Telephone service for travel
This article is a travel topic
Telephones are a crucial part of modern living while at home and can be an excellent tool for keeping in touch and planning while traveling. This article covers some options for sending and receiving calls while on the road.
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; upscale hotels can end up charging $35.00/min or even more for international calls. There are however some business hotels 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.
US FCC 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 pinless phone cards from several vendors: you register one phone number (for example your cell phone number) and add funds when balance is 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. 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 price varies depending on your provider and the part of the world. While roaming is convenient, charges can be very expensive and are unlikely to be included in any plan you are on. 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. A call made from the country you are roaming to will still be an international call to the person making the call and you will incur roaming charges for receiving it. Check with your home carrier to find out what the approximate rates are beforehand, or you may unsuspectingly be making a $5.00/min phone call even if it is just made from a neighbouring country. 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 $0.30 to $1.00 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 rates.
Check to see if your home carrier has a sister carrier in the country you are travelling to. For example, if you are from the UK and use Vodafone, it may be worth it to check if the country you are travelling to has Vodafone as one of its carriers. These carriers may have affordable packages for roaming in their sister networks.
There are two 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 1900 MHz will not enable you to use a GSM 1900 MHz 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 a 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 pre-paid plans do not permit any form of international roaming, may limit the networks that you can roam to or 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).
If you are just travelling to a city just at the the border of your home country, it may be worth trying to see if your home network covers that area directly by manually selecting your home network. For example, your home carrier is AT&T Wireless and you are travelling to Windsor, Ontario (a border city next to Detroit, Michigan), try manually selecting AT&T Wireless instead of Rogers, Shaw, etc. The farther away from the border you are, the weaker your home carrier's coverage will become. You'll probably be out of luck if you are more than 5 mi (8 km) away from the border of your home country.
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 "chip" in GSM phones can be swapped out effectively changing the carrier and phone number of the phone. 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 setup, credit card numbers or bank accounts are necessary. However passports or IDs are often necessary (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) or "add value" cards/vouchers from newsstands, 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 some 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.
Cost will run from about US$3 (99 baht for 1-2-Call SIM in Thailand) to about US$50 (some prepaid phones in the US, although some are as cheap as $10), with the most typical range being around US$15-25 (20 Euro for eTIM card in Italy, 150 HKD in Hong Kong, 50 SGD in Singapore.) 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.
One of the major downsides to prepaid SIM cards is that both the SIM card itself and the credits topped-up have very limited lifespans. A SIM card (and effectively the mobile number you have been making calls from) will expire if it hasn't been topped-up by any amount for several consecutive months. Therefore unless the mobile phone provider accepts credit cards from your home country to top-up or you have a friend in that country willing to top your phone up, you will end-up buying a new sim anyway if your next visit is more than six months away. As a general rule - lower top-up denominations tend to expire more quickly.
Another disadvantage of having a prepaid mobile number is that for both you and the other party, it will mean 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. In relation to this, it can also be costly to the party back home since they have to make an overseas call unless you tell them to send an SMS to your home number. The latter 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. 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 (about $5.00), 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.
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
Please see the Contact section of the destination country article for information on communications specific to one country.
United States and Canada
Some things to keep in mind when using cellular phones in the US and Canada:
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.
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.
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 (£6.00/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 $0.50-$1.30/min. Thuraya network uses geostationary satellites over Europe, Africa, Asia and 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 USD $1.50 minute for outgoing calls though this can be as low as $.99/minute 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 be not available for purchase or illegal in Saudi Arabia, China, India, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, North Sri Lanka, 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 typically cost around USD $5.00 per minute for a voice call, or around USD $2.00 per SMS.
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.
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 is 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 Cards Websites
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 traveling.
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 $10.00. These call rates are substantially discounts. Calling another active YM user on his PC is free of charge.
Apple recently launched FaceTime which allows 2 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.
These websites call you on your homeline and the person you want to call so you can use you normal phone.