How to travel abroad with your cell phone, and spend next to nothing

How to travel abroad with your cell phone, and spend next to nothing

So you’re going away on that vacation that you’ve always dreamed about. Wonderful. Lucky you!

One thing that’s really important for you is taking your mobile phone along. After all, you need to stay in touch with the office, or the kids, or all your friends on Facebook. But the cost is frightening. People you know have returned from similar trips with Roaming Charges of $1,000 or more!

And you don’t want to rent a phone when you get there. For one thing, the phones they rent are just “plain old phones” - no camera, no iMessage. All your contacts are missing and it won’t connect to your email. Why would you want to do that?

Plus, what if you’re traveling to more than one country? You can’t rent a new phone every time you travel. That makes no sense either.

Here’s what most travelers do: they buy a “travel package” from their mobile carrier. For $100 (or something like that) they get the ability to make 50 minutes of phone calls, and use 100MB of data. The problem is that many of us can blow through that in a couple of days. You can spend more, and buy a larger package, but in the end you may wind up spending almost as much as roaming without a package.

There’s a much better solution. Get your phone unlocked.

All of the Canadian mobile carriers and several of the U.S. carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Cincinnati Bell and others) use the GSM standard. All GSM phones have a “SIM” card which is what contains your phone number and other identifying information. If you change your SIM card, you can get service at local rates anywhere in the world.

The problem is that most GSM phones are “carrier locked.” This means that your mobile carrier has arranged with the phone’s manufacturer to lock it down so that it will only work with SIM cards supplied by that carrier.

The good news is, that it’s usually pretty easy to get your phone unlocked. In Canada, your carrier will usually unlock it for $50. Or if you’re feeling adventurous and as long as it’s not an iPhone, you can usually buy an Unlock Code (with instructions) on eBay for somewhere around $20. Unlocking your phone will not damage it in any way, nor will it void the warranty. In fact, the only thing it does is allow you to use any SIM card.

Once you get to your destination, ask where you can buy a local SIM card. In many countries you can purchase them at local convenience stores. In other places, you may have to go to a phone store but these are usually pretty easy to find. Most of the time, they will speak English and will have no problem helping you out. Make sure you put your original SIM card in a safe place so you’ll have it when you return home.

With a local SIM card, you can make calls at local calling rates instead of the ridiculous Roaming Rates you’ll pay if you stay with your home carrier. You can also get data plans at local rates, which means that you can check your email, surf the web and yes - even update your Facebook status - without worrying about racking up a huge bill.

And here’s an sweeter benefit: in most foreign countries, incoming calls are free as long as you have a local SIM card. So your friends and family at home can call you at low long-distance rates, and you’ll pay nothing at all.

If it’s really crucial for your original mobile phone number to reach you, you can even call-forward it to your foreign phone number. You’ll still have to pay for the long distance charges from home, but you won’t incur any mobile charges.

If overseas travel is in your plans any time soon, it’s worth your while to get your phone unlocked.