I've been doing quite a bit of international traveling over the past few months and have tried a variety of options to keep in touch, both by phone and e-mail. I have found that U.S. carriers are lagging behind their counterparts in Europe and the Far East in offering low-cost international dialing while traveling.
However, with a little effort, it is possible to stay connected for less.
Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and Sprint (NYSE: FON) phones are incompatible with the networks outside of the United States, as they each use Qualcomm's (Nasdaq: QCOM) CDMA technology, while most of the world uses GSM. The GSM phones from T-Mobile, AT&T (NYSE: T), Cingular and some from Nextel (Nasdaq: NXTL) work worldwide. (GSM phones have a little rectangular card inside, usually found under the battery, called a "sim" card. This stores information about your account and provider.)
With a GSM phone, anyone calling your cell number will reach you when you're out of the country. But you will pay dearly for this convenience. Depending on the country, carrier and plan, it can cost from $1 to $5 per minute, with most calls in the $2-$3 per minute range, whether someone calls you or you make a call, even within the country you are visiting.
Two countries in which you cannot connect are Japan and Korea, because they use incompatible systems; Japan does not even allow a visitor to rent a phone.
I have found three ways to lower the cost. One is to buy another sim card with prepaid minutes from a provider in the country in which you are traveling. They're available at the arriving airport, phone stores and many mini-markets. Calls then cost as little as 20 or 30 cents per minute for both local calls and for calls to the United States. Incoming calls are often free. You will be assigned a new, temporary local phone number with the new sim card.
However, for this sim card to work with your U.S.-issued phone, you need to persuade your U.S. cellular provider to unlock your phone so it can be used with other sim cards. While it may take some negotiations, some carriers will do it to retain your business. Not allowing your phone to work with other sim cards is really an onerous practice because you own the phone, and the company is restricting your ability to use it.
The second alternative is to buy a GSM phone without a service contract in the country you are visiting. You can also use this phone at home with your local sim card, as long as the phone matches the frequency of your home carrier. (Check with your local provider to be sure they will allow a purchased phone to be used on their network and find out the specific frequencies that your carrier's phones require.)
Lastly, if you don't travel frequently it may be cheapest to rent a phone either before you leave the United States or when you arrive. You can find many companies on the Internet that will provide you a phone before leaving.
There is also a new option for calling using your computer. I am writing this article while traveling in Spain, and for the past week I have been trying out a cellular-sized phone from GTC Global Phone (gtcglobalphone.com) that plugs into your computer while connected online.
You first purchase the phone (at a hefty $150) and prepay for service. Plug the phone into your computer's USB connector, connect to the Internet and sign into your account to get a dial tone. You can dial any number in the world from home or away. I tried it with both modem and broadband connections. On broadband it worked well, but using a modem there were dropouts and echoes that made it difficult to converse.
GTC says its product works using most modem connections, but I've not done sufficient testing to verify this. At a cost of just a couple of cents per minute (plus the cost of the Internet connection) this has real potential to bring the cost down to almost nothing.
Lastly, for accessing e-mail out of the country, I recommend the GSM version of Research in Motion's Blackberry, available from T-Mobile, Cingular and AT&T. The Blackberry provides the best means for receiving and sending e-mail with its excellent integrated keyboard and seamless operation. My AT&T Blackberry 7210 connects almost instantly in GSM-enabled countries. Coming off a long transoceanic flight, I turn the Blackberry on and by the time I'm a hundred feet down the terminal corridor, my e-mail is streaming in.
The cost of sending and receiving e-mail is about 2 cents per kilobyte, just a few dollars a week with moderate usage. It's a great way to stay in touch if you don't need to speak directly. The only disadvantage is that you end up paying for the spam that comes mixed in with your e-mail!
Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.