Telephone service for travel
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.
Check charges in advance
There are many horror stories of travellers being presented with unexpected outrageously large bills — anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands — mainly either by hotels with very high charges for calls from the room or by cell phone companies with painful rates for "roaming", making or receiving calls outside the home area. Often these bills can be negotiated down somewhat after the fact, but rarely enough to make them painless.
The best defense is to find out in advance what calls will cost so that you can avoid using overpriced services.
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 and sometimes even budget 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.
If a hotel provides wireless Internet, installing a voice-over-IP application onto a portable device may be a cost-effective way to employ a local telephone number from your home country while you are abroad. Oddly, a low to midrange priced hotel is more likely to include wi-fi in the base price of the room, where high-end properties charge substantial extra hidden fees. A hotel which refuses to rent a room without a charge card often does so with the intention of billing a vast assortment of extra charges directly to the card, ranging from costly pay-per-view TV channels to local telephone calls from a room at double or more the cost of the same call from a coin-operated pay phone.
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. If the first minute of a coin phone call carries an inflated price, a trunk call which is terminated in the first few seconds after only reaching voicemail may cost a few dollars... and usually there's no way for the voicemail recipient to call back if the original caller is at a coin phone.
Check the information in the booth if there is any before making a call. Sometimes, one can avoid the worst of high charges by picking a payphone booth branded by a major carrier; competing carriers vary from substantially cheaper to badly overpriced, especially for long-distance coin calls. There are also substantial differences in price between coin-paid long distance calls (which were traditionally operator-assisted, so carry the worst rates) and telephone calling cards.
Often, courtesy phones at airports and similar places will ringdown a specific 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.)
While these cards often feature excellent international rates, read the fine print carefully as there may be particular times or days that the rates apply. Many cards carry hidden charges (such as a substantially higher rate for the first minute of a long-distance call - which is incurred even if only an answering machine responds - or a per-month charge even if the card is not being used), a trap for the unwary as this can wipe out the value of a card rapidly.
US FCC regulations allow pay phone providers to be reimbursed sixty cents per call by the called party for toll-free numbers, on top of any long distance charges, so additional minutes or surcharges may be deducted when using your card from a US 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.
Where you have full access to the Internet at a reasonable speed, making phone calls over the Internet is the cheapest option and can even be free.
Free calls are possible if the other party has similar software to 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 result from a laptop or tablet with a "softphone" using either the built-in microphone and loudspeakers or, giving a clearer result, a headset with a boom microphone. You should install an app on your phone to allow VoIP calling and signup to a voice service provider (VSP) and then make sure to test your configuration before departing.
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. Often, 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 the Skype network entirely. However, Skype is still accessible from some hotels in the UAE that provide access through 'TheWayOut' Wi-Fi service.
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.
Voice over IP
If you have access to broadband Internet during your travels, voice-over-Internet allows you to bring a telephone number from your home country with you wherever you go, typically for a penny or two a minute. Applications for the standard session initiation protocol (SIP) are available both for laptop PC's and small mobile devices like Google's Android system. Unlike a cellular 'phone (which incurs substantial "roaming" charges when taken out of its home region), voice over IP will operate in the same manner as if you had never left home.
Depending on the length of your trip, it may make sense to buy a local pre-paid mobile telephone at destination or a local SIM card for use in your existing mobile device. Roaming with your existing 'phone may be manageable when visiting one European Union country from another, but further abroad the cost may be prohibitive or the service not available. In most of Europe a pre-paid SIM card is usually very cheap (€10 or less with some credit included), although in some countries (e.g. Italy) identification and a local tax code may be necessary.
Mobile (Cellular) phones
There are three main ways you can use a cell phone while travelling overseas.
- Take your phone and SIM card, and use the foreign network (roaming)
- Purchase a SIM card at your destination, and put it in your own phone
- Rent or purchase a phone and SIM card at your destination
- Rent or purchase an international cell phone and SIM card prior to departure
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:
- Is your phone the correct type and can it communicate on the frequencies required by the foreign network?
- Does your carrier have roaming agreements with the country you are visiting, and are you on a plan permitted to roam to another country?
Digital mobile phone technologies fell into three widely-used technologies around the world, GSM (sometimes called 2G), UMTS (sometimes called 3G) and CDMA. Newer systems (such as HSPA, a successor to GSM) are largely built on these digital predecessors.
