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How to Choose a Travel Cell Phone

Keep it Simple!

Cell Shopping on the Go
0 Comments 01 April 2011

Traveling with a mobile phone is important. Don’t believe us? Read this. But what kind of mobile phone should you travel with? After researching through the heaps of travel articles and forums posts out there on this topic, ConTrav endorses the simplest solution: go with an unlocked quad-band GSM phone that you can use with a local number in nearly any country.

Quad-band? GSM? Unlocked?? I thought you said this was simple!? Don’t worry. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Lets start with GSM.

What’s a SIM Card?

All you really need to know about GSM phones is that they accept SIM cards. SIM cards are small chips, usually behind the battery, holding your account details. In the United States, AT&T and T-Mobile use these kinds of phones whereas Sprint and Verizon use a different system called CDMA. You can buy a SIM card for a GSM phone at local kiosks in pretty much any country. Once you pop the card in, your phone gets a local number and can make local calls at local rates which, in some countries, can be pretty darn cheap. Also cell companies in most countries don’t charge for incoming calls which means your over-protective parents can get a hold of you without it costing you a dime. That is, provided you give them the number, of course.

This sort of thing is incredibly useful for traveling. For a few bucks you get a local number that you can use to meet up with other travelers, call a cab, make reservations or call your embassy. A SIM card may or may not have any minutes to start with when you buy it. You can add value to your SIM card by purchasing top-up cards at most convenience stores. Just scratch the secret number and follow the directions on the back. Alternatively, some plans let you top up with a credit card by calling an automated number. Plans may include data packages for smart phones, voice mail and reasonable international calling rates but these sort of things vary from country to country.

Keep in mind that while you can hit the ground running by purchasing a SIM card at the airport, you can save money by shopping around. Talking to the locals first can tip you off to the cheapest provider with the best coverage. Ask about restrictions for residents or requirements for photo IDs. Every country is different and we welcome readers to add their experiences in the comments below.

Frequencies: All You Need is Quad

Don’t let other travel phone articles scare you when it comes to frequencies! There are all kinds of charts out there indicating which countries use which cellular frequency. Times have changed, though, and it’s now inexpensive to purchase what are called quad-band phones online which work pretty much everywhere. We recommend a few at the end of this article.

If you lose your phone, or as was my case, go swimming with it in your pocket, you may have trouble locating a reasonably priced quad-band phone abroad. Fortunately whatever dual or tri band phone you end up buying on location will, at the very least, work in that and neighboring countries. I replaced my water logged quad-band phone for a dual-band one in India for only $20 USD! It doesn’t work back home in America but it held up fine throughout Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

NOTE: If you already own a dual-band or tri-band phone and want to see if you can use it on your next trip, refer to this chart to look up coverage in your destination country.

Make Sure It’s Unlocked

“Sounds great! I already use AT&T and my phone is brand new so I can just take that abroad then, right?” Honestly, it SHOULD be that easy. Unfortunately since many mobile carriers subsidize the cost of a phone when you sign up for a contract, they’re not too keen on the idea of you switching networks just by popping in a new SIM card. Many GSM phones that you get through your mobile provider will be locked, meaning they’ll only work on that one network. The classic example of this is Apple’s iPhone. Sure, there are ways to unlock these phones but it can get pretty technical and isn’t worth it for most travelers, especially when unlocked GSM phones sell for so cheap online.

If you’re unsure, find a friend with a phone from a different GSM carrier (say T-Mobile vs. AT&T in USA or Orange vs Vodaphone in Europe) and try swapping SIM cards. If you’re able to make and receive calls using your friend’s number then your phone is unlocked. If not, leave it at home and scroll down to purchase an unlocked phone online.

Smart Phones? Not Simple Enough

Assuming it’s unlocked, traveling with a smart phone may sound great at first. Having all of your travel apps and GPS at your finger tips anywhere in the world can sound like a dream to some, especially in a country with reasonable data plans. However there are a lot of downsides to traveling with an unlocked iPhone or Android. For starters, these phones are expensive. In general you should only travel with items that you’re okay with losing or getting stolen. Replacing an iPhone in the middle of a contract can cost a fortune.

Then there’s battery life. Anybody who’s ever owned a latest generation smart phone knows that they’ll devour a battery in under a day. When you’re roaming through the streets of Old Delhi or trekking through jungles of Thailand finding an A/C outlet isn’t exactly easy or even possible. And unlike more plain vanilla phones, smart phones take forever to boot up and consume a lot of energy in the process, so leaving them off to use only when you need it isn’t always an option either.

The other downside to traveling with a smart phone is that the level of total connectedness it provides can detract from the travel experience. This is subjective, of course, but it’s always important to unplug now and then.

Instead, we recommend traveling with a basic, preferably black and white, simple phone like the ones made by Nokia, Motorola, LG and Samsung. These babies can last close to a week on a single charge. The newer models are incredibly small and light, have great reception and call quality, cost under 100 bucks, and, best of all, come with a flashlight on top. They make great alarm clocks, can be dropped without shattering, and are easy to replace as they’re sold in mobile kiosks around the world. In case you can’t tell, I love these phones. I love my iPhone as well but when I head overseas, that baby stays safely at home.

As for getting at all those great travel apps…use an iPod Touch! Sure it won’t have GPS or a 3G data connection but you can still make calls with it via Skype when WiFi is around (which is often) and it’s a fraction of the cost (and weight) of a full blown iPhone.

So, which phone is right for you?

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