Buying a cell phone abroad & using it in other countries later
September 23, 2008 11:23 PM   Subscribe

If I buy a cheap, pay-as-you-go cell phone in Guatemala to use while I'm traveling there, can I then use it in other countries I visit later - and which ones? Is it as simple as replacing a SIM card every time?

Basically, how does the whole multi-country cell phone thing work? I'm thinking more calling locally, but calling back home would be nice too. (I'm a Verizon customer, ignorant of these mysteries.)
posted by gottabefunky to Technology (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you buy at least a tri-band (850, 900, 1900MHz) phone, it will work anywhere that takes GSM. Verizon is CDMA, which is, to say, incompatible with GSM.

However, T-Mobile and AT&T are GSM, so tri- or quad-band phones from them work ANYwhere. I stepped off the plane in Germany, and the phone just worked. ($1/minute, but still, worked.) Also worked in St. Maarten, Spain, Portugal and Italy. And Taiwan.

Point being, you're probably going to hit up pre-paid SIMs in each of the places you're traveling. That'll work just fine for local calls, from the country you're in, TO the country you're in. Anything international will be pricey, so beware.

But yeah, your current Verizon phone will almost certainly NOT work. That's not what you're asking, so the short answer is to buy a tri- or quad-band phone (look up what GSM frequency each country uses to figure out which, based on the countries you're traveling to.)

Then determine if maybe you want to use local SIMs in each location, or a roaming, expensive SIM. That's dependent entirely on the calling situation. You can always swap SIMs repeatedly and such, though. I have a German prepaid SIM that still has a few Euros on it. It worked in Germany, but it works here in the states too, on my phone. It's just "roaming" for the account, so using it would chew through Euros fast.
posted by disillusioned at 12:21 AM on September 24, 2008

In 2004 I was in Guatemala with my tri-band GSM phone (along with a plastic baggie of SIM cards from other countries I'd visited) and ended up not getting a SIM card there. The pre-paid "contracts" are more confusing to set up even than Spain, more expensive than any other country I'd visited, and with extremely poor coverage outside of the major cities.

You can find an internet cafe with international lines in almost every city that is on the tourist map in Guatemala for cheaper than the pre-paid plans with no obligation to use more minutes than you need. I'd say go with that.

As to other countries, it is easy: stop at a brightly colored kiosk at the airport (or the bus station or ferry terminal) and buy a SIM card, which either can come pre-loaded with minutes or will require you load it with minutes and go from there. Save your old ones and slip them back in when you're back in the country. They usually work, in my experience.

There are plenty of tri and quad band phones out there but for my money there is no phone better, cheaper, sturdier, and easier than Ericsson's old R520m. No longer in production, but they can be gotten on ebay with new batteries available. It is a solid, sturdy, suprisingly light and small phone that doesn't look like it is worth much money and will be safer in the hostels than phones with more bells and whistles.

I've had mine since 2003 and used it in literally dozens of countries with not a single problem.
posted by arnicae at 12:27 AM on September 24, 2008

Note that some of the really cheap pay-as-you-go phones (eg: $25 for a phone + $20 of call credits) are network-locked -- they are partially subsidized by the provider, and will only accept SIM cards from the same provider. This is definately the case for the UK and France...

There are ways of unlocking these phones, some providers sell you the unlock key, some phones can be unlocked using codes/tools available on the internet.
posted by nielm at 1:54 AM on September 24, 2008


I bought a phone in Indonesia unlocked from a non-network based cell-phone shop and just pop new SIMs in whenever I'm in new countries. It's awesome. My current phone has had Polish, UK, Latvian, Italian, French, and Indonesian SIMs and just works. It's a $40 dual-band (so, everywhere in the world except parts of the Americas including the US, plus South Korea and Japan, I think) Nokia 1108, which does calls, texts, and has other basic functions (phonebook, alarm, calculator, etc.). I saw them in use in Mexico, so I assume they exist in Guatemala too.

Buen viaje!
posted by mdonley at 10:10 AM on September 24, 2008

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