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April 08, 2007

SIMitry

SIMitry is the fine art of putting the right SIM (see prior post for what’s a SIM) in your mobile phone at the right time to avoid paying an obscene amount of money to a mobile carrier while roaming.  It’s something we Americans aren’t used to because we can roam around our huge country and still be making domestic calls. But Europeans in their state-size countries are often crossing borders; and, if you’re traveling through Europe or even Asia, you may go from country to country as well.

The object of this game is to save money by, first, avoiding international roaming and, second, avoiding international calling.  Roaming is worse than international calling so keep your priorities straight.  It is NOT an object of the game to make it cheaper for people to call you.

You are roaming internationally whenever you are using your phone to either make or receive calls in a country other than the country in which the phone is registered (determined by the country code used to call the phone).  When you are roaming, you pay a roaming charge per minute whether you are making or receiving calls – usually a huge charge.

Let’s assume your trip starts in Belgium so you get a prepaid SIM from BASE (on good authority, you’ve heard that they’re the cheapest).  Calls to any number in Belgium’ll cost you €.25/minute.  Calls to neighboring European countries and the US are  €.65/minute.  Incoming calls are free.  You’re not roaming yet.

Now you wander off to Italy with the same SIM in your phone; you’re roaming!  There’s a €.07 setup charge for each you send or received but that’s just an annoyance.  The real problem is the per minute charges:  €1.50 if you call back to Belgium or make a local call in Italy; €.8676 for each minute of an incoming call from anywhere that you receive!  Not long before you have to recharge your prepaid SIM.

Time for SIMitry.  You buy a WIND prepaid SIM in Italy and put that in your phone. Now it costs you only €.35/minute to make local calls in Italy (€.20 if you happen to be calling another subscriber). Calls back to Belgium or to the US are €.50/minute.  No charge for incoming because you’re not roaming in Italy when you have a WIND card.

There are a lot of disadvantages to SIMitry.  If you plan on going back to the countries where you bought SIMs, you start to gather a collection of SIMs with odds and ends of credits on them (many expire after a while). Son Jarah suggests storing them behind the battery of your phone.  If you don’t plan to go back, you can exhaust unused balances quickly with just a little roaming, of course. Most seriously, your SIM determines your number.  If you’re playing SIMitry, people who call you have to know where you are and which phone you’re using; sort of defeats the purpose of mobile. You can get around that some by forwarding from one number to another or frequently checking voice mail but neither is very convenient.  One more inconvenience of SIMitry: your call record and any phone book entries you’ve entered into the phone are stored on the SIM. Change SIMs and you lose access to the old ones.

There are offered solutions, however:  several companies offer a single SIM which get free incoming calls in many countries thoughout the world and some can make international calls from many countries without roaming charges.  These companies actually own local numbers in the countries and do the equivalent of locality switching for you in their networks so that you look local from a billing point of view even though you’re roaming; but, form the point of view of people who are calling you, you only have a single phone number abroad.  Unless you’re a phone geek, you don’t want to know how this works.

Two of these companies are Roam4Free, which currently provides you with an Estonian number with free inbound calls in “over 65 countries” and CellularAbroad, which give you a UK number and offers 65 countries with free incoming calling. Caveat:  I haven’t tried either of these nor do I know anyone who has. I’m going to; I’m tired of SIMetry.

Notes:  You need to have a GSM phone in order to be able to swap SIM cards. If you have a Verizon phone, this is not what you’ve got. If you have a Cingular phone it probably is.  If in doubt, remove the battery and see if there’s a SIM under it (picture here). However, almost all phones purchased in the US and many purchased abroad are locked – e.g. won’t work with SIMs other than those provided by whomever you got the phone from. But free enterprise to the rescue: many phone store and online services like Roam4Free will unlock your phone for you and free you from the rates your provider would like to lock you into.  Whether you have the contractual right to unlock the phone typically depends on how long you’ve had it and your specific contract; it’s in the fine print.

It’s always cheaper to use VoIP services like Skype for your outbound calling if you have a computer with you and decent Internet access. Skype rates to the US from anywhere in the world are €.021/minute. None of the cellular rates above come close.  BTW, now you know why mobile operators aren’t eager to have their phones work on WiFi networks: there’s lots of profit dollars – more than 100% of the profit of some mobile operators – in roaming minutes.

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