International Cell Phone Service

If you're buying an international 'world phone' be sure it operates in
all three bands and is 'unlocked' to allow it to work with any service
provider in the world.

Part 1 of a 7 part series - click for Parts One Two Three Four
Five Six Seven

For most of us, as soon as we leave North America, our cellphone
switches from being an essential business tool to a useless piece of
junk, due to incompatibilities between the American cellphone system
and the GSM system almost universally adopted elsewhere in the world.

This week we talk about how to get a cellphone that will work
everywhere in the world. In part two we talk about the most affordable
way to get inexpensive airtime as you roam around the world, including
a strategy that will allow you unlimited free incoming calls, and in
part three we offer a strategy that gives you one number that will
work anywhere in the world. Part four summarizes the four different
options you have for getting cell phone service internationally and
helps you to choose which is best for you, while part five helps you
choose the best type of phone for service in the countries you travel
to. Lastly, part six showcases a very low cost solution for
infrequent international travelers.

Why Aren't All Cellphones Compatible?

There are two answers to this question. First, there are various
different types of radio frequencies and encoding services which
different cell phone services use - and if your phone doesn't receive
the frequency and encoding of the local service, it becomes, of
course, useless.

The second problem is a commercial problem - your phone will only work
on other companies' services if there is a cross-billing (ie roaming)
agreement between the companies. Roaming is common within the US, but
becomes more problematic internationally. We talk about roaming in
part two of this series.

To get cellphone service in another country you need both a compatible
phone and a compatible account. You can either buy or rent a
cellphone, either in the US or overseas, but be sure you get one that
will be compatible internationally in the countries you plan on
traveling to (see part six). And you have several different ways of
getting airtime as well. Read on for an explanation of all these
issues and suggestions on the best way to get a phone working.

Frequency and Compatibility Issues

The good news is that almost everywhere in the world (except for the
US and Canada) uses GSM type digital cellphone service. This service
was originally at a frequency of 900 MHz and now increasingly is being
upgraded to an 1800 MHz service. If you have a GSM phone, in theory
you can access service in 212 different countries! (As of Nov 04)

By contrast, in the US, most digital cellphone service is both of a
different type (CDMA or TDMA, or, in Nextel's case, iDEN) and a
different frequency as well!

There's some good news and bad news, however. First the good news :
Recently, several carriers have started introducing GSM type phone
service in the US. Now for the bad news : Sadly, this GSM service is
in a different frequency band to the rest of the world - 1900 MHz
instead of 1800 (and 900) MHz. And there is no way that a 1900MHz
phone will work at 1800 MHz (or vice versa). Frustrating, isn't it!

Note that not all other countries use regular 900/1800 MHz GSM.
Notable exceptions include Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, and some
Central/South American countries, although there may be some limited
coverage GSM networks in these countries, and/or GSM networks at the
US 1900MHz frequency. These issues are discussed in detail in part

Multiband Phones

Some phone manufacturers (eg Siemens, Ericsson and Motorola) have
started making dual and triple band phones to enable you to have a
phone that will receive 1900MHz (and sometimes 850MHz) in the US and
either or both of the international frequencies as well.

This is a wonderful solution if you want one phone to work both
locally and internationally. If you are going to choose one of these
phones, it is very strongly recommended that you get a triple band
phone that includes both the international frequencies as well as the
two US frequencies. Murphy's Law being what it is, if you get a phone
with only one of the two international frequency bands, you'll surely
end up in black spots with no service much more frequently than if
you'd bought a full triple band phone.

So - bottom line summary : You need a 'tri-band' or 'quad-band' GSM
phone that operates at 900/1800/1900MHz for maximum compatibility.

Dual Band Phones

This is an ambiguous term. It might mean a phone that has both the
international frequencies (900/1800 MHz), or it might mean a phone
that has one international frequency plus the US frequency (ie
900/1900 MHz).

A dual band 900/1800 MHz phone works well everywhere except the US,
where it is useless.

