Take just a passing glance at travel blogs and forums and it’s quite clear that there is a lot of customer confusion about the term “International Cell Phones”. I’ve seen many people question whether such a product exists and others even declare outright that they do not.
Clearly, international cell phones do exist and they are there to help travelers that visit more than one destination either in a single trip or through the course of a year; travelers that want a low cost way of keeping in touch when abroad.
However, there are 3 distinct types of phones which could all technically be described as an “international cell phone” and each is significantly different. Forewarned is forearmed so below we will look at all 3 types of phone and how they might be right for you so you can make the best choice when you travel abroad.
Option 1: A cell phone that roams when abroad
Many cell phones will roam. By “roam”, we mean that when you go abroad your phone will pick up a foreign network and allow you to make calls and/or use data (the internet). These calls are often charged at a significant premium and data even more so. Such a device really shouldn’t be described as an “international cell phone”. Yes, it will work internationally but it is not optimized for doing so and could easily cost you a small fortune. Please note, that roaming on a foreign network has nothing to do with unlocking a phone. A phone that is locked to, say, Verizon simply means that only a Verizon SIM will work in the phone. That Verizon SIM may, or may not, then allow you to roam into somewhere like Canada, Europe or Japan and make calls.
Option 2: A cell phone from one country which works in surrounding countries
If you were traveling to Europe you may find that a cell phone with a UK SIM inside will give you excellent rates whilst in the UK and will give OK rates when in other western European countries like France, Italy and Spain. This is a little like option 1 but instead of having a regular US SIM card inside the phone, you have a UK SIM.
Typically this solution is great if you’re staying predominantly in one country but perhaps briefly visiting others. Your phone would have a UK number and people would dial a +44 number to reach you. The UK SIM effectively roams when in other European Countries so you do still need to watch out for higher call costs especially in more unusual countries (e.g. say you used a UK SIM whilst in the US). Also check the rates to call internationally back to the US. If the product is aimed at, say, the Australian market then the calls back to Australia may be at a great rate but calls back to the US may be very expensive.
Option 3: A cell phone with a dedicated roaming SIM
A number of networks produce SIMs connected to specific international roaming plans. These tariffs are designed for travelers intending to visit multiple countries and can rightfully be called “international cell phones”. Sometimes they may be worldwide, sometimes they might be targeted at a region; Europe or South America for example. The UK networks produce some very competitive SIMs for travel around Europe and the Mexican networks produce similar products for the South American countries.
What you tend to find with these products is that while the rates aren’t as competitive as buying a local SIM in each country, they are much lower on every type of call than using your local SIM roaming (option 1). So if you are traveling to a number of countries, a solution like this is a good alternative to finding local SIMs in each country. It will also usually work out cheaper than taking a SIM for one country and then roaming in the others (e.g. when compared to Option 2: a UK SIM roaming in France).
An international cell phone like this will typically have just one phone number – so it might be a +44 number if the SIM is from a UK network or perhaps a +52 number if from a Mexican network. One must also be vigilant to check the international rates once more. Ensure that calls and SMS back to the US aren’t prohibitively high.
Finally a word on pre-pay
You may see the term “pre-pay” or “pre-paid” when looking for solutions. Essentially this just means that you must first load up an amount of credit on your cell phone before it can be used. You can then make calls until that credit runs out. The plus points are that it helps control spend – the phone just stops working when you run out of credit. The negatives are that… the phone just stops working when you run out of credit, and you have the inconvenience of constantly having to recharge it which can be both annoying and time-consuming. The alternative is a “post-paid” solution whereby you settle your bill later and just pay for what you use.