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Tips for Using Your Cell Phone Overseas

What's worse: The fact that your phone is rendered useless in Europe, or the fact that your phone worked fine—but then the giant bill arrived?

Bad news, world travelers: You may love your BlackBerry, but it may very well be useless overseas, except as a brick that weighs you down. When it comes to international travel, cellular service is a complex beast loaded with confusion, acronyms and geekspeak. Let’s boil it down to the basics, so you won’t make a costly mistake next time you touch down at De Gaulle.

Unlike most other countries, the United States has more than one dominant cell phone standard. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology (and its successors), while AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, which is the dominant standard worldwide. Although pockets of installation exist in most countries, CDMA is popular only here and in Canada, Mexico and a few other random places (including India, Israel and most of the Caribbean). The standard is virtually nonexistent in Europe, so save yourself some trouble and plan to leave your Verizon or Sprint handset at home.

Got an AT&T or T-Mobile phone? You’re still not in the clear, as GSM operates on different radio bands in different places. In the U.S., GSM uses the 850MHz and 1900MHz bands, while Europe and Asia normally use 900MHz and 1800MHz bands. It sounds like a minimal change, but trying to use an America-only GSM phone in Europe is like trying to hear your favorite radio station by tuning in to the wrong end of the dial.

So, will your phone work in Europe? The best way to find out for sure is to check with your carrier: The AT&T Wireless Web site, for example, has a handy configurator that lets you type in your phone model and the names of the countries you plan to visit, then spits out a country-by-country itinerary of where you can get voice and data services on your phone, as well as the cost for both.

Take a look at that price list, though, and you may have second thoughts: International roaming is expensive, and calls overseas can hit $3.49 per minute and up. Even the lowest common rate available in the bigger European countries is $1.29 a minute, which is still practically highway robbery. And no matter where you go, don’t even think about using your domestic plan’s data features overseas: Downloading a single Web page will often run you $10.

Fortunately, cheaper solutions abound. If your carrier tells you that your phone is compatible with European networks, then you can buy a prepaid SIM card after you touch down. SIM cards—available anywhere cell phones are sold, as well as at many general merchandise shops—can be preloaded with credit, then used until the money runs out. Rates vary based on the carrier, the total value of the card and which countries you’re calling, but you’ll pay less than 50 cents a minute for most calls.

How about nonvoice options? Many SIM cards include an allotment of free text messages, too, but standard data rates for email and Web browsing will cost you. Data is still expensive, but much less than with a U.S. plan: Figure on paying about $2.50 for that Web page instead of $10. Your best bet in Europe is to forgo cellular data altogether and find a Wi-Fi connection instead.

You can also buy overseas SIM cards before you leave town from outfits like Telestial (telestial.com), but expect to pay a bit more per minute on average than with a card that you purchase at your destination.

Another option is to buy another phone overseas. A cheap phone for use with your European SIM card shouldn’t cost more than $30 or so. Phones are also available for rental overseas, but with ultracheap phones available for purchase, they aren’t cost-effective unless your trip is extremely short.

For a higher price, you can also buy or rent a so-called world phone at home and take it with you. All carriers—including Verizon and Sprint—offer phones that will work on the road. Phone prices are comparable to standard domestic phones, but remember that you’ll still pay those higher rates for calls and data. Phone rentals run about $4 a day for a standard handset, more for a smartphone like a BlackBerry.

Four great world phones

Want a single phone to use at home and abroad? Check out these top world phone options that will work just about anywhere—but don’t forget to invest in a SIM card in your destination country to keep call and data rates down.

Apple iPhone 3G

Most iPhone buyers don’t realize that the 3G model is a world phone. Just remember to call AT&T to have international roaming disabled before your trip. If you want to sub in a foreign SIM card, push a straightened paperclip into the hole on top of the handset to eject your AT&T SIM card.

$199 AND UP (WITH SERVICE PLAN), APPLE.COM

Sony Ericsson W760a

This sleek Sony slider offers true multiband network access and features Sony’s top-notch media player. If you buy it with an AT&T service plan, it’s as cheap as a penny (via Amazon).

$225 (UNLOCKED), SONYERICSSON.COM

Iridium 9505A

For a very small class of users, ensuring connectivity from anywhere is more important than style, price or the possibility that the carrier’s satellites may smash into Russian space debris (which actually happened earlier this year). Carriers like Verizon rent them for $75 a week. If you actually want to own an Iridium, it’s best to shop for used models.

$1,450 (PRICES VARY WIDELY), IRIDIUM.COM

RIM BlackBerry Bold

The latest BlackBerry (at least, the latest with actual buttons) works everywhere from San Francisco to St. Petersburg right out of the box. A service plan will get you a steep discount on the phone: about $150 after subsidy

$500 (UNLOCKED), BLACKBERRY.COM

CHRISTOPHER NULL is a technology writer and blogs for Yahoo! Tech.


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