Contact Us   Site Map
Airline Mismanagement

The convenience of a cell phone is even more valuable when you're traveling internationally.

But this convenience can sometimes come at an inconvenient price!

This article helps you decide the best way to keep your costs down when using cell phones internationally.

Travel Planning and Assistance
Road Warrior resources
Noise Reducing Headphones
International Cell Phone Service
GSM cell phone unlocking FAQs
Portable MP3 Players
GPS series of articles
Should you choose an iPhone or Android series
Apple iPhone review series
iPhone 3G/3GS Battery replacement
Third Rail iPhone 4/4S External Battery
Apple iPad review series
iPad/Tablet Buying Guide
Google Nexus 7 review
Netflix Streaming Video
Sharing Internet Access series
Microsoft OneNote review
T-mobile/Google G1 phone review series
Blackberry review and user tips
Palm Tungsten T3
Motorola V3 Razr cell phone review
Motorola V600 cell phone review
Nokia 3650 cell phone review
SIM Saver GSM Phone Backup and Copy Device
Clipper Gear Micro Light
Amazon's Wand review
Amazon's new (Sep '11) Kindles and Fire review
Review of the Kindle Fire
Amazon Kindle eBook reader review
Amazon Kindle 2 preview
Sony PRS-500 eBook reader review
Audible Digital Talking Books review
Home Security Video Monitoring
Quik Pod review
Joby Gorillapod review
Satellite Radio Service
Satellite Phone Service
All About Speech Recognition Software
2005 Best Travel Technology Awards
How to connect to the Internet when away from home/office
Bluetooth wireless networking
How to Choose a Bluetooth Headset
Logitech Squeezebox Duet
Packet 8 VoIP phone service
Sugarsynch software review
iTwin remote access device
Barracuda Spam Firewall review
Cell Phone Emergency Power Recharger series
First Class Sleeper
Roboform Password Manager review
Securikey USB Computer Protection Key review
Steripen UV Water Purifiers
ScanGaugeII OBDII review
SafeDriver review
Expandable Bags for Traveling Convenience
USB Flash Drive
Vonage VoIP phone service
Laptop Screen Privacy Filter
AViiQ Laptop Stands
Aviator Laptop Computer Stand
No Luggage Worries
Pack-a-Cone roadside safety flashing cone
Emergency Self charging Radio
Evac-U8 Emergency Escape Smoke Hood
MyTag Luggage Tags
Beware of Checked Baggage Xray Machines
SearchAlert TSA approved lock
Boostaroo Portable Amplifier and splitter
Dry Pak protective pouch
Boom Noise Canceling Headset
Ety-Com Noise Canceling Headset
Nectar Blueclip BT headset holders
Skullcandy Link Headset Mixer
Lingo Pacifica 10 language talking translator
Nexcell NiMH rechargeable battery kit
Jet Lag Causes and Cures
SuddenStop License Frame
CoolIT USB Beverage cooler
Travel ID and Document Pouches
Protect Yourself Against Document Loss
Personal Radio Service
PicoPad Wallet Notes
Times Electronic Crossword Puzzles
Slim Cam 300 micro digital camera review
Stopping Spam
BottleWise Bottle Carrier review
The End of the Internet as We Know it?
How to Book and Buy Travel
Scary, Silly and Stupid Security Stories
Airline Reviews
Airline (Mis)!Management
Miscellaneous Features
Reference Materials
About the Travel Insider
Looking for something else? Search over two million words of free information on our site.
Custom Search
Free Newsletter

In addition to our feature articles, we offer you a free weekly newsletter with a mix of news and opinions on travel related topics.


 View Sample
Privacy Policy

Help this Site
Thank you for your interest in helping this site to continue to develop. Some of the information we give you here can save you thousands of dollars the next time you're arranging travel, or will substantially help the quality of your travel experiences in other, non-cash ways. Click for more information
Reader's Replies

If you'd like to add your own commentary, send me a note.


Choosing the Best International Cell Phone Service for You


Use the information in this article to understand and choose which is the best strategy for you to get international cell phone service.

Bottom line - there is no perfect solution. Not today. This will improve, just the same way that domestic roaming improved in the second half of the 1980s.

Part 4 of an 8 part series - click for Parts One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight



There are essentially four different options available to you for cell phone service while traveling internationally.

Each has some pluses and minuses, and none of them are a 'perfect' one size fits all solution for everyone.

This article summarizes the differences and then helps you choose which is best for your needs.

Option 1 : Using Your US GSM Service

If you have already have a GSM phone that you use in the US (T-Mobile, Cingular, and some AT&T phones) and if the phone is a 'tri-band' international phone, then you can probably use your current phone internationally.

Often you will find that you may need to ask the phone company to update your account to allow for international roaming, but once you've done that, you can then use it in a foreign country as easily as in the US.

This is probably the most costly option if you use your phone much while traveling, but if you don't use it, then there is no extra cost involved at all.

Option 2 : Renting a Phone and Service

This is the most expensive of the four options, because you're paying for another middle man as part of the process.

Renting a phone is a sensible option if you travel very infrequently, and have no special 'power user' type needs. If all you want is an 'emergency contact' type phone that probably you'll never actually use, this is an easy solution.

If you expect to be renting a phone several times over a couple of years, it is probably cheaper and better to purchase a phone. Rental phones also tend to be under-featured; if you're wanting the latest and greatest options, you'll probably have to buy a phone rather than rely on a rental phone.

People considering renting a phone should consider the very low cost $49 Mobal product as an alternative.