A dual band 900/1900 MHz phone works perfectly well on the US GSM
network, and on most (but not all) of the international GSM network.

Triple Band Phones

These are better. The cover either both international frequencies plus
one US frequency, or both US frequencies and one international

Most modern phones are tri-band. We recommend you should choose a
tri-band rather than dual-band phone.

A Warning about 'Triple Band' phones

Now that the US is using two frequencies for GSM service (see the next
section on Quad band phones) some phones are being sold as triple band
phones which feature both US GSM frequencies and only one of the
international frequencies - the 1800 MHz band.

Unfortunately, the 1800 MHz band is less commonly used than the 900
MHz band in the rest of the world. This makes these types of triple
band phones not as useful as a triple band phone with both
international frequencies while traveling out of the US.

If you're buying a triple band phone, make sure you understand which
three bands it includes.

Quad Band Phones

Aaagh! The GSM providers in the US are now (late 2003) starting to
'recycle' some earlier frequencies that were first used for the
original analog cell phone services almost 20 years ago.

These frequencies are in the 850 MHz band. The benefit of this band
is that cell sites can have slightly longer range with the lower
frequency than they do with the higher 1900MHz, which makes them
useful in rural areas.

This makes sense for them, but really complicates matters for the
handset manufacturers, and for us as handset purchasers.

And so, if the service providers continue to develop their 850 MHz
cells, it will be necessary for US-only phones to be dual band
(850/1900 MHz) and for full international compatibility, they will
have to be quad band (850, 900, 1800 & 1900 MHz).

There are only a few quad band phones currently for sale.

US GSM Service

If you want a phone that will work in the US as well as
internationally, you'll need to sign up with a carrier that provides
GSM service in the US.

The three major suppliers of GSM service in the US are currently
T-Mobile, AT&T and Cingular. Note that the merger between AT&T and
Cingular has now been essentially completed, and so for new service
your choice is essentially either T-Mobile or Cingular.

Nextel is thought to possibly also provide some GSM service. Other
carriers that exist in small parts of the US can be found listed on
this site (make sure the listing on the page refers to a carrier with
current GSM service!).

Do You Really Want One Phone for Everywhere?

It sounds like the perfect solution - one phone that works everywhere
in the world. But if you decide this is what you want, you'll probably
find that the GSM network in the US is much more limited than the more
established networks of the pre-existing major TDMA and CDMA network
operators, and fewer service plans from fewer suppliers.

Maybe it is better to have a phone with one of the major established
services for the US and a second, separate phone, to use when

Locked or Unlocked?

If you're buying a phone, it is very desirable that it be 'unlocked' -
this means that it will allow any SIM (SIM's are explained next week)
from any service provider, anywhere in the world to be used in it.

This is one of the magic features of GSM. All your account information
is in this replaceable SIM - to change carriers, you simply change SIM
cards - but only if the phone allows you to do this.

Obviously, many phone companies hate to make it easy for you to ever
use another carrier's service! For this reason, it is disappointingly
common that some phone companies will electronically 'lock' the cell
phone you buy from them and restrict it to only work with SIMs they
supply. Try never to buy a locked phone, because you truly are then a
captive of that phone company.

Of the three GSM services in the US, AT&T stubbornly does not provide
unlocked phones - their supposedly 'global' phones will only work if
you're prepared to use your US AT&T phone account and pay their very
high international roaming rates.

Some Cingular phones are now sold unlocked. Others are claimed to be
unlocked, but, alas, prove to be locked. And others are sold locked.
Some people report being able to subsequently persuade Cingular to
unlock locked phones, but generally they have no success at this.
Buying a locked phone from Cingular would seem to be a poor choice,
due to the uncertain nature of ever getting it unlocked.

T-Mobile has the fairest policy - they will unlock your phone 90 days
after you've activated service, and it is a quick simple process to
arrange this to happen. Apparently they only will unlock one phone
per account.

For this reason, you should preferentially buy phones from T-Mobile,
never from AT&T and preferably not from Cingular. At the time of
writing (Aug 04) T-Mobile also seemed to have the best plans and range
of added value services.

