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A cellphone is a near essential tool, especially when traveling. But be careful to avoid undue expense when taking your phone overseas.

Learn how to pay as little as one tenth the rates charged by US service providers for international service.

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International Cell Phone Calls - for Free!


This tiny (about 1" x 1/2") SIM card contains a computer chip that stores all your account information for each phone service account you may have.

Part 2 of an 8 part series - click for Parts One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight



If you're not careful, you can find yourself paying $10/minute or more for cellphone calls while overseas - even for what seem to be local calls within the city you are currently visiting.

Read on to learn how you can reduce the cost of your international cell phone calling.


The Heart of your GSM phone - a SIM card

GSM cellphones have a major advantage over regular US style cellphones. They have a removable and replacement computer memory chip - a SIM card (Subscriber Information Module). This SIM card stores your account information and phone number as well as your phone directory, text messages, and various other settings.

What is so good about this? Two things. First, you can change phones, but keep the same SIM and not need to change your phone number or lose any of your phone directory information. This makes upgrading, or even borrowing someone else's phone, a very easy task.

Secondly, you can change the account and the service that you use on your phone just by swapping the SIM chip from one service provider for a SIM chip from another service provider. And therein lies the first 'trick' that can save you enormously on your international cell phone calling.

NOTE : You can only swap SIM cards if your phone is 'unlocked'.

Local Prepaid Phone Service

If you have a US GSM phone and account, you will find that it will cost you anything up to $3/minute when you use your phone overseas. Worst of all, some companies will route a local call (eg from one part of Berlin to another part) back via their US network, and so to make what would normally be a local call within one city, you end up being charged for two international calls!

You can probably already guess the solution to this type of problem. Yes - buy yourself a new SIM and account from a local GSM service in the cities/countries you visit. This can be a very simple procedure if you buy a prepaid account. You don't have to fill out any paperwork or provide any credit checks or anything at all. You simply pay a moderate amount of money and in return get a SIM, a phone number, and a certain prepaid balance to be used for the cost of phone calls.

When you have spent the initial prepaid amount, you can buy additional time - perhaps paying by credit card via the phone, or perhaps buying extra time through phone shops. A new SIM card and phone number and account setup will typically cost somewhere between $10-30, and then you'll find that your local call costs are probably 20c-30c a minute - perhaps only one tenth of the cost of a US based service!

Free Incoming Phone Calls

As you know, in the US, it is normal for the owner of the cellphone pays all the costs of both making and receiving calls.

In other countries, it is more common that the person who calls a cellphone will pay for the cost of calling the cellphone, and the owner of the cellphone will receive that phone call entirely for free!!!

This situation certainly encourages one to give out one's cellphone number and to invite people to use it! And the cost to the person calling you is comparable to the cost that you would incur if you placed an outgoing call. Receiving free incoming calls is one of the most pleasant experiences imaginable!

Calling Internationally from your Cellphone (when overseas)

Here's a tremendous money saving trick. If you're expecting to be regularly calling back home, or to any other countries, do not use the long distance service provided by the cellphone service. Instead, use a 'callback' service and enjoy enormous savings in cost.

To use your service, you dial an assigned number in the US and allow it to ring, and then hang up before the phone is answered. This call is probably free, because it was very short and there was no reply. The callback service computer notices your special phone number was rung, and that triggers it to then call you on your cellphone (or at any other number that you have programmed into the callback system). When you answer the callback's call, you are given a dial tone and can then place outgoing calls, at the callback service's very discounted rates, while your cellphone service thinks that you have merely received a (potentially even free!) incoming call.

Calling Internationally from your Cellphone (when in the US)

Try to never make an international call from your cellphone in the US. You'll end up paying an enormous amount of money per minute. If you regularly call internationally, you should get a prepaid calling card, and then use this account any time you make an international call - from home, from work, and from your cell phone, too.

This means that you simply call a local number from your cellphone which probably costs you nothing at all (who uses up all their free minutes these days?!) and then pay the tremendously discounted rate through the calling card service for the international call. For example, it costs me 3c-5c a minute to call to Britain, Australia, or even Russia using the calling card; whereas the taxes alone on the cost of calling internationally from my cell phone are much more than this!!!

Call Forward your US Number(s)

A possible disadvantage of using different SIMs in different countries is that people who might want to remain in contact with you from the US may never exactly know which number to call you at. The easy solution is to use the call forwarding service on your US cellphone number (or your home phone or whatever other phone numbers you have) so as to cause those calls to automatically forward on to your current cellphone number (but thanks to reader Michel for pointing out that you'll of course need someone back in the US to reprogram this forwarding number as you change from country to country!).

This also means that you're almost certainly paying a very much lower rate for receiving incoming international calls than you would be if using a US cellphone account while overseas.

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Originally published 15 Mar 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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