Option 3 : Buying a Phone with HopAbroad, Riiing or Mobal service

If you travel internationally once a year or more, and if you visit several different countries, while not staying in any individual country for an extended period of time, and if you will use your phone from time to time, then one of these options is probably your best choice, and is the best trade-off between convenience and cost.

Because its per minute rates are usually lowest, Riiing is a better choice if you're doing a lot of calling.  But Mobal is a better choice if your calls are very infrequent, because it has no minimum annual fees.

Option 4 : Buying a Phone and Individual SIMs

If you travel regularly to a particular country, and/or if you are going to be staying in one country for an extended period of time, then buying a pre-paid SIM that gives you local service for that specific country is probably your best choice, and presents as definitely the lowest cost per minute of airtime (often incoming calls might be free and outgoing local calls may be less than 20c a minute).

Using individual SIMs for each country will also probably enable you to use all the features of the local network such as data services as well as simple voice services, but make sure that the phone you're using is able to support these advanced services.

There is no reason why you can't buy half a dozen different SIMs for half a dozen different countries and change SIMs every time you change countries. The only disadvantage is that it makes it difficult for people calling you to know which number to call you at, and you have to remember many different phone numbers and be juggling many different accounts, ensuring that none of them expire or run out of credit.

Decision Matrix

Here are a series of questions, the answers to which help to suggest which would be your best strategy.

On a piece of paper, draw up four columns - one for each of the four strategies. And then, for each of the questions below, write the number of points into each column for your answer.

If the answer to a question is 'I don't know/I'm not sure/I don't care' then just skip the question entirely.

When you've answered as many questions as you can, add up the points in each column. The more points that each strategy column obtains, the more likely it is to be the more sensible solution for you.

Finally, you should do what you're most comfortable with. Use this to guide and influence your decision, but don't allow it to over-rule your personal preference.


Question US Svc Rental Hop
Mobal Local SIM
Do you already have US GSM service and an international tri-band phone?
     If No, score     4   4 5   4
Do you already have an international GSM cell phone (but not US GSM service)?
     If Yes, score       5 4   5
Do you travel internationally at least once a year?
     If Yes, score   1     2 1   2
     If No, score     4   5  
Do you visit one country or multiple countries?
     If multiple countries, score   2   2   2 2  
Importance of making it easy for US callers to phone you inexpensively
     If important, score   3    1 2  
Importance of making it easy for US callers to have only one number to remember to phone you at
     If important, score   2     2 2  
Importance of making it easy (inexpensive and a local call) for callers in the country you're visiting to phone you
     If important, score           4
Which is more important to you - a convenient solution or an inexpensive solution
     If convenience most important, score   4   1   2 3  
     If cost most important, score     1   2 1   3
Will you be using your telephone a lot while traveling
     If a lot, score     1   2     3
     If a little, score   2   2   2 2  
Are you planning one visit or many to this/these country(-ies)
     If one visit, score   1   1   1 1  
     If many visits, score           1
Will you have short stays or long stays in the countries you visit
     If short stay(s), score   1   1   2 2  
     If long stay(s), score       1     2
Do you need extra services such as data, internet access, etc
     If yes, score   2  2       3
Question US Svc Rental Hop
Mobal Local

Summary and Recommendation

The above table is intended as a general guide only. The relative scores we suggest for each feature may not match the importance to you of each feature. For this reason, treat the final totals as being very approximate, and feel free to rewrite the scoring to more closely match your own needs.

Additionally, if there are any 'must have' features or services that you require, you should carefully check to make sure that your preferred option can provide these for you.

Even after you've completed this research and made your choice, you're unlikely to have a 'perfect' solution. Sure, you've hopefully identified the best-for-you solution from the four imperfect alternatives, but whatever your choice, it is still going to be more expensive than it should be.

This situation will likely improve over the next few years, just the same way that domestic roaming has evolved in the US. In the mid 1980s, if you traveled to another service provider's network, you often had to set up a fresh new account, plus perhaps pay a daily roaming fee, and people had to dial very complicated special numbers to find your phone, with these numbers changing every time you moved to a different city or state. Now, domestic roaming is automatic and 'invisible' - and also affordable. Let's hope the same evolution occurs internationally, too.

Riiing the usual best choice

For most people with average requirements, and the expectation of traveling abroad at least once every year or two, the Riiing global roaming solution is perhaps the best compromise. If you travel less frequently, then the Mobal product may be more cost effective, and if you travel regularly to a few countries, or stay in selected countries for extended periods, and plan on making extensive use of your phone, then buying local SIMs are the best approach.

If you already have US GSM service, and a tri-band phone, then simply using your present phone overseas is surely the easiest answer of all. But it will quickly also become the most expensive solution if you use your phone much, and so even if you already have US service, you might want to get your phone 'unlocked' and then use a Riiing, Mobal or local SIM with your phone.

Related Articles, etc

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.


Originally published 1 Aug 2003, last update 20 Jul 2020

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

Related Articles
Phone Issues
SIMs and services
Which is the best international SIM?
International Data Service on your Cell Phone
Global Roaming - Hop
Improved Global Roaming - Riiing
GSM cell phone unlocking FAQs
How Many Bands does your GSM phone need
Mobal GSM World Phone and SIM
Free International SIMs
Satellite Phone Service
iPhone 3G/3GS Battery replacement
How to choose the best international phone service
Emergency Cell Phone Battery Recharger reviews
Nokia 3650 review
Motorola V600 review
Dry Pak Protective Pouch
Boom Headset Review
Skullcandy headset mixer review
About Bluetooth
How to Choose a Bluetooth Headset

Your Feedback

How Would You Rate this Article


Was the Article Length and Coverage

Too short/simplistic
About right 
Too long/complex

Would You Like More Articles on this Subject


Back to Top