Explain how to use a phone internationally to me like I'm a total moron
December 18, 2016 7:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a prepaid plan (text and phone only, no internet) in Australia. I'm going to the US for a month in January. I would like to somehow be able to use my phone there without it costing a huge amount. How?

First, I know I am a complete moron when it comes to phone and phone technology. I hate them and only carry around one for emergencies and logistic planning stuff that cannot be used elsewhere. Even though I like to flatter myself that in parts of life I'm actually technologically quite competent (I am a scientist who uses computational models, ffs), the definition of words like "sim card" and 3G and so forth somehow do not stay in my brain.

Right now I have a simple prepaid plan (the kind where you put like $100 on your phone, you use it to send text or make phone calls, and when you run out of money you put more on it). It suffices for my purposes in Australia.

But I'm going to the US in January. I will need to be arranging logistic things. I would like to be able to use my phone (with its current phone number) for this. I would prefer only having text and phone capability, unless internet is just as cheap or impossible to avoid. Here are my questions.

1. If I just take my phone to the US and try to use it there, will it work? I seem to recall trying this on other trips and it not working. But the memory is hazy and things might have changed. How do I know in advance if it will work or if I need to do something to make it work?

2. Even if it works, will I be whacked with huge charges for every phone call and text, since it's all being done internationally? Is that what a roaming fee is? How do I know if I'll get this?

3. Is there a thing I can do (either now or when I get there) to avoid roaming fees while still retaining my old phone number? What is it?

4. If there is no way to do #3, is there something that can be done so I can use my phone in the US, even if it's with a new number? If so, what is it?

I know this is in theory google-able, but every time I try I get lost by the reference to phone knowledge that I don't have. Also I'm massively stressed and frantic, what with trying to juggle insane job stuff, trying to plan for this trip, dealing with some health issues, and do Christmas with two kids under five... so anything that can be done to simplify matters here will be OH SO GREATLY APPRECIATED.
posted by forza to Technology (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of phone and do you know if it is locked or unlocked? You may need to call your carrier to find out if it is locked. (Locked means you have a Big Oz SIM card, and cannot put in another company's SIM card, which will severely limit your options.)
posted by DarlingBri at 7:15 PM on December 18, 2016

Response by poster: Soo.... my phone also just died, like, yesterday. It was a Huawei (that is the brand - I am not sure if that's the same thing as a carrier? I thought the carrier was Vodaphone - does that make sense?). Either way, I am not married to it being Huawei or Vodaphone. My husband is getting me a new phone for Christmas (the actual gift is doing the legwork to find the phone).

If there is a kind of phone or carrier that would be better, or if I should ask him to specify that it be locked or unlocked, then that would be good to know as well. It sounds like we should get an unlocked phone?

I think he's thinking Android would be good, but that's the Operating System, right? Not the brand or the carrier? Ugh this is so complicated.
posted by forza at 7:23 PM on December 18, 2016

Best answer: Add 'unlocked' to the list of requirements for your husband. What that means is that your phone will take any compatible SIM card and work with that. So when you arrive at your arrival airport, buy one of the SIM cards you'll see available for purchase at the airport and use your phone with that SIM card. When you leave you simply pop your Aus sim back in. Especially with a prepaid sim it is extremely unlikely that calling and texting overseas will not cost you an arm and a leg otherwise. Use something like whatsapp for texting people at home. That'll be free for you on wifi/incur local data usage for you and the same for the people at home.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:38 PM on December 18, 2016

Best answer: OK so ask your husband to buy you an unlocked Android phone. When you get to the US, buy a prepaid US SIM card. Take the back off your phone, pull out your AUS SIM card, put in the new SIM card and you'll have a working phone with a new, US number.

Here are the directions for using a T-Mobile SIM in the US, which is what I did when I visited in October. You get a lot of data for maps, etc; you can send as many texts home as you would like for free; you can make 16 hours of phone calls in the US. You can get calls from Australia for free.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:43 PM on December 18, 2016

Best answer: When I visited the US, with my unlocked Android phone, and with relatives who had a variety of different unlocked Android and iPhone phones, we all went to a phone shop upon arrival (I think it was AT&T?) We walked in, put our phones on the counter, explained we were visiting from Australia for a month and wanted a prepaid SIM that would work in these phones, primarily for calling/texting each other and using data. They sorted it all out for us (gave us a couple of options, but no complicated decisions, just like, would you rather pay $20 extra and have twice as much data, sort of thing).

They even put the SIMs in, helped us activate them, and checked that everything was working.

I think it cost about $50 per person.

I did notice that if you aren't wedded to your phone, it would have been cheaper to buy a cheap prepaid phone over there with SIM included from Target or Walmart or somewhere, even if you end up dumping it when you leave.
posted by lollusc at 7:45 PM on December 18, 2016

Best answer: Similar to lollusc's idea, I was about to suggest doing this in reverse.

If you can hold off with no phone for a couple weeks, a cheap unlocked Android phone in the USA will cost you significantly less, and will also work when you pop your old Voda card back into it when you get home to Australia. Heck, getting an ATT-compatible iPhone in America would save even more. Australia is expensive.

