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5 Things Cell Phone Companies Don’t Want Long-Term Travelers to Know

Written By: jeff

Posted On: April 28th, 2011

travel advice, career break travel, travel cell phone, cell phone abroad, cell phone international travel, what are unlocked cell phones, what does an unlocked cell phone mean, sim card travel, what is a sim card, world sim, international roaming, t-mobile international roaming, at&t international roaming, att international roaming, verizon international roaming

Figuring out the logistics of staying in touch while you travel are important. Luckily the spread of the internet worldwide means that you likely won’t have to go long without access. But, then comes the question, what to do about the cell phone.  Fear not! Your cell phone provider is going to have a solution for you. Here’s how the US cell phone services are going to help you, be your travel partner if you will.

  • AT&T: ¨More countries. More devices. More options.¨ Excellent! They are going to be anywhere you will be traveling! Suh-weet!
  • Verizon: ¨Go International! Bring Your Verizon Wireless Phone With You¨ Well that sounds convenient. Problem solved! Talk, talk talk!
  • T-Mobile: ¨Stay in-touch when you travel-for less¨  I smell a budget option! Easy on the wallet.

5 Things You’re Not Being Told

The only problem is they aren’t telling you the whole story.  If you fall for it, you will pay for it, literally. By the way, I tried to look up Sprint.com and SprintPCS.com from Colombia and couldn’t access the site. But, I’m sure that if I could have seen their site, it would clearly state this fact while they are trying to sell you on their international coverage. Before you make any decision about your cell phone service when you travel on your career break, I want you to read this important 4-part series. I am going to point out the information that these companies aren’t going to tell you. And, frankly, why should they? It’s not in their economic interest. Losing your contract is chump change to the money they would lose on international roaming fees and rates while you travel.

  1. You Need an Unlocked Phone to Stay on a Traveler Budget. Your Phone Is Probably Locked. There is software inside your phone that will only let it work with your contracted company’s service and roaming partners. I will explain to you the concept and how to buy and travel with an unlocked phone.
  2. It’s Way Cheaper to Go Local Than Going Global. Before you go, it sounds so nice to be able to keep your current cell phone number. It sounds so nice that your current service provider works with all these companies around the world. Don’t be fooled that going with one global provider is the answer. It’s not. I will run the numbers to show you how much you can save by getting a pay-as-you-go plan in the countries where you will be.
  3. You Don’t Need Them. They Need You. I will show you how much revenue these guys earn on their so-called ¨affordable¨ international rates.  If you say adios to them, they lose, and big! So, they are going to have an answer for every objection you raise. Be ready to rumble and stand firm.
  4. It’s Better To Have a Local Number When You Travel. When you travel, who are you going to be talking to? Probably the people in the country you’re traveling in. You may want a phone to help make arrangements, call ahead for lodging, coordinate with tour operators, etc. If you don’t have a local number in that country, no one can call you. I recently had someone coming to visit me in Colombia and she kept giving me her US cell phone number as if I was going to call her. The concept of it being an international call for me to call her when she was in Colombia seemed to escape her. No one in that foreign country will ever call you with that   foreign number.  And, if you’re keeping it so someone back home can call you easily, don’t. Teach them howto call an international number. Here’s the magic formula if you’re calling from the US: 011+Country Code+City code+Number. (011 tells the phone company that the call is going international)
  5. There are other alternatives to a cell phone while traveling. In this day and age, you can get by without a cell phone believe it or not.  Skype, iPods, email among other technologies help you stay connected even if you don’t have a cell phone. In fact, for the first few months of my career break, I didn’t bother with one. I only got one because I settled in Buenos Aires for a while and in a nesting moment, I got a cheap one, pre-paid.

Coming Up

The way you buy and purchase domestic cell phone service is NOT how you buy international service for long-term travel. Your needs are different and so too is the phone solution you need.  In this series, I will be going into detail on how you should be thinking about cell phones for your travel.  I will reinforce the above 5 points, I will give you the context, the pros and cons and the actions you need to take to figure out what is best for you, and I will run the numbers. Here are the posts in this series:

Be sure to leave your comments and questions below and I will do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction!

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28 Responses to “5 Things Cell Phone Companies Don’t Want Long-Term Travelers to Know”

  1. Sherry Ott says:

    Hey – be sure to include a last post in the series – how to use that unlocked phone when you get back to the states. Is it useless – or what options do you have then….:)

  2. jeff says:

    Good idea Sherry. I’ll add that as a bonus at the end of the series!

