSM phones available, specifically 850, 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz.  If your phone is quad band, then you’re covered, as most world phones should be.  If you have a dual or triple band phone, then you need to check that the frequencies line up for your destination, or considering renting a phone from your cell provider.

If your phone will work where you’re going, then you can simply purchase a pre-paid SIM card when you get there and load it.  Boom – you’re all set with a temporary new number in that country.  Almost.

GSM phones are typically sold for a particular carrier and are “locked” to that carrier.  You can get an unlock code from your provider, which you will enter when you turn your phone on with the new card.  Be sure to get this before you leave so that the SIM card dealer where you’re going can help you make the switch.  If you’re on a contract-free provider (Such as Simple Mobile, which uses T-Mobile’s network) then you will need to purchase an unlock code from a third party.  If you want to keep your number with you when you go, then you’ll need to contact your carrier to get details on roaming coverage agreements in your destination country, which tend to be expensive.

Assuming all goes according to plan, you can now make calls.  But what about data?  A 2G connection should be available over the cell network as described above.  However, if you’re getting a prepaid SIM, make sure they help you enter any server addresses necessary to make the data connection work.  (I learned that the hard way!)  3G data poses yet another hurdle.  In Europe 3G uses yet another frequency for data – 2100 MHz.  And if you’re used to 4G HSPA+ speeds in the US, or 4G LTE, you can pretty much forget it internationally.  Many people opt to simply purchase or rent an appropriate phone for the trip if high-speed data is critical.

If this info has been helpful, or if you’re planning a trip soon, be sure to check out the online version of the article for additional details and links to coverage maps, etc.  See you online!

More resources:

Link to CNET article with more details:

Link to country map with GSM frequencies:

List of countries with CDMA coverage:

Link to a company that sells unlock codes:

Leave a Comment