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Set Your Cellphone on Cheap

April 15, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

The call was on a cellphone coming from the Daintree Rainforest north of Cairns, Australia. The quality was excellent, but I worried that it was costing the caller a fortune.

"No, only 27 cents a minute," said John DiScala, publisher of the travel website. It could have been much worse.

Business travelers in the U.S. are accustomed to flipping open their cellphones, and with free domestic roaming it's inexpensive to call from almost anywhere. But if you are traveling to a foreign country, your cellphone might not work, and if it does the calls could be very expensive.

Before an overseas trip, the first task is to learn the language -- not of the country you are visiting -- but of your cellphone.

Cellphones in the U.S. operate on two different technologies. The dominant technology is CDMA (code division multiple access), which is used by Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless. The other one is GSM (global system for mobile communications). Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile USA are two of the largest GSM cellphone providers in the U.S.

If you already have a GSM cellphone, you're one step ahead because 70% of the world uses cellphones on a GSM network. A CDMA system works in some foreign countries, such as Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Israel and Venezeula, but in most other places you'll have to take some extra steps to stay connected.

If your current phone is not on GSM, consider upgrading to one that is, says Ed Perkins, author of "Business Travel When It's Your Money." There are GSM phone networks even in parts of the world where CDMA is the dominant technology. See and click on GSM roaming for coverage maps.

Having a phone that works where you're going means that you get to pay international roaming charges, which vary widely depending on your cellphone provider and destination. For instance, in Britain, Cingular costs $1.29 a minute, plus taxes, for incoming and outgoing calls, while Sprint is $1.50 a minute and T-Mobile charges 99 cents.

Cingular does offer an international roaming plan called World Traveler, but the cost per minute is still high: 99 cents for London, for example, plus $5.99 a month.

Another chore, whether you're a GSM or CDMA user, is that you must ask your cellphone provider to enable international roaming before you leave. For GSM users, another option is to buy a prepaid subscriber identity module, or SIM, card that allows you to talk for a certain number of minutes overseas.

"If you're making a lot of calls, your best bet is to pick up a pay as-you-go phone or [a new] SIM card," says Paul Jackson, a telecommunications analyst at Forrester Research in Amsterdam.

The SIM card is an electronic chip that stores information and hides under the battery of many GSM cellphones.

To reconfigure your cellphone, you must replace the SIM card with one that is programmed with a local number overseas and prepaid minutes for calling. There are numerous sources online that sell SIM cards. One example: Santa Monica-based Cellular Abroad ( offers a SIM card for Britain that costs $49, with unlimited free incoming calls and a rate of about 8 cents a minute for calls to the U.S. You can also purchase SIM cards at many airports. Most SIM cards have a shelf life of as long as six months.

Installing a SIM card takes only a few minutes, but first you must get your cellphone company to "unlock" the current SIM chip. If they don't cooperate, try, which can remotely unlock many phones for about $25.

Another option is to rent a GSM phone from your carrier to use overseas. These rentals can cost as little as $29 a week for a low-end phone, plus the cost of a prepaid SIM card.

The globetrotting DiScala travels with a bag of SIM cards. When he enters a country, he slips the appropriate card into his GSM phone and e-mails the phone number to people with whom he needs to stay in contact.


Business Itinerary appears every Saturday. Contact James Gilden at

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