  3. Linda says:

    A lot of what you said applies to folk from countries outside of the US, so I hope you can give us some tips too. I used to work in telecommunications and I know exactly where you’re coming from! The competition is cut-throat and the profits are enormous. Remember that text messaging international is expensive too, and that if you have your home-country phone abroad you are paying for incoming calls too!

    Because I am based permanently in Spain I have a Spanish contracted cellphone, which is cheapest option for me here, but it is unlocked so I can change it, and I have a spare phone, also unlocked. When travelling I put a card from wherever I am in there. Right now it has an English card, so my son who is in England can text me – usually to say he’s on the computer, so get on SKYPE!

  4. jeff says:

    Hey Linda. I tried as best as possible to make the advice for anyone, not just the US. Since I know that domestic market best (being from there originally), it gave me the point to start from. Also, unlocked cell phones are much more common outside the US. So, I felt the need to back up a bit, start with the basics of unlocking. I certainly was not familiar with the concept of an unlocked phone before I started traveling. The next post might not be as much help to you. But, I hope that posts 3 and 4 will be. Given your situation, sounds like you have a lot of experience. So, please feel free to chime in and add your experience and perspective to the conversation! I agree with you on skype, great (and free!!) tool. All the best.

  5. Peg says:

    Hi Jeff. Great post. I’m really looking forward to this series. I’m going to be spending a few months in South America and was just starting to think about the whole cell phone issue. Perfect timing!


  6. Jeff says:

    Sounds great Peg. If I don’t answer your questions in the posts, be sure to leave them in the comments. And, I’ll try to get them answered!

  7. Excellent subject to write about, thanks for the info! Would love to also hear your thoughts on the recent announcement of Sprint and Google Voice integration when it comes to international travel.

    All the best,


  8. I have been traveling pretty much constantly since 2008 and never have had a cellphone. I have felt I’ve probably needed one only 2-3 times in the last three years. But if you feel like you need one, these tips from Jeff are spot on.

  9. Kelsey says:

    To be honest, I’ve never traveled with a cell phone. As a solo traveler, there has rarely been a moment when I needed one, and in those moments, I just borrowed someone else’s.

  10. jeff says:

    @Michael and @Kelsey, yes, you can definitely get by without one. It feels a little weird at first, but then you don’t really miss it.

    @Keith, I had not heard of the Google-Sprint partnership before you mentioned it. I will check into it and give my thoughts on PArt 4 of the series. Thanks for the tip.

  11. Cailin says:

    I need this guide! After my last trip my cell phone company charged me $1,300.00!!!! It’s so ridiculous and I had bought their “international” package too!
    I fought them down to a cheaper price after 3 phone calls and an email thank god. :)

  12. ayngelina says:

    I bought a phone in Chile for $30 with a $20 phone credit, when I arrived in Argentina I bought a new chip for a Buenos Aires number for $2 and I just buy time as I go. Incredibly easy.

  13. Marsha says:

    I’m really looking forward to this as I’ve paid (at times) more than my fair share of roaming charges, text msgs., etc.

  14. jeff says:

    @Ayngelina, well done!
    @Cailin and @Marsha, keep reading. More goodness coming. Let me know in the comments if your questions still aren’t answered in the posts.

  15. Burlen says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Michaela at Briefcase to Backpack told me about your series on cell phones…

    Thanks so much for the information that you have provided so far… I have Verizon with a quad band phone but of course it is locked… I leave for Iceland & UK on May 12, so I will try to read parts 3 & 4 on the road.

    I have been looking at Wireless Traveler and Mobal… Do you expect to comment on companies in that catagory? I’m thinking about getting a phone from Wireless Traveler… Do you have any comments or cautions?

    Thanks again,

  16. Theodora says:

    A useful reminder, thanks.

  17. jeff says:

    @Burlene, I was not aware of the 2 services you mentioned. So, I did a quick comparison of their rates versus a local provider. While Wireless Traveler and Mobal are still cheaper when compared to US carriers, compared to local service providers they are still much more expensive. I think I will add a post at the end of the series comparing local carriers to companies like Wireless Traveler and Mobal. My recommendation to you would be get a SIM card in Iceland and another in the UK. You will still be money ahead it appears.

  18. Don Faust says:

    Great tips – I think cell phones are over used, especially by Americans overseas – gotta tweet, gotta do this, etc. Looking forward to reading more.

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