You can file mobile phone frequency bands alongside DVD regions and electrical sockets—it would be nice if all countries used the same ones, but they don’t.
So, if you’re about to buy a new mobile phone, make sure you read this article before you hit the shops. We’re going to explain which cellular frequency bands you need and why.
What’s the Problem?
Different countries use different frequency bands for their mobile phone networks. It poses a headache for anyone who does a serious amount of international travel. Your device might be able to connect to the web in some jurisdictions, but not in others.
To further complicate matters, in some countries—most notably the United States and Russia—different carriers use different cellular standards. If you buy a phone through one carrier, there is a chance it will not work with a rival carrier if you decide to change your provider in the future.
Today, we’re going to look at the bands and standards in a little more detail, then explain which of the various configurations are in use in different countries.
3G: GSM vs. CDMA
Back in the 3G era, the two primary cell phone standards in use around the world were GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access).
Under the hood, the two standards used different techniques to connect users. However, from a user standpoint, the big difference was the freedom of movement. CDMA phones did not require a SIM card—so while GSM phones could be unlocked and moved between carriers, CDMA phones were often locked to a single carrier and unable to be transferred.
Although 3G is becoming a distant memory in our day-to-day lives, there are still times when 4G and 5G connectivity is not available, and your device will connect to a 3G network instead, so it’s essential to know where your devices will work.
Some regions—including Scandinavia, southern Europe, the Middle East, and most of Africa, only offer GSM networks. The US, UK, Russia, northern Europe, and the Far East have GSM and CDMA networks, and Mexico and South America only have CDMA coverage.
The GSM network coverage, however, is further complicated by the GSM bands in use. Of the countries that offer GSM networks, almost the entire world uses the 900 and 1800MHz bands. North America is the big exception; it uses the 850 and 1900MHz bands. A couple of South American countries are the only other places in the world to do so.
In Canada, 1900MHz is the primary frequency; 850GHz is the backup. In the US, different regulatory requirements determine which areas use which band. In countries with 900 and 1800MHz, 900 is the more common.
Depending on the countries you typically visit—and on whether 3G connectivity is even crucial to your use case—you can make the decision about which 3G bands you need.
Check out our article if you would like to learn more about the differences between GSM and CDMA.
4G: LTE Frequency Bands
Although you might not have guessed from the patchwork nature of 3G frequency bands, the world is officially divided up into three International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Regions.
Region One covers Europe, Africa, Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Region Two is North America and South America, and Region Three is Oceania, the Indian subcontinent, and the Far East.
The regions are important to understand when you try and establish which cellular frequency bands you need for accessing 4G networks (LTE networks) around the world.
(Note: Today, almost all countries offer 4G networks. The only exceptions are a handful of nations in Sub-Saharan Africa.)
If your phone supports LTE band seven or 28, it will work on 4G networks in ITU Regions One, Two, and Three—i.e., anywhere in the world.
LTE bands one and three will work in Region One and Three, LTE band 20 only works in Region One, band five in Region Two and Three, and bands two and four in Region Two only.
There are suggestions that bands eight, 38, and 40 may allow roaming in all three ITU regions in the future, but they do not at the time writing.
5G: Limited Commercial Availability
5G networks are still in their nascent phase. Indeed, you can count the number of commercially available 5G networks on one hand. There are a couple of locations in the North East US, along with areas in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and South Korea.
All the commercial 5G bands currently fall into the so-called “Frequency Range One.” It runs on sub-6GHz frequency bands which were previously used by other standards. The bands in Frequency Range One run from n1 to n86.
Frequency Range Two will offer higher speeds. Only four bands are currently live: n257, n258, n260, and n261. They run from 26 to 39GHz.
In most countries, the spectrum allocation has not yet been decided. A conclusion is probably imminent though; 5G field testing has started in the rest of the EU, Russia, China, and Australia. And research is known to be ongoing in Canada, Mexico, South America, India, and South Africa.
It is likely the bands will broadly follow the ITU Regions we discussed in the previous section. However, you should wait for official confirmation from your carrier before you make any purchasing decisions.
We’ve written about how 5G will make the internet faster and safer if you need more information.
The Ideal Phone for Roaming
It’s easy to get lost in a maze of frequencies and bandwidths when you’re trying to make your buying decision.
To stop yourself from going crazy, remember this one crucial tenet—there’s not a single mobile phone anywhere in the world that will work on all networks in all countries. You need to be selective about which networks and which locations are most important to you and select your new phone accordingly.
If you would like to learn more, make sure you read our article on all the different phone networks in use around the world.