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Jenny and Charlie's International Travel Tips
International telephone and data

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International Telephone Talk

Your land lines, and particularly your cell phones, have to specifically be authorized to place international calls. I recommend that permission be turned on for all phones - even if you don't make money-saving arrangements, this will allow you to place a call in an emergency.

Will your cell phone work abroad?

If you have a GSM phone (Global System for Mobile), probably - that is the system used by 80% of the cell phones in the world. That system is available in the United States, and also used in Europe and other countries. BUT the frequency bands used in Europe, Africa, and Asia are the 900 and 1800 MHz bands. The bands used in North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America are 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. The cheap European phones are dual band, with the two European bands, the cheap American phones are also dual band, but the other two bands. Better phones (most smart phones) are Quad band, sometimes called World Phones, and work in most countries. Some additional bands are used for the highest data speeds.

GSM is used by AT&T and T-Mobile, but a different system (TDMA or CDMA) are used by other vendors such as Verizon and Sprint. Phones that support both GSM and CDMA are called Multi MODE as well as Multi BAND. For example the iPhone 4 and later cover most bands and modes. I expect that the competitive Samsung phones work the same.

Japan (and South Korea) do not have a GSM network, but support CDMA and other technologies. I have used my cell phone in Japan long before I had a smart phone, but I also know that many older phones do not work in Japan.

A neat bonus with GSM phones... 112 is the most widely used emergency phone number, but there are other emergency numbers in different countries, so most GSM phones allow you to dial 112 and it will connect you to whatever emergency number is used where you are located. Some phones also recognize 911 as a universal emergency number, and automatically make the translation to the local emergency number.

If your cell phone works, can you afford to use it?

AT&T basic international rates rates are typically $2 to $3 per minute (recently down from $5 or more per minute), with a few "bargains" like US to Mexico and Canada, and England at $1 per minute. In an emergency, that may be okay. But we often buy an AT&T "Passport" for one of our phones for each trip. The AT&T Passport package is 30 days for $40, that drops our talk charge to $1 per minute (in country or to/from home), unlimited texting, and 200 MB of cellular data. Other cell phone vendors have even better international traveler plans.

Some cell phones now switch telephone calls to a WiFi connection when it is available, without using the normal cell phone network, including our latest iPhone. (Under Apple Settings, Phone, turn on "Wi-Fi Calling.") Some vendors restrict how this may be used, but AT&T allows this use internationally. We leave our phone in Airplane Mode (so it would not use the foreign telephone network) but turn on WiFi and log into the hotel WiFi network.. (The initial switch to airplane mode turns off WiFi on most phones, but WiFi can be turned back on while leaving the telephone portion in airplane mode). We can now make free calls to/from the United States (or wherever our plan allows) while we were on the hotel or other WiFi network. Of course, since we are not on the local phone network (in the country we are visiting), we cannot make local calls - or the local calls are considered international calls from the United States.

Verizon has a neat feature (according to our neighbor who uses it). When he is on a phone call using the WiFi network (for example, at home) his calls go through WiFi, but if he leaves home while on a call, it transfers to the cell network without interrupting the call.

Locked?

Is your cell phone locked? In early days, the network provider subsidized the cost of your phone, but required a long term (2 years or more) contract to recover their costs, and locked the phone so it could only be used on their network. Now they offer a separate time payment plan for your phone, added to the monthly service charge, but the tradition of "locking" your phone to a single vendor continues. After a couple years you can request that your phone be unlocked... I have gone through the tedious process of unlocking my old AT&T iPhone - the tests say it is unlocked but when we try to use other carriers abroad, it still is locked.

When I upgraded to a new phone, I asked AT&T what my charge would be if I had an unlocked phone. They admitted that the monthly charge was only for service, with no component towards the cost of the phone; if I had an unlocked phone they would provide a free "SIM" card to allow me to use it, at the same rate, on their network. "Okay, I will mail order an unlocked phone and be back." The salesman said "Just go to the Apple store, and you can buy an unlocked iPhone, for the same price Apple requires us to charge for the same phone." An hour later I was back from the Apple store, AT&T installed their SIM card, and I had an unlocked iPhone on the AT&T network, for the same price I would have paid AT&T for a locked phone. (I had to be explicit about "unlocked" at the Apple store - they would have been glad to sell me a phone complete with SIM card, locked to the AT&T network.) I STRONGLY RECOMMEND YOU BUY AN UNLOCKED PHONE THE NEXT TIME YOU UPGRADE! There is no down-side, and it opens lots of opportunities.

SIM Card?

The SIM Card (Subscriber Identification Module) is the brains of the phone that defines your phone number and your primary carrier (you would have a local number in your destination country). In many countries, you can rent or buy a "SIM Card" for your phone. It is often associated with a "package" of minutes, messages, and megabytes of data with that carrier. With an unlocked phone it takes about a minute to install and activate the SIM card.

On a recent trip to Portugal, we found a great plan from Vodaphone, intended for an iPad tablet, but it works in the iPhone as well. One week, 12 Gigabytes of high speed data, for about $12, available in the airport on arrival. We installed it and used my phone to look up data (restaurant menus, museum hours, Uber reservations, and "follow the blue dot" on maps). There was no voice service on that "tablet" plan, but it did everything else. Jenny left her phone in Airplane Mode so was able to send and receive calls using the free international WiFi technique above when in the hotel.

