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Global Roaming

At work or at play, almost anywhere in the world, enjoy the security and convenience of a cell phone.

Part 3 of an 8 part series - click for Parts One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight



In case you're confused after reading parts one and two of this series on international cell phones - or even if you're not - here is a very simple and low cost strategy for how to conveniently stay in touch (and in turn be contactable) while traveling just about anywhere in the world.

Part four will then help you compare the different options you have.  Part five helps you choose what type of phone you need, and part six reviews a product that competes with the Hop product discussed below.

Step One : Buy an international GSM phone

At the time of revising this (September 2004) the US GSM networks now offer a viable solution for use throughout much of the US. Some local regions have good coverage, but if you want a phone with the same excellent coverage that you have probably become used to with your current non-GSM two or three band US phone, a GSM only phone may perhaps not satisfy you.

Some of the US networks are now offering 'compromise' phones that include the US 1900 MHz GSM band plus also one of the other US non-GSM bands. This is great for the US - it means your phone can use either GSM or the more widespread non-GSM network, whichever is available, but it makes the phone useless if you want to use it on other GSM networks, elsewhere in the world.

This leaves you with two choices - either abandon the concept of having one phone that works both in the US and internationally. Get whatever (probably non-GSM) phone and service plan from whatever provider that suits your needs best for domestic use within the US. And then buy a separate dual band (900/1800 MHz) phone for use in any of the 174+ countries internationally that use GSM networks.

Alternatively buy one of the new quadband GSM phones that give the best range of options for service coverage in both the US and internationally.

You can buy a dual band GSM phone for as little as $100 or even less (see, eg, our review of the Mobal service), and from various sources either within the US or internationally (see part one). My suggestion - buy the phone before you leave home. That way you have time to get the phone, check it, learn how it works, program in phone numbers, and have everything optimized and ready for when you start your travels.

I've found Telestial to be an excellent and responsive company, with a good range of phones, at good prices, and great service. You know that you won't have any potential problems (like discovering the phone you bought is 'locked' and can't be used with different SIMs), you can pay by credit card, and they are a reputable business that will likely still be around to provide you with any service or support you might need.

Step One Variation : Using the International Service in the US, too

I chose to spend only a very little more than dual band phone costs, and selected a tri-band phone instead. I can use it as a 'loaner' while I'm at home in the US. For example, if I have guests with me that need a phone, then they can use it in the US just as conveniently as I use it when I'm abroad. And it also makes it easy for me to ensure that I use the phone at least once a year and activate new top-up cards before traveling overseas.

Tri-band phones aren't much more expensive than dual band phones, and the extra flexibility they give is very handy. (See my comments in the Summary section for a suggested strategy.)

Step Two : Buy a HopAbroad Global Roaming SIM

If your travels will take you to a number of different countries, then a HopAbroad roaming SIM is the very best way to stay in touch. It gives you a low cost per minute to telephone anywhere in the world (currently 95 a minute for calls you make from your phone, and 35 a minute for calls you receive to your phone, with per-second billing for best value), and, best of all, it gives you one single phone number that anyone can dial to reach you, at any time, no matter where in the world you might be. Or, to be more precise, no matter where in the 100 countries that participate in this global roaming network you might be!

Click here to see a comparison of the rates charged by the US cell phone networks if you use their service internationally.

The HopAbroad service is available through Telestial in the US. A $99 registration gets you the SIM and international account, plus $15 worth of airtime.

This establishes a pre-pay account for your phone number, and as long as you have money in that account, you can place and receive phone calls. When your balance is used up, you can get a 'recharge code', either by phone or online from Telestial and add more units to your account. You can check your account balance, for free, anytime you're in a GSM covered area. Additional airtime can be purchased, either in lots of $50 (costing $65) or $100 (costing $120) - I think the extra cost covers the 'line rental' part of the service.

Your phone number is actually a number within the Monaco phone system that anyone can call from anywhere in the world. It does not change as you move between countries, same as your phone number on a US cellphone doesn't change as you move from one state to the next.

As long as you buy a $65 recharge at least once a year, your phone number remains active and unchanged, so it can become a permanent phone number for as long as you wish to keep it.

Step Two Exception : Long Term Stays in One Country

If you're going to be spending a reasonable amount of time in one country (ie if you'll be making a lot of phone calls!) then sometimes it is cheaper to have a local account as well as (or instead of) your HopAbroad account. For example, I use my HopAbroad account when casually/quickly traveling about Europe, but if I'm staying in Britain or Russia for a week or two, I then switch to a local account, where the costs to call locally within that country become very much lower.

Note that doing this has the disadvantage of making it harder for people back home to know what phone number to use to contact you.

When does it make sense to switch? The best idea is to discuss this with a specialist, such as the helpful people at Telestial, and to follow their advice. They can sell you both single country SIMs and/or a Hop global SIM, so they have no bias to force you one way or the other, and can truly help you to get the best configuration.

Using HopAbroad

I've used my Hop account in the US, UK, much of Western Europe, and Russia.

In the US, it has always worked perfectly.

In Russia, when I first switched the phone on, it initially told me 'no service'. This was at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where I've made cell phone calls many times before, and so I started to worry. After several long minutes, the phone suddenly showed full signal strength and told me it was using the 'Bee Line' network - one of Russia's best major phone services.

Phone calls did not always go through satisfactorily, which was a bother and a frustration. Sometimes it would take a number of redial attempts before the call would be completed. I don't know what was the cause of this, but because the phone showed good signal strength, it seems to be a network problem - either with Hop or (less likely) Bee Line.

In the UK and Europe it worked reliably and easily, with good coverage.

A Helpful Advantage

One of the amazing features of this service is that you can typically choose between multiple GSM providers in each country that you visit. If you find you're in a bad coverage area from one provider, just tell your phone to find a stronger signal from another provider. For example, here in the US, my phone switches automatically between AT&T, Cingular and T-Mobile, depending on which service gives the best coverage.

This is an invaluable service, particularly if your travels are going to take you away from the major cities (where all service providers usually give good coverage).

Missing Features

Hop suffers by not offering SMS service and not offering voicemail.  SMS is very widely used in most other countries, and the benefit of voicemail goes without saying.  For this reason alone, you might be well advised to consider the newer Riiing product, which is generally better in all key respects.

A Permanent Number

As long as you buy a $65 'recharge' card once every twelve months, you can keep your phone number active for as long as you wish. This recharge card includes $50 worth of airtime, so the actual line rental cost is only $1.25 a month (assuming you can use the airtime).

For a cost of little more than $5/month - which you'll almost certainly get value from when you use the airtime, anyway - you have a permanent international contact number that your business contacts and personal friends can keep and refer to any time you're out of the country.


This is a good concept and well - but incompletely - implemented. The service is easy to set up and use, and is an affordable and practical solution to the problem of keeping conveniently in touch while traveling internationally.

You might choose to do what I did. I went to Telestial and got one of their complete kits that includes a tri-band phone that can be used in any GSM country, including the US, plus also the HopAbroad card and some airtime too. These kits are better value than buying a SIM and phone separately, and for as little as $249 you have everything you need for phone service in over 85 different countries (I treated myself to the deluxe $329 product - as all regular travelers know, weight and space are very precious, and the extra cost for this lovely petite phone is, I believe, money very well spent).

On the other hand, the new Riiing service is comparable or better than Hop, and generally less expensive, too..

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Originally published 1 Nov 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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