Cell Phone Tips for International Travelers and Road Warriors: Dual SIMs, Unlocked Phones, and Free Roaming

Samsung Duos

The Samsung Galaxy S Duos GT-S7562 GSM mobile phone lets you use two SIM cards in one device. PHOTO: Samsung

The German Way already offers informational pages on what expats should know about using an iPhone or other mobile phones in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Europe in general. But in this blog post I want to explore another aspect of “Handys” (the German word for cellular phone): staying connected while traveling the globe – without breaking the bank.

Today all the main North American carriers – AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon in the United States, plus Bell and Rogers in Canada – offer multiband mobile phones that will work in Europe and most other locations around the globe. But if you simply fly off to Europe with your North American smartphone in hand, you could soon face an unpleasant surprise in the form of an outrageous cell-phone bill. Data use can be a real killer! A little advance planning can help you avoid that problem and a few others.

Like many expats and ex-expats, I travel often to Europe and other destinations. When I travel in the US or abroad I like to stay in touch – via my mobile phone and/or my laptop. During my last trip to Guatemala, I had some problems using my iPhone, but that was only because I failed to do what I always do before I head off to Europe: plan ahead!

Some of that planning includes deciding which carrier to use. For instance, the only US providers that use GSM, the same mobile-phone technology used in Europe, are AT&T and T-Mobile. Sprint and Verizon use CDMA, and only some of their phones will work overseas with GSM networks. The GSM standard for mobile phone technology is used in Europe and almost 200 countries.

But of course it’s more complicated than that. While GSM carriers in North America use 850 MHz and 1900 MHz for their primary mobile communication bands, most providers in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia use the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands. But even within the United States, T-Mobile uses some different bands than AT&T: 700 MHz (LTE), 1700 MHz, 1900 Mhz and 2100 Mhz (but not 850 Mhz). As you can see, this means you need a multiband phone if you travel between Europe and North America.

Free Roaming
If your carrier offers low or free international roaming fees, that is a big bonus. T-Mobile USA (a German company) now offers free roaming in Europe for its North American customers. But naturally there’s a catch. Data speeds in Europe are limited to 2G with T-Mobile’s free roaming connections. That can be frustratingly slow, but it is free after all. You do have the option of purchasing an international “data pass” for higher speeds. But talking is not affected by data limits, and there is a thing called Wi-Fi for data.

AT&T recently began offering lower roaming fees for Europe, but you have to purchase an AT&T Passport travel plan ($30 to $120) before you leave for Europe, and the calling rates are really no bargain. Even a local call in Germany will cost you a dollar, 50 cents, or 35 cents per minute, depending on the plan you choose. A local SIM card can offer talk rates as low as between five and ten cents per minute, plus cheaper data rates.

T-Mobile USA, the “Un-carrier” as it likes to call itself, is now adding Canada and Mexico to its standard US nationwide calling plan. With one of its Simple Choice postpaid plans, T-Mobile’s US customers will be able to call and text people in Canada and Mexico – and use their cell phones while traveling in those countries – without incurring any additional fees. Quoted on CNN Money, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said, “We’ve just created one gigantic country in North America.” According to a news release, the “Mobile without Borders” plan is a first, and it “…delivers calling to both land lines and mobile phones – as well as 4G/LTE data straight from your plan – across all three countries at no additional cost.” This new T-Mobile plan starts on July 15, 2015 (today, the date of this blog post). See the T-Mobile website or a T-Mobile store for details.

T-Mobile was also the first US carrier to drop the $200, two-year contract model for buying its mobile phones, a trend that other carriers are now adopting. As we point out in The iPhone in Germany, few mobile phone customers realize how much they are actually paying for a “subsidized” two-year-contract device. The total is usually much higher than if they had bought an unlocked phone on their own. (And that is now possible via Apple and various other online and brick-and-mortar sellers.) T-Mobile now shows the true cost on its phone selection pages, payable in 24 monthly installments of between $6.00 and $28.00, depending on the phone model you want. That is of course in addition to the typical $40-50.00 monthly service charge for talk, text and data.

Unlocked is better than locked, but…
T-Mobile also has been a pioneer in offering lower-cost prepaid plans, similar to those that have always been popular in Europe and Asia. Many expats save money by using a prepaid plan in Germany and Europe with an unlocked mobile phone.

If you buy a cell phone from a provider as part of a typical two-year contract, that phone is usually locked to that carrier. Only after you have completed the two-year term can you get the phone unlocked. (It does not happen automatically; you have to request that it be unlocked.) With an unlocked phone, you have the option of using any SIM card from any GSM carrier in North America, Europe, and other parts of the globe.

