Telephone service for travel
This article is a travel topic
Telephones are a crucial part of modern living while at home; this article covers some options for making and receiving calls while travelling.
Many hotels and motels charge set rates for all calls made from in-room telephones. The cost of these calls is generally much higher than an ordinary call made from a residential or business phone. There may also be other service fees for toll calls as many hotels have an automatic price required service where their telecommunications provider advises them of the cost of a toll call and the room number the call was made from. The calls may also have a telephone service charge for calls to toll-free numbers! Check the call rates before making a call; some establishments have been known to charge USD35/min or even more for international calls! There are, however, some lodgings that offer packages that include complimentary unlimited local and toll-free calls, make sure to enquire about this.
Take care when making calls from pay phones. Many pay phone services are provided by specialist providers who charge higher fees to cover the cost of equipment and payphone booth. There can be a substantial minimum fee, which you do not notice if you pay by credit card.
Check the information in the booth if there is any before making a call. Typically, you can avoid the worst of high charges by picking a payphone booth branded by a major carrier.
You may find there are courtesy phones available at airports and similar places for making local calls for a taxi or similar traveller services. Look out for these so you may not need to use a pay phone.
Pre-paid phone cards
Many telephone service providers offer pre-paid phone cards that can be used from pay phones or ordinary telephones. While most cards purchased are good for calling anywhere, some, especially those provided by not-so-known providers specialise in providing call rates to some countries more than others so it's good to look at the poster associated with the phone card you plan to purchase to see if your home country will get some of the lowest rates. Access to these services is often through a toll-free telephone number that can be called from most phones without charge. (Be aware that some pay phones and hotel phones charge for toll-free calls.)
These providers may be exploiting regulatory loopholes in telephone rates, so read the fine print to see when and how you can get the lowest rates - there may be particular times or days that the rates apply. These cards also feature excellent international rates.
In the US, regulations require pay phone providers to be reimbursed for toll-free calls by the toll-free number provider, so additional minutes or a small surcharge may be deducted when using your card from a pay phone.
Now, there are phone cards from several vendors that do not require entering a numeric code each time you call; you register specific phone numbers (for example, your cell phone number) and add funds when the balance becomes low.
Some telephone service providers offer a calling card option, often attached to your existing telephone account. Sometimes, you can quote the calling card number to an operator. Other times, you are provided with a number to connect to your home provider to place calls, or you can speak to an operator in your home language.
These services are usually charged with a surcharge on top of the provider's usual rates.
Apply for a calling card before travelling. Some telecommunication companies will allow you to get a calling card linked to just a credit card without having to have telephone service with them.
By just running a google search, you can find some services that allow you to call long distance at very affordable rates and good quality. The charges are charged directly to your phone bill. Registration is not required. All you may need to do is to dial an access number then follow the instructions from there.
Hotels and motels usually do not charge for voice calls you receive - but check for any received telephone charges before giving out a hotel or motel telephone number for people to call you.
Usually there are charges for received faxes.
If you are going to be out of range of a telephone, but still want to receive calls, Voice mail may be a good option for you. Most telephone service providers offer a voice mail option, either as an add-on to an existing landline or celular telephone or as a stand alone service. You can usually check your voice mail remotely--make sure to obtain the access number and login details from your voice mail provider before leaving home.
Cell (mobile) phones
There are three main ways you can use a cell phone while travelling overseas.
Using your phone in places other than its home area is called roaming. The biggest advantages of roaming are that you do not need to change your number and the other parties back home can contact you without taking additional steps. When roaming, do take note that you need to include the appropriate IDD code (eg, 00 for the EU, 011 for the US and Canada), country code and area code as you call a phone number in your home country. However, you do not need a country code to contact a local telephone number in the country you are visiting.
While roaming is convenient, charges can be very expensive and are unlikely to be included in any plan you are on. The price varies depending on your provider and the part of the world: check with your home carrier to find out what the approximate rates are beforehand. Otherwise, you may unsuspectingly be making a USD5/min phone call even if it is just made from a neighbouring country.
You will be charged for receiving calls even if this is not the normal practice of your carrier in your country. Calls to your home country are international calls while roaming. Even if you make a local call (eg, your home network is in the UK but you are in France and wish to call to someone in France), it may still be considered an international call and roaming charges will still apply.
