The Good, The Bad and The Cheap

By Ken Grunski
Published July 19, 2010

International cell phones with prepaid SIM cards can free you from the inconvenience of being chained to a hotel or pay phone while providing reliable and yes, even an economical way of calling back home while you study abroad though be prepared to either purchase or rent a second world phone because standard domestic models don't work overseas and here's why:

  • Some countries drive on the other side of the road. Some countries use different TV systems (remember this when buying videos and DVDs internationally). And, unfortunately, most countries use a different type of cell phone service, too.
  • Europe and much of the world adopted a common world phone standard called Global Service for Mobile (GSM). Equally important, Europe, Africa and Asia not only had the foresight to adopt the same cell phone standard, but they also decided that their cell phone networks would operate on the same frequencies (the 900mhz, initially and later the 1800mhz band). This explains why the same cell phone that works in London will work equally well in Johannesburg, Beijing and Sydney.
  • Most countries around the globe - more than 205 at last count - have adopted the GSM wireless technology and if you plan on studying overseas, outside of North America and want the convenience of carrying a travel phone, then you're going to need a GSM international cell phone.
  • The United States did not standardize and consequently competing wireless standards emerged from the various wireless carriers. Just so you know the names, in the US our cell phone service is most likely to be the CDMA type (Verizon and Sprint), or perhaps TDMA or even iDEN (Nextel) or AMPS (you don't want to know what these acronyms stand for and fortunately you don't need to know).
  • While there are some North American GSM cellular providers (T-Mobile and Cingular), they unfortunately operate on a different (1900mhz) frequency than is used abroad, however there are some multi-band world phones now available through these US carriers. The "international roaming" rate for this service can be measured in dollars per minute though you will be accessible on your US number while overseas.
  • A GSM international cell phone can be rented for typically $29-$59/week with per minute charges ranging from $1.50-$5/minute, for your incoming and outgoing calls. If you travel infrequently (less then once/ year) and your stay is less then a week then this may be the best option even with the outrageous per minute costs. However with most study abroad programs lasting 1-3 months you would need another student load to simply pay off your phone bill.
  • To really take advantage of a cell phone overseas and not need a second mortgage on your house, you will want to purchase your own GSM international cell phone and a prepaid SIM card for your next international destination. This is usually the best option for students studying overseas.
  • Unlike typical cell phones in the US, GSM world cell phones do not come with phone numbers programmed into them and the actual service is not even tied to the phone itself. Instead customers activate their mobile phones by popping in so-called SIM cards, little thumbnail sized devices that determine your cell phone number and any additional services like voicemail.

Country-Specific SIM cards

  • A pre-paid SIM card for each country you visit (an Italy SIM card, France SIM card, Spain SIM card Australia SIM card), gives you a local phone number and local calling rates are usually a low 25 cents/minute. It is easy, convenient, and relatively inexpensive for you to call other people in the country you're visiting, and easy and normal for them to call to you on your local number, too. Best of all, Incoming calls are FREE regardless of where they originate.
  • You can replenish your airtime on the SIM card by purchasing an airtime voucher in one of the local currency denominations. They are available at most newsstands, kiosks and convenience stores. The airtime vouchers are scratch cards that have a pin code which you simply key into your phone for immediate credit.

International SIM cards

  • If you're traveling to a number of countries on a single trip, there are also options to remove the need for a separate SIM card in each country you visit. A Global or International pre-paid SIM card usually comes with a UK (+44) number and allows cheaper roaming across Europe and much of the GSM world for much lower than your US carrier could allow.
  • These Global SIM cards are also usually much cheaper when roaming through other countries than even a local European country SIM would allow. For example, you may purchase a pre-paid SIM card for Italy, and receive excellent local rates while in that country, but travel to France or Spain and that's when you'll be hit by International roaming charges. A pre-paid SIM card purpose built for such country-hopping travel often also receives as standard free incoming minutes.
  • Topping up your calling minutes can usually be done through the provider's customer service, online or through a phone recharge menu.
  • If international calling and SIM card technology is new to you, always check the availability of reaching customer service. Some providers offer standard US business hours assistance, which may not mean much to you when you're on European or Asian time. A 24-hour Customer Service department will never leave you in need while traveling abroad.
  • In summary, with a prepaid cell phone you have a cost effective way of staying in touch with no bills, no roaming charges and no extra hassles.


Looking for more information? Check out our study abroad student guide to learn more.