COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Unlock your cell phone for big savings

If you travel internationally, you're likely aware that only GSM phones from Cingular and T-Mobile will work in the rest of the world, while CDMA phones from Verizon and Sprint are limited to use primarily in the United States. GSM phones contain a tiny removable SIM card (subscriber information module) that contains information about the carrier. To c

Telestial of San Diego sells SIM cards for hundreds of countries, and also offers roaming SIM cards for those visiting multiple countries.

hange to another carrier, simply switch the card.

Visitors to most countries (other than the United States) can easily purchase prepaid cards to use a local cell provider instead of a home carrier, thereby avoiding huge roaming charges.

But for the phone to work with these cards it first must be unlocked. That's not an issue with phones bought in Asia, Europe and most of the world, but it is with those bought in the United States.

Buy a GSM phone in the United States from Cingular or T-Mobile, and your phone comes locked, meaning it will work only with the company's own SIM card. But if there were a way to unlock these phones, you could pay much lower rates when traveling abroad.

How much lower? When I was recently in China and made a call either to a local number or back to the United States on my Cingular phone, I paid $2 a

People can realize big savings by using an unlocked phone and a local cell company when traveling internationally.

minute. But if I were able to use a prepaid SIM card from a local provider, my rates would plummet to 3 cents a minute within China and 30 cents back to the United States, and all incoming calls would be free of charge.

While my phone number would change to a local number when the local card was being used, I'd be able to carry one phone most anywhere in the world, changing cards as I changed countries. I'd also be able to access all my contacts and phone numbers stored in that phone.

Although the phone companies don't tell you, it is possible to unlock your phone. UnlockCellphone.com of San Diego, The Travel Insider (www.thetravelinsider.com) and a handful of other companies can unlock your Cingular or T-Mobile phones so they will work with any SIM card.

Lincoln Han, president of UnlockCellphone.com, one of the first and largest of the unlockers, told me he unlocks thousands of phones each year for individuals and corporations. The cost varies from $25 to $40 per phone and can be done on a walk-in basis at his University Avenue location. He currently is able to unlock about 95 percent of the phones brought in.

And it's not only individuals whom he services. Han has a growing corporate business. A San Diego Fortune 500 company recently used his services to unlock 60 phones and now saves from $400 to $1,000 in phone charges for each employee overseas trip. That amounts to a savings of several hundred thousand dollars a year.

Unlocking your own phone is perfectly legal, because you own the phone and you are entitled to do with it what you want. How is it done? By changing the internal settings or software. But figuring out what those changes are often requires complex analysis and varies for each phone.

You can also ask your carrier, Cingular or T-Mobile, to unlock your phone. T-Mobile, according to its Web site, requires a wait of 90 days before accepting your request.

Cingular makes no mention of unlocking on its Web site. I called the company and requested that it unlock my BlackBerry 8700, and several days later received this message: "We apologize, at this time your unlock code is unavailable. We will keep your request on file until such time as it becomes available and will send it to you." I called to complain, and Cingular explained the code was not available from the manufacturer; the next day, however, I received an e-mail with the code and instructions.

You can also buy a new phone that is unlocked. Palm and Nokia sell unlocked phones from their Web sites and in their stores. Han and many other companies also sell new unlocked phones that all work on a Cingular or T-Mobile network. While the phones may cost more than locked versions, you avoid committing to a long-term contract.

You can also buy SIM cards for foreign destinations before you leave. Telestial (www.telestial.com) of San Diego sells SIM cards for hundreds of countries.

The bottom line is you can realize big savings if you use an unlocked phone and a local cell company when traveling internationally, something your kindly cellular provider is not anxious for you to know.


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. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.


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