Another option is to buy an unlocked iPhone directly from Apple’s online store. With Apple, you have the option of (1) buying an unlocked iPhone without a SIM card (that you buy yourself from a GSM carrier, or (2) buying a T-Mobile iPhone that comes with a SIM card that you then have T-Mobile activate. Either way, you end up with an unlocked GSM phone that can be used almost anywhere in the world with any GSM carrier.

If you’re not an Apple fan, there are many Android mobile phone options out there. However, the problem with lower cost Android GSM phones is that few of them will work with 4G/LTE networks, and you have to settle for 3G or even 2G data. (But there’s always Wi-Fi, right?) To get 4G/LTE speeds you’ll need to pay $300 or more for an unlocked Android phone. For example, Amazon.com sells an unlocked dual-SIM GSM international Samsung Galaxy S Duos II for $149.99 with free shipping. It offers up to 3G speeds and has a 5MP camera with video, Android 4.2, (Jelly Bean), plus a dual-SIM option (see below). The top-of-the-line Samsung Galaxy 6S has far better specs, but it costs $570.00. The 6S features Android 5.0.2 (Lollipop) and a 16MP primary camera (5MP secondary). As with most things, you get what you pay for.

While most newer GSM mobile phones will work worldwide, there are exceptions – mostly in Asia and South America – because of differing frequency bands. Figuring out if an unlocked phone you bought independently will work on a given network can be a real puzzle. There are some websites that claim they can help you, but some of them are out of date or unreliable. One that seems to be better than most is www.willmyphonework.net, but I have only tested it for a few devices, and can’t guarantee its accuracy.

Dual SIMs: Two Phones in One
This is a neat trick that allows you to travel with one cell phone instead of two, but still have two different numbers with two different SIM cards. There are two ways to go dual: (1) Use a dual-SIM phone or (2) use a dual-SIM adapter on your regular GSM phone.

The Samsung Galaxy Duos II mentioned above is a dual-SIM phone. It comes with two SIM-card slots that allow you to make or receive calls (and data) via two different numbers, or even two different carriers. This works well for business travelers who don’t want to give up their normal business phone number, but still want to have a cheaper calling option for international roaming.

Option 2 is the dual SIM adapter. The MagicSIM Elite adapter (www.magic-sim.com), which works with unlocked iPhones and Android phones, costs $38.99 and allows you to add a second SIM card to your normal Android phone or iPhone. It’s slightly clunky, but seems to work pretty well. Not only that, it’s far less expensive and more convenient than buying a second phone. The only disadvantage of the adapter compared to a dual-SIM phone is that you usually can’t switch between the two SIM cards as easily. There are also cheaper dual adapters by various makers for the iPhone 4 and 5/5S. Switzerland-based SIMORE (www.simore.com) is another source of dual-SIM adapters.

There is also a third option: Rent a GSM phone for Europe or elsewhere. However, I think it’s smarter to buy a cheap second phone just for travel, especially if you’ll be traveling frequently. I still use my old unlocked iPhone 4S as my travel phone. It works just fine in Germany, Mexico, or elsewhere with a local prepaid SIM card that I buy after I arrive. You can also buy an international SIM card before departure, using Cellular Abroad (see the link below), ekit (www.ekit.com), or some other provider. Cellular Abroad also offers GSM phones for rental or purchase.

Cellular Abroad German SIM Card Offer

Mention when calling or enter promo code GermanWay10 online
and receive $10 off your order. Go to
www.cellularabroad.com or call 800.287.5072 to order.

Sprint and Verizon
If you already have a cell phone with Sprint or Verizon, you’re not totally out of luck. Both offer international plans – as long as you have a phone that will also work overseas. The Sprint versions of the iPhone 6/6 Plus actually feature more bands than any other iPhone model: sixteen LTE bands, plus four extra TD-LTE bands, for a truly global LTE phone. Unfortunately, the country roaming selections for Sprint and Verizon are more limited than AT&T or T-Mobile. But using one of the options outlined above may be a better deal in the long run.

Although it dates back to November 2013, this Forbes article offers some helpful information and good advice for choosing various international mobile phone plans.

If you have an iPhone or plan to get one, see The iPhone in Germany for more information on options for that device.

Also see:
Cell Phones in Europe – The GW guide to mobile-phone use in Germany and Europe
Mobile Phone Glossary of technical terms (CDMA, GSM, LTE, etc.).

Gute Reise and happy trails!

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