Do I really need a "world phone" overseas?

Question

Do I really need to buy a world phone if I am going overseas?

- Jillian

Answer

This question was answered on June 22, 2007. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

(See our CNN video segments on this topic at: http://tinyurl.com/34wt4e AND http://tinyurl.com/2vjb8f )

Cellular phone networks, plans and options are confusing enough if you are shopping for a phone here in the United States, but add the European standards to the mix and it can become mind-numbing.

This confusion combined with the fact that people are starting to learn how to “hack” their phones to get them to work abroad has given rise to various providers selling “world” or “global” phones.

They are designed to do what the name implies, work around the world (or at least most of it).

You don’t necessarily need to buy one of these phones if you are going overseas, but if you are in the market for a new phone and you travel abroad often, it may be the right choice for you.

Having just returned from a trip to Italy, I learned about all the nuances of what can and can’t work together when it comes to existing phones.

There are two dominant standards that are used in various parts of the world; CDMA (mainly used in the US, with some coverage in a few other countries) and GSM (used in the US as well as Europe, Asia and Australia)

My Blackberry and my wife’s Motorola Razor are both CDMA phones because we are with Verizon, so we did not have an option to use either on our trip

A friend that was traveling with us had a GSM version of the Motorola Razor on the Cingular (now AT&T) network which incorporates a “SIM” card (which stands for Subscriber Identity Module)

This could potentially allow us to temporarily turn her phone into an “Italian phone” by taking out the SIM card used in the U.S and inserting one purchased in Italy.

The problem for many U.S phones that accept SIM cards are that they’re “locked” by the cell phone provider so they can only be used on their system, which was the case with our friend’s phone.

We had a couple of options for using a cell phone in Italy: “hack” our friend’s phone to unlock it before we left the U.S (which would potentially void the warranty or create other issues when we returned), rent a phone that was designed to work in Europe or buy a GSM phone in Europe that could be used in the U.S when we returned.

Some providers such as Verizon offer a rental option for traveling abroad, but there are many companies that specialize in this service, so be sure to search for “cell phone rentals” online to get the best deal.

Our current provider uses the CDMA standard, so if I bought a GSM phone in Europe, I would have to contract with another carrier in the U.S if I wanted to use it upon my return.

There are so many possible scenarios and limitations that I would always recommend calling your provider as the first step in figuring out what you currently have and what the best solution is for you Some offer roaming in other countries, while others have specific plans and products like world or global phones for those that regularly travel in other countries.

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Author

Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on June 22, 2007