The most widely used mobile 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.
Many modern GSM phones also have UMTS (3G) capabilities. No phones are made with only UMTS (3G) capabilities.
- The United States has very heavy use of both CDMA (Verizon, Sprint, Alltel, Tracfone, Virgin) and GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile).
- Japan and South Korea have no GSM coverage but have UMTS (3G) coverage, and most modern phones with 3G capability should be able to roam there (Korea has 2G and 3G CDMA coverage as well as 3G UMTS coverage).
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.
- GSM: Most of the world uses 900 MHz and 1800 MHz, except the United States and Canada, and most countries in Central and South America that use 1900 MHz and 850 MHz (sometimes mistakenly called 800 MHz).
- UMTS (3G): Most of the world uses 900Mhz and 2100 MHz, except the United States's AT&T network runs on 850/1900 MHz, and T-mobile operates on 1700 MHz/2100 MHz Australia's Telstra has a network on 850 MHz with greater coverage outside of the major cities and towns.
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.
- GSM World - details on US and international roaming agreements
- Official EU roaming information page - for EU related information (tariffs, hints)
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 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.
In a few cases, the foreign signal may actually be stronger - particularly in spots where the signal path to the foreign tower is directly across water with no terrestrial obstacles. Mobile users in border regions like Niagara Falls, Windsor-Detroit or the Thousand Islands often disable roaming from the phone's menus to avoid being randomly hit for $2/minute roaming charges on mobile telephones which never left their 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 for eTIM card in Italy, 150 HKD in Hong Kong, 50 SGD in Singapore.) Many 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 mobile phone 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 may end up buying a new SIM (or additional pre-paid credit) 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 may be easier to obtain a number on a service which can be call-forwarded cheaply (such as a Voice over IP provider), distribute that number to your contacts and forward its calls to your local mobile phone/SIM when you enter a new country.
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 and HSPA phones have a SIM card inside of them which provides the "identity" for the phone, including its phone number and mobile 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 quietly added by the carrier to the price of the ongoing monthly service.
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.
Note that "unlocking" a phone (to allow access to competing mobile carriers) is not the same as "jailbreaking" (which allow access to non-Apple software downloads on Apple devices) or "rooting" (which provides a "run as administrator" option for Android programmes).
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 Mobile 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 mobile 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 mobile 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
- Cellular Abroad – rents and sells unlocked GSM phones, country-specific SIM cards and the Talk Abroad international roaming SIM card by National Geographic
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:
- For a GSM phone to work in the US or Canada, it has to work on the 1900 MHz and/or 850 MHz GSM frequencies. Some locations provide service on both frequencies, others one or the other. A few new entrants may be using 700 MHz (former UHF TV 52-69, liberated by a 2009-2011 forced transition to digital TV) or 1700 MHz AWS, these non-standard frequencies are not supported by all handsets.
- The SIM card and sometimes the phone itself needs to be permitted to roam internationally. Check with your carrier before you leave. Most European accounts accept international billing. Another option may be to have the phone unlocked so that it can use a local prepaid SIM at destination.
- Prepaid GSM SIM cards are relatively difficult to find at retail in the US (at least not without a phone): T-mobile offers one ($10) at their own shops or online, AT&T's GoPhone SIM is available (to US addresses only) by mail order on their website. Another option is buying the least expensive prepaid phone (generally starting about $30) at a "big box" store and removing the SIM card. IMPORTANT for AT&T users: Please do not insert the sim into the phone supplied if you intend to use your own phone. Doing so will lock the sim into that phone and you will need to visit an AT&T service centre to request a new sim. There are also online services who will ship prepaid SIMs overseas before you go, but they typically overcharge badly (see for example online.)
- Prepaid service is available on several CDMA networks in the US, but generally requires buying a phone - these start from $20 for a basic phone up, and otherwise work like a prepaid SIM (but is difficult to transfer to another phone.) While no particular carrier is more broadly available than either of the individual GSM carriers, because there are more nationwide CDMA carriers it will often be easier to find one of them.
- In Canada, the incumbent landline carriers (Bell, Telus) are supplanting their CDMA networks with 3G UMTS (WCDMA/HSPA), allowing new handsets to operate with SIM cards. Any new prepaid handsets and cards are on the 3G network, with some LTE in a few large markets.
