Roam Around the World: How to Use a Mobile Device Overseas

For anyone who has ever been out of a local “service area” for most major mobile carriers, roaming charges can be a rude awakening. Ninety-nine cents per minute here. An extra $1.99 per minute there. It all adds up.

For international travelers, the charges grow exponentially overseas – sometimes in excess of $5 per minute, depending on the country – making your exotic business trip an expensive data nightmare. Factor in your smartphone’s automatic data search for things like email, updates or games, and you could be spending thousands of dollars on phone charges, instead of souvenirs.

So how do you touch down in Tokyo while keeping up with your friends, family and colleagues back home – without roaming into the red?

Enhance your plan. One of the simplest ways to use your mobile device abroad is to sign up for an international plan through your carrier. Adding service for specific countries or the amount of time you will be out of the United States will cost you – usually a base service fee, plus additional per-minute charges for calls or data.

However, adding overseas components to your basic plan may be cheaper in the long run, depending on the length of your trip and the amount of minutes or data you expect to use.

To SIM or not to SIM? While most of the world is savvy in the way of SIM cards, the trend has not caught on in the United States. A SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module) is a small chip that can be transferred between devices and stores data like phone numbers, contacts, or network authorizations.

When you buy a SIM card, you get a local phone number, and calling or texting to other local numbers is an inexpensive way to do business. Phoning home may be even cheaper, depending on the card, and buying a SIM is easy when you arrive in most foreign countries. It is harder to make them work unless you have an unlocked GSM phone.

What the heck is a GSM phone? There are two types of cellular network standards in North America: GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). GSM phones are the global standard while CDMAs are popular in the U.S. and aren’t generally designed for international excursions.

Many GSM phones sold in the U.S. are locked to prevent fraud. You’ll have to call your carrier to unlock the device before you travel, and to complicate matters further, know that your American GSM device might not measure up to international standards in megahertz GSM bands.

If all this has become too complicated, here’s an idea: simply purchase a GSM phone in the country you are visiting, pop in the SIM card and turn your American device off.

Want simple and easy? Try “Airplane Mode.” If you don’t want to hassle with SIM cards, CDMA vs. GSM phones, calling cards or the like, pop your device into Airplane Mode in the Settings bar and take advantage of the wonderful world of Wi-Fi!

For travelers with simple needs, this is the best option for checking email or surfing the Web. If you need to make phone calls or check messages, pop open the Skype app and dial away. Taking advantage of Wi-Fi in your device’s Airplane Mode will save you buckets of time, money and effort, provided you get a reliable connection.

Loading next article