International Cell Phones

I’m not the most technologically savvy guy in the world. Sure, I figured out how to tether my blackberry to my laptop for free wireless internet wherever I go. But that’s only because Google is my friend and I have the patience for trial and error until I get things right. But it takes me awhile to catch onto the simplest of things, sometimes.

But I have figured out that reasonably-priced cell phone service requires pretty much three things:

An unlocked phone. I’m with AT&T and since I’ve been with them for awhile (I’ve heard they require six months, but I’ve had their service for 18) I just sent them a customer service email and asked them for a ‘subsidy unlock code’ which they were happy to provide.


 An international sim card. There are several providers around the world which provide free incoming calls in most countries. 09 mobile from Iceland offers service in 190+ countries and incoming calls are free in 80+ of them. TravelSimShop (if memory serves, from Estonia, but I didn’t check this) offers a similar product… and you can even earn a very limited number of miles

Terms and conditions of each are slightly different with regard to expiration of the account or unused minutes after a certain period. 09 requires some activity (calling or adding funds to the account) every 9 months. TravelSimShop only requires some activity every 24 months, but doesn’t offer as many countries with free incoming calls and some rates are higher.  Remember: the rates you’ll care about are incoming rates – the cost to receive a call.

Callback service. For example, Call Back World.

  • If you’re in Spain and getting free incoming calls, you dial Call Back World.. wait for the phone to ring once… and hang up. You get an immediate call back from their system, you dial the number you want to reach in the U.S., and you get charged about 8 cents a minute for the call by Call Back World.
  • If people want to reach you, they dial an 800# and enter your six digit code. The system forwards their call to you. Your caller is dialing a free U.S. number, you get free incoming calls through your SIM card. And you pay that same 8 cents a minute to Call Back World. (Or you could just make your callers ring your Estonian or Icelandic phone number, and that costs you nothing, but paying the 8 cents a minute for them may be far more polite.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This is very good advise! After seeing the incredible international roaming rates from AT&T/Cingular (especially for data), I decided to ask them to unlock my old BlackBerry. They were happy to oblige (I’m an iPhone user now), and I picked up a cheap SIM for in-country use in the UK.

    One more money-saving idea I used: If you’ll be burning up the minutes (conference calls, etc) consider Skype when on the road! I’ve been very happy to Skype this as a bulk-minutes provider to supplement my mobile use.

    Finally, note that the Sharper Image now sells unlocked GSM phones in their airport stores…

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