Your US cell phone is locked. If you’re like me, you didn’t even know that. I certainly didn’t know what that really meant before I started traveling. As long as your cell phone use is primarily in the US, it really doesn’t matter. Buying a cell phone typically happens at the time you select your service provider. For whatever reason, we tend to select our service provider first, then select one of the phones they offer which are heavily discounted when we sign a long-term contract. If you don’t believe me, try buying a phone without the service in mind. The prices will shock you. But, when you will be on the road internationally for a while, the phone becomes more important than the service. Your phone will travel with you through every country. Service providers will change from country to country. So, having the ¨right¨ phone for you, is really the bigger decision. Here comes the problem. Anxious not to let you go, the US cell phone carriers turn on a little electronic switch inside your phone that prevents you from using it with any other service provider. Yes, you read that right. You bought it, you paid for it. But, the cell phone carrier keeps an electronic leash on YOUR phone. It’s locked. I find it pretty offensive that you buy this device and then if you want to go overseas and use it with another carrier, you can’t. I mean, you can’t, at least not without paying a hefty fee. The carrier in the foreign country can’t or won’t unlock the phone. Just like that your phone becomes a useless piece of junk that you’re carrying around. If you only remember one thing from this post, I want this to be it: Traveling with a locked cell phone = You’re getting ripped off for cell phone calls overseas.
Phone Technology 101: Just the Basics
Here are the 3 pieces of technology you need to know:
- GSM Phone hardware: The most widely used phone technology in the world works on GSM technology. Different countries use different GSM frequencies. But you will need a GSM phone. Preferably get a ¨quad-band¨ phone as this will have you covered wherever you are in the world.
- Phone software: I’m not talking about the user interface that you see. I’m talking about the kind of stuff that only the techs at the phone stores touch. This software contains the switch to lock or unlock your cell phone. The internal switch must be unlocked so your phone can work with whatever SIM card you put into it.
- SIM card: Sometimes called a chip, this is what you buy from the cell phone service provider. The cell phone provider’s network will recognize the SIM’s unique identifier number and grant you access to the network. This SIM recognition is what allows you to make and receive calls.
For everything to work like it should the formula is this: GSM Phone + unlocked software + SIM card = phone call freedom when you travel.
Why You Need an Unlocked Phone While Traveling Long-Term
Here’s how a normal phone call works. You dial → signal sent to tower = connection to your desired number. When you leave your coverage area, you are ¨roaming¨, ie, using a cell phone tower not owned by the your cell service provider. Here’s your call on international roaming: You dial → signal sent to tower → US cell phone carrier asks permission to use the foreign network → foreign network grants permission (roaming charge added to call) = connection to your desired number (and a long distance + normal tariff are charged too). Bottom line: The best service and access that you will have while you travel is through the local service providers. Why do you need a third-party between you and the company that actually owns those cell phone towers? When you pay a roaming fee, that money covers the contracted cost between your US carrier and the local provider. Why not go direct and cut out the middle man?
Let me ask it this way: What value is your home company giving to you while you travel?
- The ability to keep your US number? Weak!
- The ability for your family and friends to reach you without having to pay the bill? That’s an expensive way to keep in touch.
- The convenience of not having to learn about unlocked cell phones? The only convenience in that sales pitch is for the provider to keep you ignorant of your options and charge you outrageous roaming fees.
Benefits of Unlocking Your Phone Just a few reasons why you want to get unlocked and taste cell phone freedom!
- You can use your phone in any country you’re traveling in.
- You will save a ton of money.
- You will have a local number so local friends and travel providers can get in touch with you.
- You can communicate via text and SMS. In many countries, once you’ve had initial contact with someone, much more is done via text and SMS than it is calling and talking to that person
- No charge for incoming calls in many countries.
- Getting a SIM card is easy and cheap in most countries.
How to Get Yourself Unlocked
OK, brace yourself. This may not be pretty. One way or another it’s going to cost you something. Here are the various tactics you can use to get untethered and taste cell phone freedom.
- Simply cancel your contract. There are precious few ways out of any cell phone contract. However, one that you have is that you are moving outside the coverage area…literally. This will provoke the cell phone company to ask you to prove it. Here’s where it gets dicey. If you’re selling a home or leaving your apartment, you will have documentation. If you’re going to keep your place, it may get a bit more difficult. Try showing your plane ticket, letters to your utility companies discontinuing service. Try it all. I can’t guarantee that they will accept it, but they might. Also, months before you leave, start going to your neighborhood store. Get to know the sales staff and the manager. Start enquiring about their international service. And find out ¨what if¨ you want to cancel your contract. That sets in their mind that you are indeed going overseas. Then, closer to the time, go in and cancel your account.
- If you cancel your contract, do not buy another phone to take with you at that store. It will be locked. You want a clean transaction. And, one that ends your relationship with the cell phone company.
- Get your phone unlocked by the service provider. If you have an older cell phone (again make sure it is a GSM phone) and a contract longer than two years, you may qualify for the cell phone service provider to unlock your phone for a small fee.
- Hack your phone. I do not recommend this option. Honestly, it’s mostly because I do not understand all of the implications of ¨jail breaking¨ your phone. If you choose to do this, please do your homework before you go down this path.
- Go to an independent dealer to buy an unlocked phone. These guys are the best option because they likely are representing several services. You may still get the sales pitch on some great international plans they offer. Do not fall for it.
- Buy an unlocked cell phone overseas. If no one will help you domestically, fear not, you can buy a cell phone overseas. And, since you’re traveling you likely won’t be hassled about locking the phone. But, be clear that the phone must be unlocked. I once bought a phone in Argentina that, in theory, was unlocked. When I went to Chile, I found out it wasn’t. Luckily I was heading back to Argentina and got it worked out. Double and triple check this. FYI, if you are buying an unlocked cell phone in a Spanish-speaking country, the word for unlocked is ¨desbloqueado.¨
Now that you have the basics, what are your questions? Coming Next Now you know what an unlocked phone is, why you need one and how to buy one. In the next installment of the series, I’m going to run the numbers and show you why it’s cost-effective to buy your service locally, not globally.