Step 1: Find a cell phone or smartphone that’s best for traveling

Looking to purchase a new smartphone for your trip? What do you need to know before you travel with your mobile or cellular phone? Here is our checklist of essential and extra features for buying a smartphone that travels, or just traveling with a regular mobile phone.

To optimize your travels with your new cell phone, smartphone, or tablet, there are several essentials that you should check before you purchase your new mobile device:

> GSM unlocked – Is your phone CDMA (North America)? Or can it accept international GSM SIM cards? The most widely-accepted phones in the world are GSM unlocked
> Quad-band – Does your phone run on all four bandwidths? World phones can access virtually all international bandwidths
> Data Access – Do you want to surf the Internet, send pictures, or access your email? You’ll need data access or Wi-Fi compatibility if you want to access the Internet, download maps, or use your apps
> Charging – Does your phone only plug into 110 V power sockets? You’ll need the full spectrum of power voltage range to charge your phone anywhere in the world

GSM un-locked phones

The best traveling phones are GSM unlocked phones. Around 80% of mobile phones around the world are now GSM phones, phones which take SIM cards from mobile service providers all over the world, allowing you to use one phone wherever you go.

It is essential that your new mobile or cell phone is GSM if you are traveling outside of North America, and if you would like the option to buy local SIM cards in the country you are visiting, you must ensure your phone is also unlocked.

Many North American phones that are bought on a contract with a particular mobile service providers are locked, and you will need to look into how to unlock your phone. Third-party resellers, like Best Buy, are more likely to offer unlocked phones than the mobile providers themselves. Some service providers will unlock your phone for free (for example, T-mobile provides free unlocking services in the US and in the UK), and there are also online services for un-locking phones (such as

Most phones outside of North America are unlocked, but make sure you look into this at the time you are purchasing your phone, or you could have some unexpected expenses and inconveniences later when its time to put a new SIM card in your phone. You can always test this by borrowing a friends’ SIM card and trying it on your phone — if your phone is unlocked, they should be able to make a phone call from your phone on their SIM.

Also consider getting a phone that has UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access). These smartphones allow you to make phone calls and send text messages over Wi-Fi connections and bill the call as regular minutes on your plan. However, with VoIP services like Skype that allow you to make free phone calls over Wi-Fi or using your data service, UMA has become a bit redundant.

“Quad band” bandwidth

Not all countries around the world use the same bandwidth for mobile service, and not all mobile phones access all bandwidths, so it is important to check that your phone is actually compatible with the bandwidth in the country you are traveling to.

Virtually all smartphones, and most regular mobile phones these days are “world phones”, or “penta-band” or “quad-band” or “tri-band” phones, which means they can access all bandwidths around the world (except Japan and Korea).

If you are buying a new phone, look for a “world phone,” or “quad-band,” or “penta-band” phone. As a second choice, a “tri-band” phone should cover most regions of the world.

However if you are traveling with your current phone, some older phones are single band or dual band, and it is important to check which bandwidths your phone supports and compare this with the country you are visiting.

Search for the model number and make of your phone on an Internet search engine to check the specifications of your phone, and then search the bandwidth of the country you are visiting.

GSM-900 MHZ and GSM-1800 MHz bandwidths are used across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and most of Asia. GSM-850 MHz and GSM-1900 MHz are used in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and half the countries of the Americas.

Data access

In recent years, it has become more and more popular to travel with mobile computing devices — smartphones, tablets, and personal digital assistants (PDAs). If you would like to surf the Internet, download maps, use your apps, or send MMS messages, you will need a phone that supports international data networks. The most widely-used data network is 3G, and most smartphones support all of the bands used (Europe uses 2100MHz, while the United States uses 1900MHz).

Data service can be very expensive, especially when roaming, so we recommend joining Wi-Fi networks instead of using data service as much as possible.


It was not very long ago that each mobile phone company had its own charger that was incompatible with every other type of charger. And every few years new models would come out with new chargers.

Most mobile devices now use USB, or at least have standard chargers, so even if you forget your charger at home, it is likely your hotel, host, or any mobile shop selling handsets made by the same company as your phone may have a compatible spare charger that you can borrow, or a computer which you can plug into.

Also, check if you need an adapter — a device that adapts the shape of your plug to fit into the shape of the plug of the country you are visiting.

Tip: Not all USB chargers are the same, there are 6 types of USB chargers — from B type through to Mini USB.

Different regions around the world use different voltages for electrical outlets, as well as different types of plugs. In general, North America, Japan, and the northern half of South America all use 100V-110V (100-110 volts), while most of the rest of the world uses 200V-240V. Virtually all electronic device chargers that are meant for traveling — smartphones, world phones, laptop computers, tablet, cameras — can use the full spectrum of 100V-240V.

When purchasing a new smartphone, tablet, or world phone, just check that your charger reads “Input: 100-240V”, and then all you need is an adapter that fits the local sockets to recharge your phone on the road — these are inexpensive to buy, and available in most electronics stores.

Tip: An “adapter” allows you to adapt to the mechanical shape of the plug, whereas a “converter” converts the voltage from, for example, 110V North American devices into 220V European outlets. If your cell phone cannot support the voltage of the country you are visiting, than there’s a good chance your cell phone cannot support the bandwidth of the country you are visiting either!


Photo credit: antwerpenR

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