In our recent trip to Amsterdam, we found a plan from Lebara (available in convenience stores) for €10 that gives you a gigabyte of high speed data for 30 days, with a free SIM card. (If you check your balance it will say zero, since you have no money available towards voice and text services.) They would like you to "add on" voice and text message services, but you can buy or ignore those "privileges, as you wish."

Back when our phones were locked, we had a British "burn" phone (a phone so cheap it can be discarded) for several years - total investment under $25 including more talk and data than we needed. It worked great when we bought it, was challenging the second time we tried it a couple years later (the contract associated with the SIM card had expired after months of non-use), and I was not able to get it activated the third time, even with a new SIM card and contract. By then it was 5 year old technology, so I gave it away.

SIM cards for your unlocked primary phone or for your unlocked "Burn" phone are widely available in most countries - often sold by news stands or drug stores in tourist areas, at discount stores like WalMart, or in the airport. However, in some countries, you have to register (with photo ID) to buy a SIM card or burn phone (the registration process removes lots of potential vendors like news stands). Spain is one of the countries where you have to register your purchase, often at a cell phone store, since burn phones were used to trigger a terrorist attack in Madrid.

The European Union is starting to regulate cell phones, dramatically reducing the price of roaming from one EU country to another. (The cost of roaming from the United States or other country to the EU is not subject to EU regulation, and is still often very expensive). By June 15, 2017 the new regulations will be in full effect, cutting the roaming surcharge between EU coountries for phone calls and text messages to insignificant (pennies), but data can be much higher. Be sure to check the data rate when you buy a SIM card, both domestically (you are a domestic user in the country in which you buy the card) and roaming (if you are going to visit another EU country).

International SIM cards are available, but are often not very economical for usage. Domestic SIM cards for the country you are visiting are usually most economical. The game now becomes what country you buy a SIM card in (that will become your home country), and what are the roaming charges in the other countries you will visit.

The primary reason we want data in a foreign country is to use Google or Apple maps to guide our walking. We call it "following the blue dot." Beware if you are traveling to Korea... South Korea is rightly paranoid, so it is illegal to send detailed mapping data outside the country, and Google Maps uses international servers to give route guidance. Therefore Apple and Google maps are not available for Korea (as of September 2016).

WiFi

One of the criterion when we select hotels is the availability of free WiFi. If you are in an fancy hotel, the extra charge for WiFi may seem to be enough to buy a new system for the entire hotel. Ironically, less expensive hotels (3 and 4 stars), lodges, and B&Bs generally have excellent free WiFi. Some of the better hotels now offer it free to members of their loyalty programs, or sometimes to people who use the hotel web site to make reservations.

It is getting rare to find a wired Ethernet connection - that technology has been largely replaced by wireless connections. My latest travel computer does not even have a wired network connection, but I am not worried since wireless is so universally available.

In most of our hotels recently, the WiFi service was excellent in the room as well as public areas. We have been in hotels in years past where the WiFi was only reliable in the lobby (not nice, but I can live with it). However, too many hotels are unconcerned if the WiFi or internet connection goes out ("The service man has been called and will hopefully be here sometime tomorrow.")

If you have a Skype account for voice or video communications from your computer, they also have a service in many areas that provides you with WiFi even when you don't have access to the local (hotel) WiFi system. I have used the Skype WiFi system for a couple minutes at a time to check mail (about 20 cents per minute), rather than paying $25 or more per day for WiFi the fancy hotel.

The computer some hotels provide for use by hotel guests is not that great a deal, even if it is free. Many countries have different keyboards, and finding the characters you need, like the "@" to use in an email address, can be a challenge.

Many travelers have said that they got a good WiFi connection in a Cafe or McDonalds. I have not had great luck with that option - I don't count on that as my WiFi solution. Some cities now provide free WiFi in parks and public spaces. I haven't found it reliable enough to count on, but it occasionally provides a convenient way for a mid-day check of mail.

Hopefully this will not become a widespread problem but... On November 15-16, 2015 we stayed at The George Hotel in Hexham England. They used an external service to provide free WiFi, which worked pretty well. However, to get on, you have to create an account giving their WiFi vendor your name, address, email address AND PASSWORD. Which of course gives them access to your mail history and all your friends email addresses. And you have to agree to allow them to send you advertising mail (spam). Therefore before you travel I recommend you open a spare email account (on yahoo.com or gmail.com or whatever) that you will only use for a few days at a time to get access to WiFi in situations like this. And if there is an error in your home mail address, what a shame since they can't test it before you get on their network. That email account will have no history, and you will never check it to get their spam. (I have an account named Spam, so I logged in with a user name of Spam Plesums!)

The ugly answer is that, before you leave, you need to spend way too much time with your cell phone vendor (store or web site), or the web site of providers in the country you will visit, to determine what international plans are offered and which best meets your needs.

How to place International Calls

For years, each time we traveled, I wrote up calling instructions for those at home (or sometimes for others traveling). Rather than rewriting the instructions each time, yup, you guessed it, another web page on international calling. It explains the non-North American phone numbering system - until I made the effort to learn it, only a small percent of my calls went through! Now I have no problems. But you need to accept that North America and the rest of the world are different and learn the differences.

The country code for North America - US and Canada - is 1, written as +1 before the area code and number. The country code for England, for example, is +44. If you store the phone number in your cell phone complete with the plus sign and country code, the phones usually figure out which part of the number to use, and will dial the international access code and city codes as required (often 011 from North America, 00 from Europe).



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