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How to Choose an International Mobile Phone

Written by Jared on March 22, 2011

Old phone boothIn the past decade cell phones have increasingly become a valuable tool for world adventures and professionals who travel for work. Phone booths are quietly fading away and in many countries lacking landline infrastructure, cell phone use has become the norm.

Unfortunately, choosing the best phone and service carrier is complicated. There are competing technologies and service plans, making it difficult to pick the best option. This article covers choosing the right type of phone and describes the most common service options available to international travelers.

Although we’ll cover data access in another article, it is important to consider the two together. Our choice of phone and service plan is affected more by our need to access the internet than our need to make phone calls.

What We Do

For our trip to Africa we used an unlocked phone and bought local SIM cards in each country. In Australia we took a U.S. phone that was used only for data and relied on email for local communications. For short backpacking trips to Europe we’ve used our U.S. phones for voice and data, mainly for business purposes and emergencies.

For our upcoming year-long road trip to Central and South America we plan on bringing two phones, a cheap unlocked phone to use locally and a U.S. phone to use exclusively for data and incoming emergency phone calls from home.

Choosing the Right Phone

You must have a GSM phone. In the U.S. the major carriers that use GSM are AT&T and T-Mobile. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, which will not work internationally. Refer to this wikipedia article for complete international listings of carriers and their supported technologies.

Sim cardGSM phones use SIM (subscriber identity module) cards. These little chips contain your service information, namely your telephone number and service carrier. SIM cards can be removed and replaced, changing your service carrier and phone number. However this can only be done if your phone is “unlocked”.

Mobile phone carriers offer devices at discounted prices, provided you sign up for a year or two of service. These phones are usually locked, meaning you can’t use it on another network with a different carrier. If you want to change your SIM card, you need an unlocked phone. You can buy unlocked phones from your carrier for a premium (in most cases). A better option is to buy a used phone that is already unlocked, or one that can be unlocked by your service provider for free.

To further complicate your choice, not all GSM networks are alike, and not all phones will work internationally. GSM networks operate on a certain frequencies, in North America these differ from the rest of the world. 900 and 1800 MHz are common around the globe, in the U.S. and Canada you need 850 or 1900 MHz.

To solve this problem certain mobile phones support three or four frequencies. Referred to as tri- or quad-band, these phones are capable of working on any GSM network worldwide by supporting 850 or 1900 and 900/1800 MHz frequencies.

The final requirement, depending on where you’re headed, is a phone with a dual voltage charger. This allows for charging on 110 or 220 volt power.

The bottom line: The most flexible option for international dialing is an unlocked tri or quad-band GSM phone with a dual voltage charger.

Choosing the Right Phone Service

The best service depends on several criteria:

  • Where are you going?
  • How much will you use your phone?
  • Who are you calling?
  • What level of convenience do you desire?
  • How much are you willing to spend?

There is no magic solution that fits all needs, you’ll have to consider what you want and research the prices for each option to come up with the best choice. Below are the three most common options for mobile service, broken down by pros and cons.

Use Local SIM Cards

This option involves purchasing a new SIM card for each country you visit. SIM cards are cheap, usually under $20 and can be used on a pay-as-you-go plan.


  • Making local calls is very cheap.
  • You can use calling cards for international calls.
  • Incoming calls are free in many places.


  • Your number changes when you replace your SIM.
  • Your phone must be unlocked.
  • People calling you from home will have to pay international fees.
  • Pay-as-you-go involves pre-loading money, which is inconvenient for frequent use.

the evolution of mobile phones

Use Your Current Phone

If you have a GSM tri- or quad-band phone at home, odds are it will work fine internationally. This is the most convenient option, but also the most expensive.


  • Convenient, no need to change service plans or payment methods.
  • Your number stays the same.
  • People calling you from home will not have to pay international fees.


  • Very expensive! International roaming fees are outrageous.
  • Incoming calls won’t save any money.
  • Data use fees are insane, unless you sign up for a global plan. If you have a domestic data plan, disable all data transfer on your phone.

Buy an International SIM

An international SIM is cheap and the service plans are very flexible. The costs are less than using your domestic mobile phone internationally, but still far more expensive for making local calls.


  • Convenient and cheap, if you already have an unlocked GSM phone.
  • Your number will stay the same while you travel.
  • There are many plans and pricing models to choose from.
  • Incoming calls are usually cheaper than outgoing.


  • While less expensive than international roaming, making local calls is still far more expensive than using a local SIM.
  • Your phone must be unlocked.
  • Prices vary widely, keeping track of pricing tables is inconvenient.
  • People calling you from home will be charged international fees.

International Call Forwarding

Using a local SIM card is definitely the cheapest way to stay connected with a mobile phone. The major downsides are that your number changes when you swap SIM cards and your friends, family and clients are charged international fees for calling you.

International call forwarding services solve both problems. These services allow you to maintain a home phone number, and forward all incoming calls to your international phone. You will have to pay a monthly service fee, and cost per minute of use. Fortunately, these costs are small relative to international SIM long distance rates and international roaming plans.

Most call forwarding companies will allow you to maintain your account online. You can change or add forwarding numbers, monitor your usage and pay your bill at your convenience.


#2 Darren 2013-01-03 12:56
Did not know about international call forwarding.. sounds like a solution for me. Costs are reasonable and the one I researched allows you to roll over unused minutes each month. Thanks for this!

Dave - looked into sat phones once, the upshot was you need to outlay round a grand for the hardware, the data plans are stupidly expensive, but if you have the means and will be travelling well away from mobile coverage, it's still worthwhile as long as you keep usage to a minimum.
#1 Dave 2011-03-28 18:43
What about sat phones?

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