Take care with voicemail and diversions. If your phone is on, you can incur roaming costs to receive a call that gets diverted to voicemail, and international costs to divert your call to your home voicemail, and international costs to retrieve the voicemail.
Consider using SMS (short messaging service) as a cheap alternative to making per-minute phone calls. These text messages can be sent between phones, with up to 160 characters per message. While SMS messages can be more expensive when overseas (from USD0.30 to USD1 each), they are cheaper than international calls and can be very useful for keeping costs down. Sometimes receiving them can be free. Moreover, those who send you an SMS using a carrier back home will be charged at local/home rates.
Using mobile internet on your roaming networks should be avoided. With improving mobile broadband technology, it has made the sharing of larger files and viewing of content-rich websites on mobile devices more possible. However these come at hefty costs when used outside your home country: up to USD10 per megabyte. Make sure that you switch the mobile internet feature of your phone OFF if you have no plan to use it: consult your phone's manual on how to do it. Otherwise, even if you do not actively open a webpage yourself, information from websites such as Facebook or your email will be downloaded to your phone and you will be charged accordingly. This is unfortunately one of the quickest ways to drive your phone bill up to six figures. Additionally, turn-off 'push' and 'fetch' services that your apps love to do. If you must view/download larger files, share holiday photos on Instagram frequently, or need 'push' or 'fetch' services, consider doing them over a wifi network (take your SIM out of the phone if to be safe as well) or get a local SIM instead (see the next option). By reserving mobile internet for wifi use, you save not only up to USD200,000 but also precious battery life.
Mobile phone providers are gradually offering roaming bundles of calls, texts and mobile data. These still seem expensive, but are more affordable than "pay as you go" transactions. Consider signing on to one but make sure you know what is included and excluded.
There are three things you have to check to ensure that roaming will work when you arrive:
Cell phone technologies fall into three technologies widely used around the world today. GSM (sometimes called 2G), UMTS (sometimes called 3G) and CDMA.
The most widely used cell phone standard in the world is GSM. If your phone type is CDMA, it is unlikely to roam outside of the Americas, Japan and Korea. Please read on...
Many modern GSM phones also have UMTS (3G) capabilities. No phones are made with only UMTS (3G) capabilities.
Next, you need to check that your phone operates on the correct frequencies for your destination.
GSM and UMTS networks operate on several different frequencies. If your phone matches the all the frequencies used by the carrier in the destination country, then this will not pose a problem to you in roaming. If your phone only matches one of the frequencies, it may only work in some locations, or may not perform as well. UMTS and GSM (although usually present on one phone) are not compatible, so have a UMTS phone that works on 1900MHz will not enable you to use a GSM 1900MHz network.
Many lower-end phones are dual-band, in that they work only on the two frequency bands most commonly used in the country of their origin and will not work at all in countries that use only the other two bands. Some phones are tri-band, which will cover quite a bit more of the world by adding one of the two foreign bands; the best phones for global usage are quad-band phones, which will work on all GSM frequencies. However, while having a quad-band GSM phone guarantees GSM compatibility where GSM exists in your destination, you may not have the 3G features, like data, unless your UMTS frequencies are also compatible.
Your carrier must have an agreement with at least one carrier at your destination to allow you to roam. Check that an agreement is in place and what frequencies the roaming carrier uses against the capabilities of your phone.
Check your plan allows international roaming. It may need to be enabled, which is must easier to accomplish before you leave home. Some prepaid plans either do not permit any form of international roaming, or limit the services enabled such as SMS only.
Most phones have a default setting of automatically choosing the network which you will roam on but you can manually select a network (consult your phone's manual on how to do it). By manually choosing a carrier rather than automatic, you may be given additional incentives such as discounted free access to the host carrier's Wi-Fi network, or discounted data bundles. It may pay to research the arrangements your carrier has with others.
Manually selecting a carrier may also come in handy if you are travelling in an area or city close to the border of your home country. This way you may be able to avoid roaming altogether. For example, if you are travelling to Northern Ireland (eg, Derry) but are subscribing to a carrier based in the Republic of Ireland; in this case, manually select your Irish-based carrier. You'll probably be out of luck if you are more than 8km (5 mi) away from the border of your home country.
