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Need to transfer your phone across borders? The various technological standards for wireless functionality can cause a great deal of issues – noticeably, data outage. I have several tips for traveling overseas that can help those wanting to take their U.S. mobile phone abroad.

Request an Unlock Code or Travel Plan

Whether or not your phone is under contract will determine if you’ll be able to use your phone across borders. There are two distinct options, one for contract-free travelers and one for those under contract.

Contract Customers

If you are under contract with an American cellular carrier, you must first contact your provider and ask about their international travel plans. Out of the two carriers with GSM compatibility (which will allow you to move your phone to any provider), AT&T only offers highly expensive travel plans. T-Mobile, on the other hand, offers pretty outstanding service (they are owned by Deutsch Telecom, a German provider). CDMA providers, such as Verizion and Sprint, also offer international travel plans. Unfortunately, these tend to cost a great deal while offering poorer service than T-Mobile’s.

t-mobile the best unlocked carrier

Contract-Free Travelers

If you lack a contract, things get much easier. If your phone hasn’t been unlocked, you must request that your provider unlock it. Once unlocked, it can migrate to any GSM provider. CDMA phones suffer from some serious issues porting to other carriers.

CDMA VS GSM

You definitely want a GSM phone, rather than CDMA. GSM was designed specifically to create an international standard for transferring phones across borders. GSM refers to several intercompatible technologies. Conversely, CDMA was intended to be able to lock phones into its network from the outset.

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While it’s possible to unlock and move a CDMA phone (Sprint and Verizon) across borders, in general it’s not worth it. iPhones (particularly the 4S) generally find the transition the least complicated. But because of the intricacies within CDMA networks, you may find that your phone will simply not work overseas. Also, you may have trouble finding a CDMA network carrier in another country; CDMA in countries outside the US and Japan isn’t a popular cellular technology. Moreover, the specific phone you use must be supported on that particular network. Unlike GSM tech, which allows users to juggle phones across networks effortlessly, CDMA tends to require that users plan substantially ahead about whether CDMA is supported in the destination country.

sim card

Find Your Phone’s Data Bands

An issue that arises when using a phone overseas is its data bands. Many modern smartphones come in tri- quad- and penta-band variants. This refers to the various bands that the phone transfers information over. Different carriers transfer different kinds of information over the various frequencies offered by your phone. Pentaband phones generally perform the best overseas for data transfer.

For example, T-Mobile phones, which are GSM, also broadcast over the 1700/2100MHz spectrum – referred to as AWS, or Advanced Wireless Services. Other names includes AWS-1, UMTS band IV and UMTS 1700. T-Mobile uses the 1700 spectrum for higher speed data transmission, so if you use a phone from their network overseas, its data transfer speed may not exceed 2G speeds. Most networks and phones offer standardized voice and text message compatibility, so these functions tend to work perfectly after a SIM card swap overseas.

Buy a SIM Card

I recommend buying a SIM card – SIM cards, by default, are GSM technology (why do cellphones need SIM cards? Why Do Cellphones Need a SIM Card? Why Do Cellphones Need a SIM Card? Haven't we come far enough with technology that such a thing as SIM cards shouldn't matter anymore? What is a SIM card and why is it so important? Read More ). These are sold at most convenience stores, the duty free and more. Keep in mind that the people selling the SIM cards won’t know much about the technology or how it’s paid. You should already know what you need and the various requirements before buying one.

  • SIM card ejection tool: If your phone requires an ejection tool, don’t forget this. I actually forgot my own and had to rely on a makeshift ejection tool.
  • SIM card size: Know your SIM card size before buying. There exist three different, and dominant, SIM card standards: microSIM, miniSIM and nanoSIM. Most prepaid SIM cards are either microSIM or miniSIM and may require an adapter kit in order to function properly, if the card is undersized. If it’s oversized, you may require a cutter.

sim cutter

Telia_micro_SIM_with_brackets

You may need to adjust your phone’s APN settings What are APN Settings and How Can They Fix Data Issues on Your Prepaid Phone? What are APN Settings and How Can They Fix Data Issues on Your Prepaid Phone? If you sign up with a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), which leases broadcast spectrum from the big carriers, you might need to configure your phone's APN settings. Read More , after changing it over to another network.

Conclusion

Getting your phone working in a foreign country requires doing your research before traveling. Before jumping on a boat and sailing for shores unknown, get the following information:

  1. Your phone’s transmission bands, particular its data transmission bands;
  2. Your phone’s SIM card size and whether you require an ejection tool;
  3. Whether you have a GSM or CDMA phone – and if you do have a CDMA, consider buying an unlocked GSM phone for the explicit purposes of traveling.

Once you have that right data, know the best rated MVNO within the country you’re traveling and where you can buy such a SIM card.

On the flip-side, those traveling to the United States from abroad may want to save money on their cellular bill Traveling To The US? Three Ways To Save Money On Your Cell Bill Traveling To The US? Three Ways To Save Money On Your Cell Bill Planning on traveling to the United States and need phone service? Thanks to the complicated tangle of wireless networks in the US, it’s hard finding the best carrier. Fortunately, we can help get you the... Read More .

Anyone else traveling overseas? Let us know in the comments.

  1. Steve G
    April 1, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    Great tips. Going to Philippines with my iPhone 3GS (please dont laugh), my Nexus 7 wifi only and iPad 4 wifi only. I dont care about all the data crap because i will be around a computer I can connect to and upload any pictures or vids I may take. I will swap SIM though when I get there.

  2. Kevin M
    April 1, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks Shawn, just checked out RW and this looks like a perfect fit for me...

  3. Shawn Rosvold
    April 1, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    I have a Republic Wireless phone. It costs me $25 a month for unlimited data, text and long distance, and there's no contract to sign. Since it's a wifi hybrid, it worked perfectly in Europe as long as I had a wifi connection. I could even make calls to anyone in North America via wifi (not in Europe, though) for no cost.

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