International phone rental and SIM cards

When traveling with your mobile or smartphone, there are a few options for how you can access phone service.  You can roam with your existing phone plan, you can buy a local SIM card in each country you are visiting, and now there is an international hybrid: the international phone plan.

If you are traveling on a short holiday or if you are visiting many countries in a short period of time, your cheapest option may be to purchase or rent an international phone plan.

There are several options to consider for international mobile and data services, and we break them down for you below:

> Phone rental – If you do not travel often, or if you are traveling to Japan or Korea, you may want to rent a GSM worldphone, but buying a simple GSM worldphone is usually cheaper in the long run
> Phone purchase – A simple GSM worldphone does not need to be expensive, and are accepted in most countries around the world
> Satellite phone rental or purchase – If you are going somewhere truly remote, your only option may be a satellite phone
> International SIM card purchase  – Rather than renting a phone, it’s usually cheaper to buy a cheap GSM world phone and an international SIM card
> Data only – If your primary need is for surfing the internet, downloading maps, sending photos, and checking emails, you are better-off using data only, and placing phone calls through a VoIP service

Phone Rental

If you don’t have your own unlocked GSM quad-band “world phone”, it’s possible to simply rent one for travel.  This option is best when traveling to countries like Japan or South Korea where a different type of network is used, but for regular travelers it quickly becomes more expensive to rent a phone than to buy a cheap un-locked GSM world phone instead.

Phone purchase

Unless you’re renting a satellite phone or traveling to Japan or Korea, we recommend that you buy an un-locked GSM world phone and then choose which service.

It is not necessary to buy an “international phone” from an “international phone provider” — you just need an unlocked GSM world phone.

With this type of phone, you can either buy a local SIM card in each country you are visiting with a different phone number for each country, or you can buy an international SIM card that allows you to have a single UK and/or US-based phone number wherever you go, all around the world.

Satellite Phone Purchase or Rental

If you will be traveling to an area that has no cellular phone reception (at last count, 86% of the surface of the Earth), then your only option for staying connected is a satellite phone.  Satellite phones used to be only for scientists, forestry workers, and rescue operators, but in recent years have become much more affordable.  Satellite phones can be rented or purchased out-right, and then service rates range depending on the satellite service provider.  It is illegal to use a satellite phone in some countries including Angola, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Libya, and Myanmar.

 SIM Card

With a GSM worldphone, you have the flexibility to purchase a local SIM card in each of the countries you are traveling to, or purchase an international SIM card. International SIM cards allow you to have one phone number anywhere in the world, without needing to change SIM cards everywhere you go.  While rates are usually more expensive per minute than purchasing individual local SIM cards in each country, this can be the best option when traveling to multiple countries since you don’t have to pay for a new SIM card each time you land in a new country.  It’s much more convenient and makes it easier for your family to find you.

Data Only

There are several companies that offer data only services, which can be a cheaper option for those who have VoIP services or for people who check their email more than they check their voice messages.  Data packages can be part of your international SIM rates, or you can turn off your data service and search for Wi-Fi hotspots from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. It’s also possible to rent or buy a pocket Wi-Fi device (such as MiFi, or WiMax) which allows you to connect several devices through one pocket Wi-Fi device.

Variations in International Phone Service

There are dozens of countries all around the world that offer international phone or SIM services.  Each company’s services have their advantages and disadvantages.  Here are some issues to consider when choosing an International Phone Service provider:

Does the company support my phone?  Or does the company rent phones for the destination(s) I’m going to?
If you have an un-locked GSM world phone, all international SIM cards should work on your phone.
If you’re going to a specific country like Japan or Korea where networks are different, check if they rent phones that work in that country.

Does the company ship to my country of origin?  And how much are the shipping costs?
Some international SIM card companies only ship to a limited number of countries.  Also, be sure to factor in the price of shipping to your home country.

Does the company provide service to the countries I’m planning on traveling to?
Each international SIM company has its own agreements with different service providers around the world. In our sample survey of a few international SIM services, this ranged from 50 to “over 200” countries. Also, if you are going to a remote location where there is no phone network, you will need a satellite phone to stay connected, regardless of whether your international SIM card covers the country or not.

What is the initial cost of buying the SIM card?
International SIM cards are quite reasonably price (our sample survey indicated prices from “free” to $59), and often the initial cost of buying the SIM card includes some air time / credit minutes.  While the cost of buying a SIM card should be an important factor in your decision, the cost of paying for phone service over the life of the SIM card is usually your biggest expense.  It might pay-off to pay more upfront.

What are the phone rates to and from a selection of countries?
If you know where you are traveling ahead of time, check what the rates are to and from that country, but also check other countries you anticipate traveling to in the future. When comparing rates, take into account the following:

  • Rate per minute to make a phone call to a local phone number (note: landlines and mobile phones sometimes have different charges)
  • Rate per minute to make a phone call to an international phone number (note: this could vary based on which country you are phoning!  Check how much it costs to phone your home country and any other countries you frequently phone while away)
  • Whether or not there is a connection fee (some service providers charge a fixed rate per phone call, plus a rate per minute)
  • Whether or not the phone service is a call-back service (some international SIM cards use a call-back service, where you dial a number, hang up, and they call you back, and then you place your phone call.  These are usually the least expensive services, but they are slightly less convenient)
  • Rate per minute to receive a phone call from a local phone number
  • Rate per minute to receive an international phone call (note: with some plans, you get a UK-based phone number and a US-based phone number.  Often, the UK-based phone number can receive phone calls from anywhere in the world for free, but the US-based number will have a charge to receive phone calls)
  • Rate per message to receive a local and international SMS text message (often, it is free to receive text messages, sometimes rates vary depending on whether it is local or international)
  • Rate per message to send a local and international SMS text message (sometimes rates vary if it is an international or local text message, and most U.S. cell phones cannot receive international text messages – you are better off sending a MMS or using a messenger service like g-chat, blackberry messenger, etc.)
  • Rate per kilobyte (KB), megabyte (MB), or gigabyte (GB) for data service (note: different service providers could charge per KB, while others per GB — make sure you are comparing “apples to apples”. In many countries, data service is extremely expensive, and you are better off plugging into Wi-Fi connections at your hotel)
  • Rates for VoIP services (if you already use a VoIP service, some international SIM cards support VoIP.  It’s also possible to simply sign into Wi-Fi at your hotel and retrieve your VoIP over the Internet)
  • Options for MiFi devices and service (if you are planning to use a lot of data service, or if you have several devices that require an Internet connection, it may be well worth your while to sign up for a MiFi service and rent a MiFi device.  Review of MiFi services coming soon)

Tip: If you intend to purchase a “world phone”, there’s no need to do so through an international phone provider.  They will be happy to sell you an unlocked GSM quad band “world phone”, but so will most phone stores around the world, with much greater selection and options for extra phone features.  Learn more about what to look for in a mobile or smartphone for travel.

Tip: For country-specific SIM cards, you are usually better-off purchasing a SIM card from a local mobile service provider than from an international phone provider.  While international phone providers offer you the convenience of searching over 200 countries on one website, the costs are significantly higher.  Instead, research ahead of time prepaid local SIM options for the country you are visiting.

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