south of the border cellphone
October 25, 2008 11:54 AM   Subscribe

What US-based cell phone service will I be able to get in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas?

I'm buying a new cell phone with a new carrier, but I want one that I can use in Matamoros. I'll be living in Matamoros but crossing the border to Brownsville multiple times a week and traveling around the US, so I don't want to get a Mexican carrier. I've heard that you can get a Verizon signal in Matamoros. Is this true, and can you do this with T-Mobile, AT&T, etc?
posted by lockestockbarrel to Technology (2 answers total)
If you are close to the border (within 10 miles) you can get cellular service from any carrier with towers near the border. AT&T's coverage map shows mostly consistent dark areas (strong coverage) all over the Brownsville area and approaching the border, but they cut it off at the border because they're not officially licensed to serve Mexico. T-Mobile's coverage is going to be more problematic as they seem to trickle out close to the border.

T-Mobile does offer one major advantage compared to AT&T, however: T-Mobile does not set the network restriction flag on their SIMs (this is not related to handset unlocking for use with SIMs not provided by the carrier that sold the phone), where AT&T does. This means that an AT&T SIM will not, if the phone enforces the restriction and most do, allow you to choose a specific GSM network or prevent roaming. A T-Mobile SIM will, which would be very useful in preventing your SIM from latching onto a higher-powered Mexican cell network and racking up charges. Some phones do not enforce this restriction, so a little searching might be in order to find one if you want to use AT&T (free tip: almost all Nokias enforce this, as does the iPhone. Windows Mobile phones can be set in the registry to allow network selection).
posted by fireoyster at 2:31 PM on October 25, 2008

I would tend to agree with fireoyster except say within 5 of 6 miles on AT&T's network. It depends how far from the tower on the Texas side of the river. I've used my phone along the Mexico border (Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana) many times. With ATT you must sign up for international roaming so if get too far from the tower you'll not connect to Telmex or Movistar for the expensive international roaming. So if you get too deep into Matamoros people calling your cell phone would go to voicemail and you'd get the message notification once you got close enough to the tower.

If you sign up for international service, be careful as it gets expensive fast (while in Monterrey and Puerto Vallarta I managed to rack of $600 in data overages on my phone just goofing off while bored... If I signed up for one of their international data plans it would have been closer to $60. The iPhone does allow you to turn off international data roaming, but I'm not sure it actually allows you to do so with voice... the easiest way to avoid international roaming charges is not to answer the phone when you're roaming, or turn the phone off.

I've used both T-Mo and ATT along the border over the years. One of the things I'd notice with T-mobile is that many times on the US side, the phone would lock to a Mexican network.

If you do go a route without international roaming, you'll probably want to at least get a prepaid plan from a Mexican carrier so you can use the phone to make calls on the Mexico side within Mexico much cheaper and in case of emergencies on the MX side. If you have an unlocked GSM phone you can get a prepaid SIM from Telcel from one of their offices (or you can buy a phone with prepaid minutes nearly everywhere for about 450 pesos. You can get recharging cards at almost any shop). When I lived deep in Mexico for a month I would use my local prepaid SIM all day and then once a day switch to my T-mobile SIM to see if anyone called my US number. Calls within Mexico are $1.49/min if you are roaming (for airtime).

Almost all carriers offer a 30 day chance to cancel the subscription without penalty so if one carrier doesn't work in your casa in Matamoros you can go across the border and sign up for another one until you find one that works.
posted by birdherder at 5:11 PM on October 25, 2008

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