Some carriers allow you to make calls from anywhere on your cell phone as if you were in your home country over wifi. Cricket and Verizon offer this.
The EU and Roaming
Territories such as the European Union (EU) have agreements to cap roaming charges when subscribers from one of the EU-based networks roam in another EU country. Warnings are also sent out if an EU subscriber is close to her roaming limit. Rates are capped as follows:
In some cases, EU-based subscribers may continue to use their domestic plans as usual whilst in the EU (eg, get charged at domestic rates or according to their plans) upon payment of a surcharge per day that a subscriber is roaming (eg, €3/day or £3/day). Check with your carrier to see if this scheme is offered. Some providers do not offer "pay as you go" roaming; that means you need to purchase a plan before you can use your phone abroad.
However, the aforementioned rates and protections are not applicable if a subscriber's carrier is based outside the EU, or if an EU-based subscriber roams outside the EU. The usual exceptions would include Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, which are part of the European Economic Area (EEA) where your provider can extend EU arrangements to these territories. Moreover, VAT is not applicable in these areas. EU-based mobile providers will end roaming costs in 2017.
The Official EU roaming information page contains more information on these matters.
Pre-paid SIM Cards
As an alternative to roaming, local pre-paid (sometimes known as "pay as you go") SIM cards are a godsend. The SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) in GSM phones can be swapped out, effectively changing the carrier and phone number of the phone. Many regular travellers carry a second phone just for this purpose. Most people will have an old phone in a drawer somewhere. Just find it and check it works and is unlocked. See below for more information on this. If you do not have an old phone, manufacturers such as Nokia make very cheap and basic phones that work well. In 2012, the Nokia 100 could be found for less than USD50.
Most countries sell prepaid SIM cards that you can buy for cash, quickly establishing a new phone number and credit for making calls. No account set-up, credit card numbers or bank accounts are necessary. Some countries require passports or ID for SIM card registration. (to reduce use of phones by criminals). To add credit to these SIM cards, you can buy "refill" (common in the US), "top up" (common in Singapore, the UK, Canada and New Zealand), "recharge" (common in Hong Kong and Australia), "reload" (common in the Philippines), "credit" or "add value" cards/vouchers from news-stands, telephone stores or convenience stores. Electronic top-up methods like ATM, online credit card top-ups may also be possible depending on the country and provider. In most countries, someone who has credit (prepaid or plan) may top-up someone else's prepaid mobile phone account by sending an SMS to the provider as long as the recipient uses the same provider. Many sellers will use this method, rather than issuing actual vouchers.
Cost for a prepaid SIM will run from about USD3 to about USD50, with the most typical range being around USD15-25. Virtually all will come with some usage credit, often equal to about half of the cost of the SIM card.
In an increasing number of countries, there will be some kind of cellphone shop at major international airports outside of security so that you can buy a prepaid SIM without leaving the airport. Some countries even have a specific SIM card product, exclusively marketed to visitors as well as nationals of certain countries.
A major downside to prepaid SIM cards is that both the SIM card itself and the credits topped-up have limited lifespans. A SIM card (and effectively the mobile number associated with it) will expire if it hasn't been topped-up by any amount for several consecutive months. Therefore, unless the mobile phone provider accepts overseas credit cards to top-up or you know of someone who can top up your phone, you may end-up buying a new SIM anyway. As a general rule - lower top-up denominations tend to expire more quickly. However, the savings offered by using a local SIM card are so great(sometimes up to 90%) that they can often pay for themselves with just one call.
Another disadvantage of prepaid SIMs is that it means another number to take note of. This can be problematic if you intend to travel to multiple countries in one major trip as you will have to keep sending messages to important people of a mobile number change. It can be tedious, costly and possibly confusing to the other party. You may in fact be spending more informing them of your number change rather than to send another important message when you need it.
Third, prepaid SIM cards can be expensive for your friends back home. However, to get around this, you can ask them to SMS you in your home phone number telling you to contact them. This may work if you have a spare unit/phone and roaming capabilities are on (just don't answer calls there). For numbers that are roaming, they usually do not incur costs for SMS received if they don't do so at home.
For people who travel through different countries, an international card may be an alternative. These usually allow free or cheap incoming calls in a significant number of countries and offer relatively cheap outgoing calls via an automatic callback service. Their phone numbers are usually based in the UK or smaller European countries such as Estonia. There are many different ones available, so shop around as the cards sold at airports may not be the cheapest. This also saves the person the trouble of notifying others of multiple change of numbers.
