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A lifetime phone number with no annual fee.  So what is the catch?

There is no catch.

And it gets better.  The phone service can work in over 140 countries, and works with any compatible GSM phone.

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Mobal GSM World Phone Service

International travel is becoming more common, and the need for and convenience of an international cell phone is increasingly essential.

Part 6 of a 10 part series - click for Parts One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight  Nine  Ten



If you occasionally travel internationally, the Mobal GSM World Phone Service is an interesting alternative to the Hop global roaming service discussed in part three.

The cost of getting a Mobal phone is lower, and because you have no annual line rental costs, the ongoing cost of keeping the phone is obviously unbeatable.

But if you're making lots of calls with the phone, the per minute charges can quickly add up.  Choose this product if you don't plan to use your phone a great deal; but consider Hop or some of the other solutions offered in the decision matrix if you plan to be a heavier phone user.

What You Get

The Mobal phone service gives you an international SIM that works in over 140 different countries in the world, complete with an (optional) phone to use with the SIM.

If you don't already have a suitable international GSM phone, you can also choose a phone at very discounted prices, ranging from an entry level dual band phone (900/1800 MHz - doesn't work in the US) for only $49, to fully featured tri-band phones costing $99 and up.

See our discussion on which GSM bands you need to help you choose the best phone.

The phone comes complete with a multi-voltage charger for the different voltages and frequencies around the world.

Mobal's SIM is from one of the major wireless network operators in the UK, but has special features that you wouldn't find if buying direct from any of the UK wireless services.

Because the SIM is issued by a UK phone company, it has a British phone number associated with it.  No matter where you are in the world, people will always get through to your phone by calling the UK number assigned to the SIM.

Using with other phones

You can also buy the SIM card by itself and use it with any GSM phone that you might already have.  The SIM card - without a phone - costs only $19 - less than what a hotel would charge you for even a very brief international call from the phone in your hotel room.

If you choose to buy the SIM alone, be sure to remember that the GSM phone you use must not only have compatible frequency bands but also must be unlocked.  If you're not certain if the phone is unlocked or not, it will quickly tell you this when you put the Mobal SIM into it.

We tested Mobal's SIM with a range of different Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Siemens phones, and it worked perfectly in all of them.

Buying the SIM by itself is a good strategy if you already have a high end phone that you'd rather use.  But for the minimal $30 extra cost to get a nice dual band phone that can be kept as a spare, this might also be something to consider.

Update :  We can provide you with a Mobal SIM ourselves (costing a mere $2.50 each plus $2.50 shipping) and also have a limited range of easy to remember phone numbers for sale.

Using Mobal

Using the Mobal service is very simple.  You put the SIM into the phone, turn it on, then start making calls and receiving calls.

It works just like any other cell phone you've ever used.  There is nothing special you need to know or do.

Even though you are calling through an international network, calls go through quickly, both from your phone and to your phone, and voice quality is clear and the same as for local cell phone calls.

Strangely, however, I was unable to call to my Mobal UK number using my prepaid calling card service, even though it allows me to contact other phone numbers in the UK.  Calling the number just caused a nasty tone to appear in my ear.

SMS and Voicemail

SMS - Short message service - is something that almost everyone uses abundantly overseas, but which has yet to become very popular in the US.

The SMS service works very easily with the Mobal service.  The SIM automatically configures your phone to send and receive SMS messages, so no additional configuration is required.

SMS messages cost 80 each to send.  Incoming messages are free to receive.

Voicemail can be a great convenience, particularly if you switch your phone off while sleeping at night, but have people calling you at horrible hours due to misunderstanding the time zone changes.

Voicemail is an expensive service with Mobal, however.  When a call gets switched to voicemail, you'll pay a double cost - first of all, the cost of having an incoming call routed to your phone, and then secondly, the cost of having the call then routed from your phone to the UK, where the voicemail service is based.