- Canadian CDMA networks are to go completely dead by late 2014 (Tbaytel), July 1, 2015 (Telus) and Jan 1, 2017 (Bell). (Rogers/Fido, a GSM carrier, has never supported CDMA.) As most existing CDMA handsets have no removable SIM, they're not readily movable to other networks; like Public Mobile handsets, they'll be paperweights.
- GSM-only handsets (even unlocked and on the correct frequencies) will not work at all on Bell/Telus (Canada) or Verizon/Sprint (USA). That means being forced onto Rogers (Canada) or limited to AT&T vs. T-Mobile (USA) or their respective resellers only. By contrast, an unlocked 3G WCDMA (850/1900 MHz) handset will work on any of the three majors in Canada.
- Refills (in the US) or top-ups (in Canada) for prepaid cards are generally available at any convenience shops/stores, gas stations and Canadian post offices. "Big box" retailers and larger pharmacies will often have the broadest selection. It is often possible to refill using a credit card online.
- All of the large carriers now have nationwide networks in the US so that roaming charges within the US will not generally be an issue. However, there are a number of smaller regional carriers within the US which sell prepaid service, and these will generally have charges for roaming (and in many cases will be impossible to find retail top up cards outside of the home region.)
- Prepaid plans, if paid in cash, will typically not allow roaming as a roaming handset represents an unlimited liability to the home carrier.
- Dialing 411 is a reliable method of obtaining phone numbers and addresses. Phone carriers typically charge about two dollars per 411 call, although directory assistance is also available almost for free (local airtime costs apply) via 1-800-Free411, an ad-supported provider of business, government, and residential listings, as well as turn-by-turn driving directions to a listing.
- If you have a data (or wi-fi) connection, websites like 411.ca, 411.info or canada411.com are cheaper alternatives to 4-1-1 or +1-areacode-555-1212.
- In addition for free services, there are specific services like #TAXI (#8294) that work on any cellphone in Canada and on most cellphones in the US for a cost of between $1.25 and $1.79. The advantage here is avoiding busy signals and #TAXI recommends the best first available cab company.
- CAA/AAA automobile club members may obtain mobile roadside assistance by dialling *222 (*CAA or *AAA) anywhere in Canada or the US, a free call.
- There are prepaid plans available which allow you to make longer calls and send more SMS for effectively reduced rates. The big difference is that in the US, the rates and plans are typically good for anytime of the day while in Canada, they may only be good for either the late afternoon, evening or weekend. You may want to consider this if you intend to stay in the US or Canada for a prolonged vacation. Roaming plans may also be available if you intend to do frequent trans border travel during your trip.
- North American cell phone providers typically charge for both incoming and outgoing minutes. If your recipient has no credits/balance left, he may not be able to take calls. However, for the caller, there is no difference in cost between contacting a North American land line or cell phone.
- The call will usually be charged from the moment the number was dialed, not once the other party picks-up. That means unsuccessful calls and the time it takes before the other party picks-up will be deducted from your balance.
- Long distance calls are often overpriced on pre-paid or low-end packages, to the point where it may be cheaper to use pre-paid long distance cards. Conversely, some monthly plans include flat-rate long distance for a fee; the cost of a mobile long-distance call therefore varies widely.
- International calls from a cell phone will usually be very expensive unless purchased with a package. It is usually best to buy a calling card with a local access number for making international calls from a cellular phone. A very few older plans/services will have higher charges for long distance calls within the US.
- In the US there is very little storefront retail market for used phones, and finding an independent phone shop which can unlock a phone is generally difficult in tourist areas. Longer term visitors who can take the time to shop online will find most of the aftermarket in used phones has grown up around online sales sites (such as eBay, Craigslist, etc.). In some cases, information and codes to unlock a handset may be purchased online.
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.
- Japan will not allow sale of SIM cards to foreigners on visa waiver or short term visas; in general, your options are roaming (with a compatible 3G GSM phone) or renting a phone. This can be done at the major airports (Narita, Kansai, probably others) or via delivery to your hotel or business. Expect to pay $1–2 (¥100-200) a day, plus fairly high per-call/per-minute rates.
- Egypt likewise won't let tourists buy SIM cards- as tourists would arrive, buy a card, then throw it out after a few weeks, proof of Egyptian citizenship is required to buy them. There is a way to rent cards, but it's a fairly arduous process involving contacting Egyptian phone companies before travelling, and so probably not worth it.