SIMs and unlocking
If you want to use your own phone, you have to check (see above) that the phone can be used at your destination, type and communication frequencies and that it is unlocked (technically, "carrier SIM-locked".)
GSM phones have a SIM card inside of them which provides the "identity" for the phone, including its phone number and cell phone carrier. Some providers "lock" the phone to their service if you purchased the phone from them, which prevents you from switching to another carrier by replacing the SIM card. This is arguably good business sense from the provider's perspective as in many cases the cost of the phone is heavily discounted with the difference paid by the carrier.
To install a new SIM card you will have to make sure your phone is "unlocked." Your provider may provide the unlock code after a certain time period or after paying a certain amount or otherwise for an unlocking fee. There are plenty of resources around the Internet that will help you unlock phones for free or for a small fee (aboutUSD5), or you may be able to find local phone whizzes in your own hometown or at your destination that can do it for you on the spot for a price.
Some brands of phones are easier to unlock than others. For instance, older Nokia phones can be unlocked with a simple code and you can do it yourself, while Motorola or Sony Ericcson phones require additional equipment and may require you to bring your phone to someone. Some (Japanese domestic market phones) may use a different SIM-based method that attaches to your SIM, allowing you to take it from phone to phone. Shop around: unlocking services are generally cheaper and more easily available in Europe and Asia than in North America.
An alternative is to just buy an unlocked phone in the first place. In some countries — for example China — phones are never locked. Various web sites and some shops in Western countries also sell unlocked phones but usually at somewhat higher prices than the "deals" you can get by signing a contract for a service and taking a locked phone.
Cheap low-end phones locked to a carrier at your destination are often obtainable.
Charges vary by country/carrier, but per-minute costs for voice calls are often the best option for folks needing local calling service. The SIM card and phone number are usually valid for a month or two (sometimes up to 12 months), staying active as long as you "top up" the card with more credit. It is quite possible to save more than the cost of a local SIM card on your first call.
Because of the trend for regularly upgrading phones, many people will have an old phone that is perfectly functional. It is worth taking this as well as your current phone. This will allow you to keep your existing number active whilst travelling but you can take advantage of the reduced costs with a local SIM card. If someone calls on your normal home number call them back from the local SIM, it will be cheaper. You could pay as much as $3.00/min to receive a call on your home number whilst roaming, but $0.50/min to call back using a local SIM. Make sure the old phone has the required frequency band(s) as mentioned above.
Renting or purchasing a phone abroad
You can often rent a local cell phone, often even at the airport on arrival. However, in many countries purchasing a cheap phone and a pre-paid SIM will be more economical even after only a week or so of rental so compare prices.
However, these airport rental companies often charge much more per-minute than the local population pays to make and receive calls on the same local phone companies’ networks.
Also, airport rental companies have been known to run out of phones especially during popular events and in high travel season. In addition the airport phone rental kiosk or counter might be closed if arriving on a late night flight. In many countries purchasing a cheap phone and a pre-paid SIM will be more economical even after only a week or so of rental so compare prices.
When it comes to purchasing a phone and SIM locally in the country you’re visiting be sure to ask whether the cell phone handset is locked or unlocked. The phone will need to be unlocked to be usable in the future with another carrier’s SIM card. It is also important to remember that different carriers perform differently across the country you are visiting. To see which network will be best for you (with the difference mainly coming between national and regional networks) OpenSignal have independent coverage maps.
Sometimes overseas cell phone carriers will offer the phone at a lower subsidized price because the phone is locked to only work with their SIM. This practice is similar to the way US carriers offer lower rates on new phones for customers that sign up for a long term contract. For these reasons, it might make sense to buy or rent an unlocked phone and prepaid SIM card prior to your departure.
Renting or purchasing a phone before departure
Renting or buying an unlocked GSM phone and local country prepaid SIM card provides access to the same overseas rates the locals pay without having to wait to purchase a phone abroad or try to rent a phone at the airport at higher than normal per-minute rates.
There are several advantages to having your phone before you go. One is that you will have your phone number to give out to family, friends and co-workers.
