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Will my current phone work overseas?

The cell phone you currently use just may work overseas. If it does, you have two options, use or “roam” ‘with the service provider you already have and pay their fees or use our services and pay our fees. The big difference of course is cost. Your current carrier’s fees, in some cases, are more than 20 times more than what we offer! Here is how to find out if your phone works overseas.

Most countries in the world us the GSM standard. In the United States (as well as Canada), some carriers use GSM and some use other standards such as TDMA or CDMA. Typically, only AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM in the United States and only Fido uses GSM in Canada. Therefore, unless you have a hybrid phone from, say Verizon or Sprint that is specifically meant to be internationally (and they are rare), only with AT&T and T-Mobile do you have a chance to use your phone overseas.

However, even though your service provider is AT&T, T-Mobile or Fido, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your phone will work internationally. Here is why. While it is true that the vast majority of the world uses the GSM standard, it is also true that they use a different frequency than we do in North America. Europe, Asia (except for Korea and Japan) use the 900 and the 1800 Mhz bands while in the US, T-mobile uses the 1900 Mhz frequency and AT&T uses both the 850 Mhz frequency and the 1900 Mhz frequency. Still, a growing number of phones sold in the US and Canada also have the 900 and the 1800 GSM frequency capabilities.  How can you tell? There are several ways to tell if your phone has the international bands but you must know what model phone you have. First, check the user guide handbook that was in the box when you originally got the phone. Second, go online and search the specs for your phone (you are looking for it to have the 900 and the 1800 GSM bands) or third, call your carrier. As a rule of thumb, if your phone was one of the freebies given to you when you first signed your contract, it won’t work overseas. However, if you paid a couple of hundred dollars, along with many other features that your phone has, it will probably also be what is known as a tri band or quad band phone. One important rule to note is that even if your phone is a tri band, which obviously means it has three bands, it might not necessarily have the overseas bands that you need. There are a few, very few fortunately, handsets that have 850, 1900 but only 1800 for overseas use. While these phones MAY work in some countries with some carriers, please note that the 1800 band is a relatively newer frequency and is not the dominant frequency overseas.

Now that you have determined that your phone IS with AT&T or T-Mobile and does indeed have the 1800 and ALSO the 900 networks, your phone will automatically work overseas, correct? Wrong! If you want to use your phone with your carrier, which means that you will be billed as per their fees, you must first contact them and make sure that they enable your service for international use. There may be a fee associated with turning on the service. While you are at it, make sure you get accurate information on the per minute fees while you are overseas. Generally speaking, in the least expensive countries, fees are about $1.30 per minute for incoming as well as outgoing calls plus tax, so about $1.50 per minute in and out. For some destinations, per minute charges can be as high as $5.00 per minute.

Unless you are wealthy, not paying your bill anyway or absolutely need to retain your current cell phone number, you may be interested in finding an alternative, more cost effective approach to your cellular needs while traveling. If your phone is compatible for overseas use, with the purchase of a new SIM card, you can take advantage of much lower rates and, in almost all cases, unlimited free incoming calls. As a side note, many travelers who are not concerned about how much their carrier charges them for service are still very keen on utilizing a different SIM card for several reasons. One reason is that locals will either not want to pay to dial a US phone number or, they may be confused on how to do so. In other words, asking the locals to call to an international number to reach you won’t win you too many friends! A second reason, and this pertains mostly to the business traveler, is that having a SIM card with a local number is useful in giving the perception of having a concrete local presence. So, while there are many different reasons not to roam with your usual North American carrier, you cannot simply assume that you can simply swap out their SIM card for another one.

Carriers would much rather you use their expenses services when traveling abroad. Obviously, if you use a different carrier than them, they do not see any revenue. This is one of the main reasons that they “lock” their handsets - so that you cannot use a different SIM card. However, 9/10 you can get the carrier to unlock your phone. Simply call them up, give them the IMEI number (a serial number underneath the battery), and within a day or two they will usually give you the unlock code. You may have to “remind” them to call you or email you your unlock code. Unlocking your phone with the code is very simple. You need only to enter the code into the handset following your provider’s brief instructions.

What about if you have Verizon, Sprint/Nextel or another carrier? You are probably out of luck and you will need to either rent or purchase a handset with a SIM card. There ARE a couple of hybrid models that these carriers do offer that work internationally but they are few and far between. Additionally, some of them do not have that always important 900 band.  If you do call Verizon or Sprint/Nextel to find out about compatibility regarding using your handset overseas, BE SPECIFIC regarding where you are traveling! They may confirm to you that your phone does work internationally but, it may be that it only works in a few countries where there also happens to be CDMA or TDMA, such as the Caribbean or Mexico. Time and time again do we hear stories that the main carrier confirmed that the phone did work internationally and then it ended up not working.

The bottom line is that the majority of phones sold in the US and Canada do not work internationally. If yours happens to work internationally, it almost always makes sense to get it unlocked, get either one of our country specific or the National Geographic Travel SIM and use your phone but NOT their service!

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