- In Thailand, the best place to buy a used phone or get one unlocked is the 4th floor of the MBK mall in Bangkok. More than half the floor (nearly a full city block) is small mobile-phone vendors (most selling a mix of used and new), and many will do repairs, unlocks (and those that don't will generally be happy to take your phone to one that does and split the fee.) Expect to bargain hard!
- Visitors to Singapore can buy a sim card from currency exchange stalls, service centres of the TelCo providers or 7-11 convenience stores. However, they are required to give their passport at the point-of-sale for the service to be activated. A user is allowed to have a maximum 10 Singaporean sim cards registered to his name at a time.
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.
UK and Europe
- Betamax GmbH (VoIP Buster, VoipCheap, VoipDiscount, VoIP Stunt) Germany. Various plans under different branding offer "free calls" to a few dozen countries (in Europe or scattered worldwide, landline) for a few months after purchase of prepaid credits. The Betamax products appear to be limited by IP address, so 'roaming' may not work well. Some brands offer voip in numbers in European countries.
- Localphone VoIP Services UK-based. Free Localphone–Localphone calls, cheap calls over PSTN.
- SipDiscount Luxembourg. Free 1 min trial calls to many countries.
- SkySIPtel Broadband Phone. Spain. Cheap VoIP SIP Services
- AT&T CallVantage
- IConnectHere. New Jersey. Prepaid from $10.00.
- Lucky Telecom Corp. A-Z VoIP termination and proper termination services, primarily for resellers.
- Vitelity, Denver. Unbundled prepaid SIP voice with local North American numbers. Internet fax gateway (send and receive). Fax numbers are US local (various cities) or North American +1-800/888 tollfree.
- Vonage Nominally SIP, but known to lock you out of your device settings.
- 7AAA VoIP Termination VoIP termination in SIP
- Les.net. Prepaid SIP, Canada/US inbound (local numbers in most cities), North America tollfree numbers. From $2/month and 1.5 cents/minute, with a Winnipeg (+1-204-666) incoming number included. Can receive FAX (gated to e-mail) but not send FAX.
- VBuzzer, Toronto/York Region. Prepaid SIP, inbound Canada/US numbers, two cents/minute. Fax in/out is possible if using their supplied Windows XP softphone.
- VoIP.ms Montréal. Prepaid SIP, Canada/US local (many cities) and tollfree inbound numbers, international numbers, one cent/minute outbound to most western landlines, no minimum charge. Multiple points of presence in US, Canada, UK. No fax support.
- MyOwntelco Montréal. Prepaid SIP, North America coverage and access number in more than 3000 cities, local inbound numbers $7/month (most cities), 0.6 cents/minute calls to Canada, US/ Western Europe Landline from 1 cent, Fax to email, International DID, Sip client for smartphone.
Non-SIP phone companies
- Skype. Free computer-to-computer calls: pay a fee for Skype-Out service to call anyone else or pay a fee for Skype-In service to get a phone number where people can call your computer. Skype claims to be secure by using strong encryption to protect your messages, but some experts have been scathingly sceptical about those claims.
- United World Telecom
Calling Cards Websites
- 011now International calls from the U.S. and Canada. Offers $10 bonus on the first payment.
- iKappa International Calling Offers 1-2 free phone calls for the first few calls.
- Nobelcom Gives you 15 free minutes and allows you to buy worldwide calling cards.
- UWTMobile "international" SIM cards, cheaper than most roaming. Free incoming calls in 100+ countries and free Incoming SMS everywhere.
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 travelling. This is also part of the package at some of the VoIP carriers (along with the standard options to forward to a regular telephone number or an Internet device).
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's FaceTime allows free video calls between users of MacBook, iPhone or iPad devices; the software is pre-installed on the latest versions of the iPhone and iPad. Unlike Skype's video calling, FaceTime is not available for non-Apple devices (such as Androids or Windows/Linux PC's).
These websites call you on your homeline and the person you want to call so you can use you normal phone.
- Peterzahlt.de With this German website it is possible to make free calls from/to Germany for 10 min for non-members and 30 min for members
- VoIP Internet Service Callback free with registration.
- Spaxtel.com Crystal clear international calls with iPhone, Android and Blackberry apps available.
- UWT Callback Service.