You’ll also have a phone that’s ready to use as soon as you land. Another advantage of renting the phone before your trip is that it will come with complete operating instructions in English with information on how to check the remaining prepaid credit balance, how to add additional credit, how to contact customer service, and how to make and receive international calls.
US-based GSM and SIM cell phone rental and sales companies
Information by country/region
Please see the Contact section of the destination country article or Phones#Country-specific examples for more detailed information on communications specific to one country.
Canada and US
Some things to keep in mind when using cellular phones in Canada and the US:
Some older phones need to select or allow a roaming change from a user menu. Bring your manual or make sure you know how to access the menus.
When purchasing a prepaid French SIM card, activation is also required. However the retailer does not require a copy of the passport from the user. Instead, the user will have to follow instructions that came with the French SIM card, which either instructs the user to log-on to the provider's website or contact a hotline.
SIM cards may be purchased at the Nobletime AV & Telecom store found in the arrivals hall of Hong Kong International Airport for less than HKD300 (USD40) - including credit. No ID is required and the store staff may help you set-up your phone to select a bundle suited for your needs (eg, unlimited data). Additionally, a 3 (one of the telecom operators in Hong Kong) store is found in the departure hall of terminal 1.
Visitors to Italy are also required to produce a passport when purchasing a SIM card in order to have the service activated. In some cases, a photocopy of the passport may be all that is sufficient - this is at the merchant/retailer's discretion. You can purchase prepaid SIM cards at foreign currency stalls and at stores of mobile phone providers.
Until recently, Japan will not allow the sale of voice SIM cards to foreigners on visa waiver or short term visas; in general, your options are roaming (with a compatible 3G UMTS phone) or renting a phone. This can be done at the major airports (Narita, Kansai, probably others) or via delivery to your hotel or business. Expect to pay JPY100-200 (USD1-2) a day, plus fairly high per minute call rates.There are no restrictions on data-only SIM cards.
Visitors to Singapore can buy a Sim card from currency exchange stalls, service centres of the telecom providers or 7-11 convenience stores. However, they are required to give their passport to the point-of-sale for the service to be activated. A user is allowed to have a maximum of three prepaid Singaporean Sim cards registered to his name at a time.
The best place to buy a used phone or get one unlocked is the 4th floor of the MBK mall in Bangkok. More than half the floor (nearly a full city block) is small mobile-phone vendors (most selling a mix of used and new), and many will do repairs, unlocks (and those that don't will generally be happy to take your phone to one that does and split the fee.) Expect to bargain hard!
You can purchase prepaid (known here as "pay as you go") SIM cards at vending machines right before baggage claim in Heathrow Airport. Supermarkets and off-licence stores also sell SIM cards and top-up vouchers. Specialist mobile phone providers such as Lebara, Vectone and Lycamobile offer good rates for frequent overseas calls. At special events and public festivals, representatives of mobile phone providers give SIM cards out for free but you need to top up the required credit. Providers such as GiffGaff only operate online but their SIM cards can occasionally be found at certain events.
In remote locations, without cell phone coverage, a satellite phone may be your only option. A satellite phone is not generally a replacement for a mobile phone, as you have be outdoors with clear line of sight to the satellite to make a phone call. The service is frequently used by shipping, including pleasure craft, as well as expeditions who have remote data and voice needs. Your local telephone service provider should be able to give more information about connecting to this service. Rates are generally much higher than using ordinary mobile phones, even if the other party is in the same country as you are.
The Thuraya network, using a Thuraya handset, allows roaming from GSM to Satellite depending on network availability. (Check to see if they have an agreement with your home network. Some networks (for example Vodafone UK) charge a very high rate for incoming calls (GBP6.00/min). If a lot of calls are to be made, buy a SIM card from a satellite phone provider. Calls on the Thuraya system cost from USD0.50-1.30/min. Thuraya network uses geostationary satellites over Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, so check for coverage in the area you are travelling to. You may have to orient the antenna of the device towards the satellite for best reception.
For truly global walk-and-talk roaming you are going to need an Iridium handset. Iridium uses a constellation of low-earth orbit satellites, so unlike Thuraya you can use Iridium everywhere so long as you have line-of-sight with the sky. Iridium works on all land masses and oceans including both poles. Expect to pay about USD1.50/min for outgoing calls though this can be as low as USD0.99/min to call another Iridium phone. Iridium does not sell direct and only sells phones through dealers who may also rent units as well.