If you already have a locked GSM phone, or if you want to buy a phone
from AT&T and/or Cingular, this page tells you how we can unlock many
types of phones for you, quickly and easily, from only $5.00.

Where to Buy a Phone

Tri-band phones are available from about $100. A good one costs little
more than $200, and the top of the line, ultra-deluxe unit complete
with color screen, can be had for about $500. Prices are of course
cheaper if you buy the phone together with new phone service. You
have four main ways to buy a phone.


You can buy a phone together with a service plan from a US
carrier such as T-Mobile - the advantage of doing this is that the
phone will probably be discounted below the normal selling price. Of
course, you'll also have to sign up for a year or more of service. In
addition, make sure that the phone is not 'locked' (or that you can
get the phone unlocked subsequently).

You can buy direct from the manufacturer - check out their
websites. This is usually the most expensive option.

You can buy on eBay - amazing values can be found on eBay - go
to this page for a current list of auctions. At the time of writing,
eBay were listing 1200 different GSM phone items and accessories for
sale! If buying on eBay, all the usual cautions apply, of course - buy
from sellers with positive feedback and pay by credit card.

You can buy from a specialty supplier. Three good suppliers are
Planet Omni, Telestial (I've used Telestial and been very pleased with
their service) and WorldCell.

Mobal offer very inexpensive GSM phones (as little as $49)
complete with bundled service through their provider.

You can buy while overseas - but in such a case, you may not be
able to conveniently research the phone alternatives open to you, and
most likely, the phone will not then be also compatible in the US. You
might also find yourself spending substantial amounts of your travel
time attempting to arrange this purchase, it may be several days
before you succeed, and you may end up paying more than you would for
the same phone in the US.

Phone Rental

Maybe you just want to rent a phone? Count on a minimum rental cost of
about $75-100, even if only for a week, and you may be required to use
a more expensive carrier for calls as well with a rental phone. For
the cost of only one or two rentals, it is much easier to buy your own

AT&T also rent phones (as well as sell locked GSM phones and GSM
service), but the representative I spoke to told me that they only
rent phones to their existing customers, and the process seemed to be
incredibly complex and unwelcoming. Other companies also provide phone
rental service, including Planet Omni and WorldCell.

AT&T have one other option that might be of interest, but seems to me
to be pretty pricey. Their Wireless WorldConnect Service rents you a
SIM that enables calls to your normal AT&T (non-GSM) cellphone to be
redirected to any GSM phone in participating countries into which
you've placed the AT&T SIM.

Things to Look for in a Phone

In addition to ensuring that the phone is a tri-band (900/1800/1900
MHz) GSM phone, there are several other things that you should check
for :


The battery charger must be 'dual voltage'. It needs to operate
on all voltages from about 110V to 240V and on frequencies between

The phone needs to be unlocked so it can operate with any SIM,
anywhere in the world (we can unlock many phones for you)

Try and get a phone with a Lithium-Ion type battery - these are
much better than the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries. And definitely do
not get a phone with an old fashioned Nickel-Cadmium battery.

Cell Phone Driving Laws

Different countries, including parts of Canada, all of Britain, and
some states within the US, have different laws that may restrict your
ability to use a cellphone while driving an automobile. Here's a handy
list of countries/states and any restrictions that might exist on your
cellphone use. Getting in trouble with foreign police is never
pleasant - it pays to know this information.

Continued ....

Hopefully, after following through this, you're ready to buy a phone.
In Part Two we'll talk about how to get connected overseas at the
lowest cost, and in part three we offer an alternate strategy to give
you a single phone number that works everywhere in the world. Part
four summarizes the different ways to get cell phone service
internationally and helps you choose which is best for you. Part five
discusses in detail which frequency bands you need your phone to have,
and part six reviews another single number world phone service,
similar to that in part three.

"Until last October, Christ had a very limited involvement in my life. I believed in God; I just never had to prove I believed. Belief is an absence of proof."
-- Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling

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