Neil Kozarsky thought he had found the perfect phone in the BlackBerry 8830.
As head of a New Jersey packaging company, he travels to Japan at least once a
month. So when a phone clerk said the "World Edition" BlackBerry could keep him
connectedeven in Japan, a notorious dead zone for Western phones and personal
digital assistantsKozarsky was sold.
** Check out our Prepaid Calling Card
Too bad. On his next trip to Tokyo in midJuly, Kozarsky found his Blackberry
wouldnt get a signal. He blamed the airport, then the train, then the overcast
weather. After a sleepless night spent rebooting the phone and talking to his
support staff in the U.S., he contacted Verizon (nyse: VZ news people )
Wireless customer service, which immediately pinpointed the problem: The phone
was functional in more than 160 countries, but not Japan.
Calling home is one of the great frustrations of traveling abroad. Horror
stories abound of travelers stranded with malfunctioning phone cards or racking
up thousanddollar cellphone bills for international roaming charges. Some
frequent travelers carry multiple phones to navigate incompatible cellular
standards country to country.
In Pictures: How To Call Home From Outside The U.S.
The introduction of "world phones," which can toggle between the two most
popular cellular technologies, and the growing popularity of VoIP services like
Skype, which route calls over the Internet, have expanded options, but also
complicated the process.
The best way to phone home depends on several factors: your current phone and
carrier, your destination, your budget, and the amount of effort youre willing
to invest. Business travelers that have generous corporate budgets and diverse
destinations will probably want to rent a phone at the airport, or perhaps buy a
world phone and ask their IT departments to ensure seamless use abroad.
Budgetminded travelers with more free time would be better off using a local
phone card or VoIP services.
In terms of cellular access technology, U.S. carriers can be divided into two
basic camps: CDMA and GSM. In general, AT&T (nyse: T news people ) and
TMobile phones use GSM, while Verizon and Sprint Nextel (nyse: S news
people ) phonesas well as those from smaller carriers, like Alltel (nyse: AT
news people ) and United States Cellular (amex: USM news people )use
CDMA. The distinction matters, because GSM is a more widely used technology
globallyabout 85% of wireless phone users across Europe, Australia and much of
Asia and Africa, while CDMA is predominantly found in the U.S. and South Korea.
A GSM phone has a good chance of working abroad, as long as its a multiband
(triband or quadband) phone. That functionality is necessary because GSM works
on a different radio spectrum in the U.S. than in the rest of the world. Most
new GSM phones are capable of accessing these other spectrum bandsbut check
the user manual or ask your carrier to be sure. AT&T, which says it has coverage
in more than 195 countries, recently added a Web site features that pinpoints
access based on your phone type: Just plug in your cell number.
"There are devices that work just about anywhere, particularly if youre on a
GSM network and have a quadband phone," says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst
with Jupiter Research. "But you do have to look at the feature sets and ask the
Verizon and Sprint customers have the option of buying a "world phone" that uses
CDMA in the U.S. and GSM abroad. The BlackBerry 8830 and Motorolas (nyse: MOT
news people ) Z6c are two examples. Again, the prepared traveler should check
the companys Web site for details on exactly where the phones work, as coverage
can vary city to city, based on the carriers global roaming agreements.
Taking your cell phone abroad is convenient, but pricy, as dialing from another
country activates international roaming rates. If you have a GSM phone, you can
get cheaper service by swapping out a small card located in the back of your
phone and replacing it with a local version. (This wont work on CDMA phones, as
they dont have these cards.) Called "SIM" cards, theyre sold in phone shops
and can be purchased prepaid. Snapping in a new card will make your phone act as
if its a local phone, complete with a local phone number and local rates.
Switching cards is particularly popular in Europe, where people "walk in, buy a
SIM, and keep on adding minutes to it," notes Current Analysis analyst Bill Ho.
Calls to your existing phone number go to voice mail.
One caveat: This kind of swap only works on "unlocked" phones. Most phones
purchased in the U.S. as part of a subscriber plan are "locked" to a particular
network to try to build in loyalty in exchange for cheaper handsets. Before you
leave, ask your carrier to unlock your phonea quick, softwarebased process.
Due to an exclusive agreement between Apple (nasdaq: AAPL news people ) and
AT&T, the iPhone cannot be unlocked here in the U.S.
Of course, many people dont want to take their phones abroad. They can rent a
phone at the airport or online, then arrange delivery to their hotelsor buy a
local phone. Buying is a good choice for extended stays and in countries that
have cheap handsets. Gadget geeks often pick up cool phones that havent yet
debuted in the U.S. and bring them back, intending to switch the SIM cards and
use them at home. This will work as long as the frequencies match, which is a
good bet for quadband phones.
If youre traveling with a laptop and will have ready access to a broadband
connection, you can bypass these technical issues and simply make calls over the
Internet. Robin Kawakami, a 31yearold New Yorker currently studying in Europe,
uses Skype to keep in touch. Calls to other Skype users on computers are free
those to U.S. cell phones or landlines cost about 25 cents per minute from her
current base in Denmark.
Of course, making calls online isnt limited to Skype or PCs. New York City
startup Raketu offers VoIP calls on certain BlackBerrys, as well as the iPhone
and iPod touch. The service utilizes WiFi hot spots, and is limited to
designated zones in about 40 countries. Later this month, Sony (nyse: SNE news
people ) will introduce a software update for its PlayStation Portable that
will support Skype.
For those who prefer to travel lightno phone, no laptop, no major purchases
abroadtheres always the triedandtrue phone card. Major telcos, including
AT&T and Verizon, offer calling cards for calls both to and from the U.S. So, of
course, do a number of independent and local companies. Local phone cards offer
cheaper rates, but the potential for more headaches as well, including technical
glitches and assistance or directions limited to the local language.
Japan and Korea are special cases: The proprietary cellular technologies used in
those countries means travelers need phones that operate on thirdgeneration
technology at 2100 MHz. Samsungs Blackjack II and Palms (nasdaq: PALM news
people ) Treo 750 are two handsets that fit the bill.
These proliferating options means its easier than ever to make regular phone
calls. But its increasingly complicated to access mobile data networks abroad,
something more people are interested in as phones get more sophisticated.
Switching SIM cards wont guarantee text messaging or Web browsing will be
Carriers are working toward a more universal standard for cell phones. Verizon
has said it will upgrade its network to a fourthgeneration mobile broadband
technology, called Long Term Evolution, that is likely to be adopted by other
operators around the world.
For now, "what it comes down to is caveat emptor," says Jupiters Gartenberg. If
youre buying a phone or a SIM card, "assume that the salespeople in the store
arent necessarily international travelers. Do your homework."
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