The other consumer satellite telephony network is Globalstar.
Satellite phones may not be available for purchase or illegal in Saudi Arabia, China, India, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria. Technically, they will still function in these areas. Some countries require a special permit for using satellite phones within their territory.
Some flights offer phone service via an in-seat phone. These are typically priced at around USD5 per minute for a voice call (plus a connection fee), or USD2 per SMS.
In some cases, some flights also install special equipment to allow you to use your mobile phone on-board as you do on the ground. These are also linked to satellite systems and you can expect to pay more than standard roaming rates. Even if your plane/flight is equipped to handle mobile phone transactions, availability of the signal is subject to local regulations (both of the country the airline is based in, as well as the countries the airline will pass through).
Where you have full access to the Internet at a reasonable speed, making phone calls over the Internet is the cheapest option, it can even be free.
Free calls are possible if the other party has the same software as you and both of you have easy internet access. If your phone has Wi-Fi built-in and the ability to install apps, making cheap phone calls may be as easy as getting connected at a Wi-Fi hotspot. You can achieve the same thing from a laptop or PDS with a softphone and a headset. You should install an app on your phone to allow VOIP calling and signup to a voice service provider (VSP) and make sure to test your configuration before departing.
Note that some publicly available networks can block VOIP, many are simply too slow, and in some countries, internet telephony can be blocked entirely to protect the revenues of national phone companies. VOIP is a good way to maintain contact with friends and family while travelling, who will tolerate the occasional drop-out. It may not be the best way to maintain a connection with important business contacts. Oftentimes you will need a separate microphone and not the one built-in to your laptop for clearer audio. You can purchase your own microphone headset or rent a computer with Skype from a local internet store.
Until recently, Etisalat, the state-owned telecommunications provider of the United Arab Emirates allowed connections to the Skype network, blocking only the company website to prevent users from adding credit to their accounts to make PSTN calls. The restrictions were later reinforced by blocking access to Skype network entirely. However, Skype is still accessible from some hotels that provide access through 'TheWayOut' wifi service. Two of the best VOIP services are Google Voice and FireRtc phone. Google voice allows for free calls to the US and Canada, so if you are traveling to Canada from the US, and you do not have cellular service there from your provider, then you can use it to call back to the US. and vice versa. They also give you a phone number for incoming calls for free. They have low rates to call another country not listed. FireRtc is another good option because it allows you to call the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the UK for free from anywhere in the world. Additinally, you can call any other user for free. However, it only works on desktop computers, laptop computers, and Android.
Internet phone companies
Because calls are routed over the internet, you do not need to use a phone company located where you live or where you travel. Often, you have to buy a global number separately that allows PSTN phones to call you. Where the number is from makes a difference for people calling you.
Services such as IPKall allows you to have numbers in different parts of the world for free.
SIP Phone companies
There are literally thousands of VOIP companies. It's best to pick a company which has connections either in the country you are calling from or calling to, to avoid unnecessary international hops.
Non-SIP phone companies
Calling card websites
International roaming SIM cards
Other internet services
Some Internet phone companies like Musimi will forward voicemail messages as email attachments so you can listen to them at internet cafés when travelling.
HolidayPhone anti-roaming SIM resells a foreign SIM card for your destination, and forward your calls made to your ordinary UK number over Internet to your foreign SIM card. That way, you stay reachable and can receive free calls on your ordinary number while abroad, and can still call at local rates.
Lonely planets Ekit even allows people to leave messages on your voicemail for free using a toll-free number and you can then retrieve them from the Ekit home page or pay to listen to them from a phone.
Yahoo Messenger (YM) allows users of selected countries to call any phone after topping-up (via credit card) starting at USD10.00. These call rates are substantially discounts. Calling another active YM user on his PC is free of charge.
Apple launched FaceTime which allows two parties with a MacBook, iPhone or iPad to video-call each other by registering their mobile number and email address. The software is pre-installed on the latest versions of the iPhone and iPad, and available for purchase on MacBooks. Users on iOS 7 may also make 'audio-only' FaceTime calls.
These websites call both you on your home line and the person you want to call and then conference the calls so you can use your normal phone.