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US Cell Phones Abroad (Or Why I Love Skype)

By March 31, 2008

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How did I ever live without Skype? It's hard to cast back in distant memory to the day when I didn't have and love Skype, the way to make phone calls for this traveler. I've just made a call to the US from the Mexico cafe where I'm having early morning coffee and watching the clean up of last night's fiesta in the zocalo, and it cost me about 63 cents (and perhaps a positive sanity judgment from the few passersby: just another American talking to her computer). And had I been talking to someone else with Skype, the call would have been free.

If you´re unfamiliar with it, Skype is a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) application, of which a few exist. Download it to your computer, buy some credit, and you´re good to go with phone calls from pretty much anywhere to pretty much anywhere. Since I lug my laptop, not to mention a headphone-mike (I can be such a geek), everywhere, actually talking on my computer is no problem, silly though it may seem... hey, I´ll do a lot to save a buck. And major bucks are what international cell phone calls can cost me.

(Major disclaimer: this may be completely incorrect, but it's my understanding and I'm sticking to it.) The problems with using a US cell phone abroad are these:

  • GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones work on international bands.

  • Most US cell phones are either not GSM (quad band is best) phones, or they are locked GSM phones.

  • If you've got a locked GSM phone contracted with a US company (like Verizon), making phone calls overseas on your cell phone can be done but may be horrendously expensive because you're roaming from the US, basically (and because you're at the monetary mercy of your mercenary US cell phone company).

  • US cell phone carriers tend to lock GSM phones so that you cannot use other companies' SIM cards (Subscriber Information Module chips).

So -- to avoid those massive charges, you must have an unlocked GSM phone so you can buy SIM cards for it for other countries (sort of like using a local calling card in another country). SIM cards enabling you to make phone calls with that phone in the country you're in are available on practically every corner in some of those countries (or you can buy SIMs in advance)... but you can't always put those SIM cards in your locked US phone, GSM or not.

(Why? I dunno, but I´m assuming it´s because most US cell companies lock their phones so that you must sign over your first born and swear allegiance to the company before they'll hand over a not-so-free phone, which means you can't switch your love to any other company mid-contract without then sometimes having to buy the phone. An unlocked GSM quad-band phone, or one that works abroad with SIM cards from the local convenience store (how convenient), is not simple to come by in the US (read expensive or unavailable -- though, as once disclaimed already, my understanding of these technicalities is admittedly very limited).

I'm lucky enough to have gotten an unlocked GSM phone for free with my account through my beloved, albeit tiny, Union Cellular phone company, and I bought a Mexico SIM card for it yesterday in a Guadalajara mercado for $13 with 25 minutes worth of in-country calls. I can buy more minutes (with subsequent minutes becoming much cheaper) using my credit card and the provider's system. (I have a little collection of SIM cards with leftover minutes from other countries alongside all the pocket change I always forget to spend before I leave a country. In the bad old days before I had an unlocked GSM phone, I even bought a phone in the UK and in Australia. Those are now objets de curiosity in my souvenir collection.)

Depending on where I am, though, making phone calls using Skype on my laptop, which I'm always lugging, flashpacker that I am, can be cheaper than using my cell phone and a SIM card. The drawback, of course, is that I must be near my laptop and pepared to don the aforementioned headset to talk on Skype, thus drawing the aforementioned looks. Or there´s always the old bag over the head.

If you don't have Skype yet, check it out:

Learn more about GSM phones and SIMs: Related: Backpackers, Bucks and Techno Travel - Flashpacking: Backpacking With Coin and Toys

Student Travel blog home
March 31, 2008 at 2:42 am
(1) J.A. Watson says:

If, as you say, your primary concern is cost, and you’ll “do a lot to save a buck”, you should look at the competition to Skype. They have consistently lower per-minute call charges, and NONE of them levy the “connection fee” that Skype adds to every outgoing call.




March 31, 2008 at 8:17 am
(2) kathleen says:

yeah, i should have added yet another disclaimer — skype’s the one *i* know about which works pretty smoothly on my mac and gave me free US calls, too, so I could completely ditch my landline at home. i’ll definitely look into oovoo and gizmo5 though, as i see they have a mac version — thanks!

April 3, 2008 at 10:22 am
(3) JFK in DC says:

Good news, Kathleen! If you’re traveling to Europe or Asia you may not have to lug that big laptop at all. You can buy the official 3 Skypephone just once (and it’s only about $100) and use it to make free Skype calls in the Australia, Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdon. I cover the skypephone on my site (http://www.techwishes.com) because it’s one of many cool things I’d love to have here.

January 12, 2009 at 2:13 am
(4) Linda says:

Skype now offers subscriptions. For $9.95 a month I can call landlines in 36 countries as much as I want. This also includes landlines and cell phones in the USA. If I’m not on the computer, it also allows me to forward any Skype calls to my home or cell phone with no extra cost (unless my cell provider charges me.) I won’t use Skype to call a cell phone in Europe – too expensive, I use dial around for that. 1016868

May 25, 2009 at 11:37 am
(5) Susan says:

And now that there’s an iPhone app for Skype, it’s even a greater service when you travel.

September 4, 2010 at 4:07 am
(6) alberto carrillo says:

i have a skype out plan, and as i have a US ph number, all my ph calls to any US ph number are like local calls, at no charge, ive done it form Mexico, Panama etc, to several US phones, all i needed is a wi fi connection, charges apply when i do ph calls to any other ph in the world different from US, its cheaper when calling to capital cities in the world that have been listed at the skype connection plans, and it gets expensive when calling to any other city en the same country.

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