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April 04, 2007

Calling Home for American Dummies

You’re going out of the country and there’s a very good chance your cellphone won’t work.  Even if it does, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be too expensive to use.  First step, though, is to call your carrier and find out if the phone does work abroad.  DON’T ask the eighteen year old kid who just got a job in the local cellphone store; he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and thinks roaming is what you do when you’re looking for a new night spot.

There are actually two questions to ask:  will my cellphone be ABLE to connect in the country I’m going to? and will my cellphone be ALLOWED to receive or make calls in that country?  In Canada, for example, there’s a very good chance that the technology in your cellphone will enable it to connect with cellular towers – but your agreement with your carrier may not let you do international roaming (something you can probably change, possibly even on the carrier’s website).

But, if you’re going to Europe or most of Asia, you’re going into an area which uses GSM technology.  Most American cellphones (they call them mobile phones in Europe) don’t support GSM.  Some support GSM but not the right flavor of GSM.  Some American cellphones – those from Cingular (soon to be at&t wireless) and Unicel, for example – do support GSM.  Your phone probably will work in GSM countries if it’s a GSM phone; but, again, very important to check with your carrier both whether said carrier has roaming agreements with carriers in the country you’re going to and whether your agreement with your carrier lets you roam to that country.

OK.  You just found out that your phone is NOT going to work in the countries you’re going to.  You could buy an expensive new phone here (maybe worth it if you travel a lot); you could rent a phone here from a number of places including American Express; you can rent a phone in the airport when you get where you’re going (much cheaper and they probably speak English in the airport since we Americans usually don’t speak much else); or you can buy a cheap phone in a phone store when you get where you’re going (gutsy but, if you travel a moderate amount on a budget, a good way to go).  If you’re buying or renting a phone abroad, you almost certainly want a prepaid plan (almost like a calling card) to avoid having to signup for a post-paid service and get monthly bills. 

Mary and I had tried all of the first three alternatives with varying success over the years.  This year son Jarah gave Mary a phone specifically to use in Europe so that put us on the fourth path.  Jarah even gave her a Belgian SIM card (a Subscriber Identity Module gives the phone its identity including its phone number) with €30 of value on it.

This was getting too easy so we complicated it.  As you can see, the SIM (actually a little board with an even littler chip on it) goes in a slot under the battery.  We knew how to do that so we put it in.    The directions for activating the card were in Flemish and French.  My smattering of German wasn’t enough to puzzle out the Flemish; Mary’s French worked pretty well but, when we translated the list of all the numbers we were supposed to have on hand before making an activation call, one was an “identity card number”.  Although we used reading glasses to see all the tiny numbers from the phone and the SIM packaging, we couldn’t find any identity card number.  Turned out not to be of any immediate moment because the phone, when we turned it on, couldn’t find any cell towers that would talk to it here in Vermont.  We know that Unicel, which works here, is GSM but apparently they have no roaming agreement to support the supplier of the Belgian SIM.

“OK,” I said.  “I’ll activate the phone between flights at JFK so I can call Jarah (whom I happened to be visiting) when I get to Trieste” and threw the phone and its charger in my computer bag with all the rest of my essentials.  Unfortunately, something depressed the on button so the battery, which had come nicely charged, now had no charge.  I had the right physical converters to allow me to plug the European charger into an American wall socket but that did no good at all.  The charger wanted 220 volts; I could only get 120 for it here in the States.

But I did get an email from Jarah while I was in the airport.  He said that identity card number literally meant the number of some national identity card Belgians have but we could probably just make that up.  However, he went on to say, every SIM he’d used came pre-activated so probably the one he gave us is as well. I would have been better off if I just left the whole thing in the box until I got to Europe.

Between flights in Rome, I found a wall outlet in a column (we road warriors know where to look) and got some juice back in the phone.  Fortunately I didn’t have to take a chance on triggering anti-terrorism alerts by inventing an identity code; the phone just started working.

Unfortunately  €30 doesn’t go far when making (or RECEIVING) international calls although anything is cheaper than a) using phones from most American carriers abroad or b) using a hotel phone.  Also, if you are calling the country the SIM card is from and are in that country, you are making national calls and those are much cheaper.  You can recharge many SIMs online or on the phone using a phone card you buy in a shop (if you’re in the right country).  You also, of course, have to be able to read the directions for recharging in whatever language they happen to be or work your way through voice prompts – even harder – in the language you don’t understand.

More on price and saving money here.

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