But viable money-saving options exist, and like packing for different weather conditions, they can be matched to your travel style. To understand how they work, and compare their value, I sampled the most common plans on a recent trip to China. Here’s the 411:
Your regular carrier
Background: Without going too deep into telecommunications jargon, most of the world uses GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) bands of 850/900/1,800/1,900. AT&T and T-Mobile, for instance, utilize 850/1,900; international GSM bands (except for Japan and South Korea) rely on 900/1,900. As long as your phone is tri-band (900/1,800/1,900) or quad-band (850/900/1,800/1,900) — check the box, manual or phone settings menu — you can make calls from abroad.
Advantage: As easy as dialing from your home turf.
Disadvantage: You will pay exorbitant fees for “roaming” on another network.
Experience: In China, calling the States on my T-Mobile BlackBerry cost $2.99 a minute, the charge for using the country’s China Mobile or China Unicom carrier.
Bottom Line: If you need to make a really quick call, such as “Hi Ma! I made it! Bye!,” then go ahead and use your regular plan. Otherwise, keep the phone in off mode.
Prepaid phone card
Background: The cards are ubiquitous, sold in automated dispensers at airports, bodegas, supermarkets, youth hostels, etc. You will need a cellphone that works in your foreign destination or a land line. To use, dial the access number, then follow the prompts till your call rings through.
Advantage: Cheap investment (the cards come in increments of $5, $10, $20, $50, etc.), plus simple to use and to track down.
Disadvantage: Some cards are saddled with connection and maintenance fees, among other extra costs. . . . Calling the access number on your cellphone will result in a roaming charge. . . . The per-minute rate may be higher than other services. . . . . If you buy smaller denominations (a.k.a., not much time), you’d better talk fast, or you’ll be cut off mid-sentence. . . . Card is not rechargeable and only works for outgoing calls. . . . No texting allowed.
Experience: I purchased a $10 card from MyTravelPin.com via an automated dispenser at Washington Dulles. When I arrived in China, I followed the instructions and was delighted to hear my friend on the receiving end in Los Angeles. After a breathless debriefing about my travels, I was interrupted by a voice warning me of the waning time. Josh and I were cut off after a fleeting eight minutes.
Bottom Line: Good as an emergency backup, especially if your cellphone battery dies. But not worthwhile for chatterboxes.
Local SIM card
Background: The chip, as small as a pinkie nail, fits in the back of the phone, in a small compartment tucked beneath the battery. The local SIM card is typically sold only in the foreign destination, in airports, convenience stores, telecom outlets, etc. The card gives you access to the country’s service provider, and prices and plans vary per country. (Note: Before activating your SIM card, you may need to “unlock” your phone by notifying your carrier. This could take a few days and should be completed before you go abroad.)
Advantage: You will be given a local phone number, a plus for those calling you in-country. . . . The per-minute rate is one of the lowest in the industry.
Disadvantage: To reach you, friends and family back home will have to dial an international number, including country and city codes, and pay the respective charges. . . . Understanding the different types of cards and fees can be challenging when they’re explained by a salesclerk who speaks spotty English. . . . To recharge your card, you’ll need to locate a kiosk or store that sells additional time. . . . The card is useless outside the country, and the unused balance expires once you depart.
Experience: I spotted a SIM card dispenser as soon as I entered the main area of Terminal 3 in the Beijing airport. The credit card slot on the machine, however, was taped over — not that it mattered. I had no idea how to purchase a card on my own. Fortunately, live vendors are stationed by the machines. A young woman in a dark suit explained the different plans. For instance, with the $40 China Mobile option, calls from the States to Beijing are free, and those made within the country and to the United States cost less than one cent per minute. Texting home runs 15 cents but is free to receive.
I didn’t need to make any local arrangements by phone, nor did I need to converse with anyone at length. For this reason, I chose the cheapest and simplest plan. For $23, I could call the States for about 40 cents a minute and receive calls for less than a penny a minute (same price as making local calls). Though I wasn’t able to text, I wasn’t charged for incoming messages. The card came with 50 yuan of air time, about $7.65. I used it up before even leaving the airport, notifying family and friends of my safe arrival.
Bottom Line: Best if you’re going to be in the same country for a while and need to make a lot of local arrangements.
International SIM card
Background: The global SIM card is like a satellite in your pocket, granting service in nearly every country on the map. You get a phone number, often based in a European nation, although some companies provide a second number with a U.S. area code for incoming calls from the States. A host of companies sell this product online; purchase before you depart, allowing yourself enough leeway for delivery and a practice test.
Advantage: You can basically reach out and touch someone from any far-flung location. . . . The U.S. number saves friends and family the aggravation and expense of making an international call. . . . Depending upon the supplier, you can purchase more time from your phone rather than having to go online. The plan may also feature extras (i.e., friends can send you a text message via computer) and generous expiration policies (one phone call extends the card’s life by two years).
Disadvantage: Slightly higher rates than the local card.
Experience: I purchased my chip from OneSimCard (www.onesimcard.com), a Boston-area company that sells a variety of plans starting at $29.95. I chose the $39.95 card with $10 airtime credit. For $10 more (set-up fee and one-month charge), I added to the Estonian number they provided a Washington phone number for my friends and family back home to use. (For the second number, I could have picked other cities such as Seattle, Boston or New York; an 800 number; or another country, such as Canada, France or Australia.)
The cost of incoming/outgoing calls and texts depends on the country. For China, I paid 75 cents per minute to call within the country and to the States; incoming calls on the Estonian line were free, and 20 cents via the Washington number. Receiving texts was gratis; sending one cost 40 cents. To add more time (a minimum of $25), I could go online; dial 098 and the last four digits of my credit card; or set up auto-recharge, so that time is automatically added whenever the credit drops to a prechosen level. If I needed assistance, I could directly access the help line, complimentary for the first three minutes. (And it really worked: I got Stan on the line from my hotel room in the Mongolian capital.) In addition, I could forward calls from my other phones (work, home, etc.), so that they would ring on my international model. This way, I could pretend to be at my desk or on my couch.
I made and accepted numerous calls on the international SIM card, using the phone with the casualness of sitting at Starbucks on Connecticut Avenue. (I just had to remember to type in the 001 international code.) And I received one of the biggest surprises of my trip when my phone unexpectedly rang in Mongolia. I answered it and heard an earful about the day’s events at home.
Bottom Line: Order the international SIM card if you plan to hop from country to country. It’s also ideal for travelers who prefer to make their communications arrangements before they jet off, and/or worry that family members won’t understand how to reach them in “Estonia.”