To retrieve your voicemail messages, you pay the cost of a call from where you are located to the UK.  So, in total, you're paying three times the cost per minute to get a voicemail message that you would with a normal call.

Fortunately, in view of the cost of incoming voicemail messages, the voicemail service is turned off by default.

Using the voicemail service is slightly complex.  You have to program a special number into your phone to call.

When someone leaves you a message, the system sends you an SMS message to tell you.  The message suggests you simply dial 901 to retrieve the message.  This suggestion is, alas, wrong, and doesn't work!  Instead, you must call the special number.

Mobal do helpfully point out that it might be a good idea to switch voicemail off when you're not traveling, so as to avoid any inadvertent or accidental costs.


Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Mobal product is that there is no monthly/annual line fee for having a phone number.  Mobal say that they reserve the right to suspend your service if you haven't used it for eighteen months, but they'll switch it back on again for free if you ask them to.  It is probably a good idea to remember to make a call to or from your number once every year or two just to make sure it is still active, but other than that, you have no ongoing costs at all.

This is a uniquely good deal, and compares with potentially $50 or more a year to keep other products active.

But offsetting the no line fee are high per minute phone call costs, with one exception.

The one exception - if you're in the UK, all incoming calls to your phone are free.  But elsewhere in the world, you'll typically be paying $1.25 - $1.95 per minute for incoming calls.

Outgoing calls to numbers within the country you're in are generally about the same as the cost for incoming calls (ie $1.25 - $1.95 a minute), although in many cases, it is strangely less expensive to place a call to someone than to receive a call.

International calls to places outside the country you're visiting are of course more expensive, with rates to call the US or UK ranging from a low of $1.50 a minute up to a high of $8.95/minute, depending on where you're currently located.

Calling to other countries is more expensive again, with rates ranging from $2.95 all the way up to a breathtaking $11.95 (to Serbia & Montenegro - you probably won't need to call there too often).

We've prepared a table comparing international cell phone calling costs that gives you a quick summary of the respective costs of competing services.

Phone calls are charged in whole minute increments - this tends to make your calls more expensive than if they were charged in shorter, single second or 6 second (1/10th minute) increments.  For example, a 4 minute 1 second call would be charged for 5 minutes with Mobal, whereas Hop, which charges by the second, would charge for only the exact time used.

One positive thing is that no taxes are added to Mobal's rates.

Cost Considerations

Yes, Mobal costs are higher than buying local prepaid SIMs for each country you visit.  But this alternative is not convenient for everyone, and also pre-supposes you already own a GSM international phone to use with the prepaid SIMs.

The Mobal costs are generally the same or lower than those charged by companies that rent you a phone and SIM, and are also generally the same or lower than those charged by US phone services.

Hop rates are much lower than Mobal's rates, but the cost of equipping yourself with a Hop number are greater to start with - a Hop SIM costs $99, including $15 worth of airtime.

If your phone usage is likely to be less than two hours or so of talk time while traveling, the Mobal product might be the better choice for you.  But if you expect heavy usage or regular travels out of the US, then the Hop product's lower costs per call start to overtake the Mobal product's lower cost to start up.

Paying for Service

One of the very nice features of Mobal is that you do not need to prepay for service.  Instead, you simply register a credit card with Mobal, and they bill it as and when you make calls, with invoices being billed every two weeks.

They also send you an itemized invoice so you can see how you're spending your money.

Due to the billing to your credit card, you never need to worry about running out of airtime, or the hassle factor of needing to recharge the balance on your SIM card if using any type of pre-paid SIM service.


The Mobal SIM and phone costs very little up front and is easy to use.  It can be purchased direct from their website.

We can provide you with a Mobal SIM ourselves ($2.50 each plus $2.50 shipping) and also have a limited range of easy to remember numbers available for sale.

For people who don't anticipate a high volume of phone usage during their international travels, this is the best way to get hassle-free phone service.

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Originally published 23 Jul 2004, 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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