(Source: I have a drawer full of SIM cards from all over the planet. I should make a diorama.)
posted by rokusan at 8:31 PM on December 18, 2016

If not having your phone number or your current phone is not a deal breaker, you can just buy a prepaid phone and airtime here. The cost of the phone depends on what you get. You can get a flip phone for ten dollars or an iPhone 7 for full retail, and everything inbetween. $50 gets you a usable smartphone. Unlocked phones are available but they do cost more... but you can take it back with you and drop your sim in.
posted by azpenguin at 9:39 PM on December 18, 2016

I'm a US expat in Australia.
I use Skype (there's free wifi *everywhere* in the US), and turn off my mobile data to avoid fees.
posted by jrobin276 at 10:07 PM on December 18, 2016

Best answer: It was a Huawei (that is the brand - I am not sure if that's the same thing as a carrier? I thought the carrier was Vodaphone - does that make sense?).

Just some definitions to help you understand what's going on:
Huawei is a manufacturer, they built the physical phone. Some other manufacturers are Samsung, Nokia, Apple and Motorola.
Vodafone is the carrier, they run the network that your phone connects to. In Australia some of the other carriers are Telstra and Optus.
Android is the Operating System - the other Operating System you have probably heard of is iOS, which only comes on an iPhone. There are others but they aren't important, unless you have special requirements you only want Android or an iPhone.

An 'unlocked' phone means that it can change which carrier you use it on. Many phones are sold with a software lock that makes them only work with one phone carrier.

For an analogy, think of a TV: Sony is a TV manufacturer, Foxtel is a TV carrier. (TVs don't have an operating system though).
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:25 PM on December 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I used to spend a month a year in the US. I bought a cheap virgin mobile phone in a drugstore and use prepay vouchers. The phone number expires between visits so I just reregister it each visit. I think the phone was ten dollars and a month of usage is maybe $30. I keep my Aussie phone on to receive and send texts home.
posted by kitten magic at 12:22 AM on December 19, 2016

Best answer: Let me add to the helpful definitions by the agent of KAOS.

SIM card is a tiny little electronic card you insert in your phone that identifies the phone uniquely to the carrier (and thus linked to your assigned phone number); this SIM card is provided by the carrier when you sign up for their service. In your current case, Vodafone is the carrier and they provided you a SIM card. (There are three sizes of this card- normal, micro and nano. The mobile phone store will give you the right size depending on your phone).

Roaming is when you use your phone on a network not operated by your SIM card provider. In your case, if you use any phone in the U.S. with a Aussie SIM card, you would by definition be using it in "roaming" mode, and thus have to pay huge fees (think along the lines of $1-$2 per min calls etc, both incoming and outgoing and charges for texts too). Not all mobile plans / SIM cards will allow you to use roaming, so you might or might not have this option, you have to first check with your Aussie carrier if it is possible and if yes, the charges. Some carriers have special plans that offer flat rate for a set period of roaming, so you should check this as well. This would be the way to keep using your Aussie phone number while in the U.S.

To avoid "roaming" charges altogether, you would have to use a SIM card bought in the U.S. (this means you won't be reachable on your Aussie phone number, instead you will get a new U.S. local phone number).

If buying a new phone in Australia, key points to consider:
1. Global capable phone (Australia uses 900 and 1900 MHz bands, whereas USA uses 850 and 1900 MHz bands, plus there are additional bands when you factor in 3G/LTE data). Many modern smartphones are global capable.
2. Unlocked (so that you can use any SIM card you want).
3. Whether you will get a normal phone or smartphone would depend on your usage; same goes for Android (several choices) or iOS (iPhone) if you want a smartphone.

As one option for your SIM card quest, let me point out a special prepaid international Tourist plan by T-Mobile (carrier) in the U.S. This works only for 3 weeks, so if you need 1 month coverage, you have buy their normal prepaid plan (slightly more expensive). Similar plans are also available at AT&T.

Note, the two other carriers in the U.S. are Verizon and Sprint -- they use different kind of networks (CDMA) that are not compatible with Aussie networks (GSM) and phones, so I'd stick to T-Mobile or AT&T.
posted by thewildgreen at 1:01 AM on December 19, 2016

When my parents visit the US from Europe, they buy a Cricket SIM and pop them into their GSM phones. They love the service, so consider them too if you end up going the "new SIM" route.
posted by gemmy at 3:57 AM on December 19, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks, guys, this is really helpful. I think I'll talk it over with my husband, but it sounds like there are several reasonable options assuming I'm willing to relax on the "uses the same phone number" front (which I am given the state of things). They are, in descending order of what I'm likely to do:

1. Get a prepaid cheap phone in the US.
2. Buy a new phone here in Australia, unlocked, and new SIM card in the US.
3. Buy a new phone in the US, unlocked, and put the Aus SIM card in it when I get back.

It was really helpful reading this, especially the comments that explained the blizzard of terms and assumptions that go into it all. I feel marginally less stupid now.
posted by forza at 2:23 AM on December 20, 2016

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