How to use your mobile phone abroad

I understand why many people don’t pack a mobile phone when they leave the country. Aside from the high costs for international roaming, many associate mobile phones with the annoyances and stresses of day-to-day life. Nevertheless, I am a strong proponent of bringing your phone along for your trip. With a few small modifications, your phone can become a tremendous enhancement while you’re out of the country. When I travel with my friends, we usually carry two phones so we can meet if we split up. Not to mention the joy it brings to my friend Nick or my parents when I dial them from Spain at 3 in the morning. And the best part of all this? You can even avoid the painful international price-gouging that usually comes with using it.

But before you can enjoy this blissful world of cheap local calling worldwide, you’ll need to take a few simple steps to get your phone ready for travel. Here’s Gadling’s guide to using your mobile phone abroad. Follow along as we take you through the steps.


The most important part of using your phone abroad is having a model that is compatible with the worldwide wireless networks. For 95% of the world (excluding Korea and Japan) that standard is GSM. You’ll want a phone that is compatible with the GSM system. If you live in the U.S., both AT&T and T-Mobile, along with a few smaller wireless carriers, use GSM systems. Check with your provider if you’re not sure. If you have service with a GSM carrier, you’re already a step ahead, though you still need to confirm if your phone is tri-band or quad-band, which I will explain in the next step. If you are a Verizon or Sprint customer, your phone is not compatible unless you have a “world phone” – but don’t despair. You can easily purchase a cheap phone online or through a third party retailer.


In addition to a phone that works on a GSM network, different countries operate using different “frequencies” within GSM. Don’t worry about matching a specific frequency when you travel – instead make use of a phone that works across all the various frequencies. A phone that is quad-band works across all four GSM frequencies and will allow you the most flexibility. Tri-band phones will work in most situations, but there’s a few exceptions. Quad-Band is always your best bet. Check your phone’s user manual to find out what kind of phone you have.

For those lucky enough to already have a GSM-compatible, quad-band phone, skip this step and move to the next step, unlocking. For everyone else, you’ll want to get yourself a compatible phone. You can rent these types of phones online, but they can be purchased for about the same price and you get to keep it indefinitely. Sites like Amazon and eBay have lots of cheap handsets for sale. Find one you like and keep your eye out for the word “unlocked,” which I’ll explain in my next step. Also make sure it accepts a SIM card and that it’s quad-band or tri-band as mentioned before.


So you’ve gotten yourself the right phone, but there’s one last step before you’re ready to use it abroad. GSM phones use a technology called a SIM card that identifies your particular phone and its account on the wireless network (see the photo above for an example). If you open the battery pack on the back of the phone, you’ll see a little plastic chip wedged into a slot. That’s your SIM card. Wireless companies in the U.S. “lock” their phones so that if you take out their SIM, it’s useless. You will need to remove this protection before using it abroad. So we’re clear, you can still use “locked” phones in other countries – it’s just that you’re paying $2.00/minute to your favorite phone company back home. By unlocking, you’re using local service providers and getting cheaper rates.

There are a few ways to unlock but the easiest is to buy a phone that comes pre-unlocked. Search for the term “unlocked” on Amazon or eBay and you’ll see what I mean. You can also unlock a phone you already have that is locked. Surprisingly, your wireless carrier will typically give you the codes and instructions to do it, provided you’re not a brand new customer. I called up AT&T and they simply gave me the instructions. Done. It’s not always that easy however – if you’re unsure at all, take it to a third party wireless store and they’ll do it for a small fee. Or check out this.


Your phone is unlocked, congratulations. All you need now is a local SIM card. You can either buy these online (check out Telestial) or you can buy a SIM card when you arrive at your destination. In most countries, mobile phone stores sell prepaid wireless service for low rates along with a SIM card for their network. Once you’re set up, you can add more minutes with refill cards bought at places like ATM’s, convenience stores, newstands or even online. You might also wonder if the SIM card you buy in one country works in others. The answer is typically yes – I have used SIM cards from Spain while traveling in Italy at rates that were still reasonable. The tricky part is when you go to add minutes in other countries. To make this process easier, try to find a wireless carrier who operates in more than one country. A good example in Europe is Vodafone, which offers service and minute refills in Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK, France and Belgium among others.

That’s it. It can definitely seem confusing at first, but there are plenty of resources online to help you if you get stuck. Sites like Telestial or Howard Forums are great resources if you need more information. Give me a ring and say hello once you’ve got it working, will you?