Ask Deemable Tech: Can I Use My Cell Phone In Another Country?

Aug 29, 2013

You've got your passport and your traveler's cheques packed, but what about your phone?
Credit Andrew Catellier / Flickr

Ric asks, "I’m taking a trip to Costa Rica soon, and I need a simple phone to use while I’m there. I know very little about cell phones. What sort of phone should I buy for international travel, and what do I need to know to make sure it will work before the trip?"

Finding the right phone for international travel can get complicated and expensive in a hurry. Whatever you do, don't just take your normal phone to Central America and start racking up roaming charges. They start at ridiculous and go up from there. If your phone even works there, that is.

You see, there are two main types of cell networks worldwide: GSM and CDMA. GSM is the worldwide standard while CDMA is most common in the US. So you really want a GSM phone, specifically a "quad band" GSM phone. A "quad band" GSM phone will work on just about any cell network in any country. One such phone is the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5 also supports quad band... providing you bought yours in Europe.

The type of network your phone is compatible with is determined by the carrier you bought it for. The US carriers that use GSM are AT&T and T-Mobile. Sprint and Verizon use CDMA. LTE networks are basically all completely incompatible with each other (which is why American iPhone 5's will most likely not work in another country). Once you have a quad-band GSM phone, you will need to buy an international SIM card so you can make calls without racking up astronomical roaming charges.

Now, if this all sounds complicated, that's because it is. Don't fret, though, because there's a simple trick to finding a phone that is guaranteed to work cheaply in the country you are visiting: wait until you get to Costa Rica, and buy a phone there. When you arrive in Costa Rica, go to the local mobile store and buy the cheapest prepaid cell phone you can find. We bet there will be one you can buy for under $30 (US dollars). Whatever you do, don't buy a phone or SIM card at or near the airport, because prices are almost always much higher there. Once you get out of the airport, ask a local to point you to a good, cheap store.

Of course, you won't be able to call your folks in Sarasota on your el cheapo Costa Rican prepaid phone, Ric. But there's an easy solution for that, too. You can use the popular Internet telephony software Skype to call real phone numbers, anywhere in the world. It's not free, but it's very cheap. Before you leave, buy some Skype credit, download the Skype app for your smartphone, and take it with you to Costa Rica. Then when you're on Wi-Fi, just login to Skype and call home like normal!

In general, buying a cheap phone in the country you will be visiting is a good plan, and pretty foolproof. However if you expect to be traveling to multiple countries, or you need to call other countries while you're there and you won't have consistent access to Wi-Fi, you need an unlocked, quad-band GSM phone and an international SIM card. You can buy prepaid international SIM cards from companies like Telestial and OneSimCard for under $50. Just remember, you'll need a phone to match.

To sum up, if you absolutely have to make a lot of international calls while you're there, you'll need an unlocked, quad-band GSM phone such as the iPhone 4S and an international SIM card. If not, you can just buy a cheap prepaid phone once you land.

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