Advice on international compatibility and cell phone buying.
January 26, 2009 5:35 AM   Subscribe

Living in Europe now, I want to buy a SIM card based phone that I could bring back to the States, when I move back in a year or so...but I don't know what other spec's to look out for, in terms of compatibility.

I want to get a phone here in Europe that I can then keep with me when I move back to the US eventually. I don't know anything about networks like EVDO or 3G or Quad band or whatever, but I know that a SIM card phone would be necessary. So beyond finding a phone that can swap different carriers' SIM cards, are there any other specs that I need to look out for when choosing a phone? And does anyone have experience with particular phones that they really like for this kind of usage? I assume that the cellular technology is better here and thats why I'm thinking of purchasing here, but maybe I should consider an unlocked sim-based phone that my family could bring over, after an Amazon purchase or whatnot. Thanks for your input.
posted by talljamal to Technology (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You should get a phone that adheres to the GSM standard. Make sure it is not locked to a specific cell phone carrier so you can use it with a different American company's SIM card. As for everything else, it depends on what your preferences are.

If all you want to do is make calls, then 3G is not that important. If you want to use the Internet and want to have a fast connection, 3G is crucial to fast speeds.
posted by daf81289 at 5:57 AM on January 26, 2009

There are no mobile phones without a SIM card, at least not in operation anymore, I'd guess.

Swapping out the card is always possible mechanically. Electronically your phone needs to be "unlocked" to use the swapped card, i.e. not cryptographically bound to a carrier. This is the case with all phones not bought with a contract, and for some bought with one as well (ask).

Other than that, the phone needs to be able to use the different frequency bands used in Europe and the US. This is usually called "Tri-Band" or "Quad-Band", and most phones have this built in nowadays, it's nothing exotic. But still ask for it when purchasing to make sure.
posted by uncle harold at 6:02 AM on January 26, 2009

(the first line applies to Europe, dunno about the US)
posted by uncle harold at 6:14 AM on January 26, 2009

What you'll be buying is a GSM phone. The frequencies are what you need to be aware of, as Europe uses GSM-900 and GSM-1800, while North America uses GSM-850 and GSM-1900. Quad-band phones that adhere to both standards are available on both sides of the Atlantic. That's what you want to look for, along with a phone that isn't "SIM-locked" to a particular carrier. It's possible to find somebody to unlock a phone, but much easier if the phone you get is already unlocked.

Once you get to the U.S. the two major carriers that use GSM are T-Mobile and AT&T Mobile.

Your assumption that cell technology is better in Europe is partially true -- they tend to get the new bells and whistles before the U.S. It depends on what you will use the phone for, however. If you're just making voice calls and sending text messages you probably won't see much difference.
posted by SteveInMaine at 6:29 AM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anything you buy there will work on T-mobile here.

If it's a "quad band" phone, you also get the option of using it on Cingulat&t. Perhaps also "tri-band", but not always -- both have high-low, the high is most commonly used in big cities, but the low is essential if you're out in the sticks.
posted by cmiller at 9:49 AM on January 26, 2009

Thanks for the clarification on GSM and quad band/tri band technical stuff... I'll probably try to go for a Nokia or Sony-Erickson, since it seems to be the popular brands around these parts. the Nokia 2630 or Sony Ericsson T280i are the two phones that seem to be cheap with a 6 mo. minimum contract here. I'll look into their specs.
I'm not interested in jail-breaking or hacking the phone to unlock it at this point, but that might depend on the selection I can afford. And I think I just need to sms and make calls for now, but a buddy here has a pretty slick camera phone that does a bit more than the average phone so I think thats why I'm looking at feeding my gadget-fix as I set up my phone.
posted by talljamal at 12:16 PM on January 26, 2009

There are no mobile phones without a SIM card, at least not in operation anymore, I'd guess.

Wrong. Phones on the CDMA North American networks don't have SIM cards. This is the case for eg Telus mobile phones in Canada (and among other examples Verizon in the US), with the exception (currently) of their "world edition" blackberry, which takes a SIM card and operates on both dual-band CDMA and dual-band GSM- but dual band is hardly "world" and is one reason I left Telus after I bought a quad-band GSM. I'm with Fido now and think SIM cards are among the coolest things on earth.

Regarding 3G: European 3G is UMTS 2100, and US 3G is either 850, 1700 or 1900- long story short is that you can't use European (or as I just discovered the hard way, Asian) 3G phones in North America- luckily most of these devices are also tri- or quad-band GSM so you can at least use them as phones in NA and also you can access GPRS (or 2.5G) data networks.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:23 PM on January 26, 2009

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