Using your cell phone
There are two primary ways to make phone calls or send text messages using your cell phone in a foreign country.
- Using the local cell phone provider
- Using the internet and a process called VoIP (voice over internet protocol)
Using the local cell phone provider –
There are two things to know about using this method
The phone call or text message is going to be processed by the local cell phone provider in the country you are located in.
- Requirement – your phone must operate on the cell phone frequency used by the local provider. We’ll provide a little more background about this on another page.
The foreign cell phone provider that’s processing your call needs a way to charge you for the call or text.
There are three primary options for charging you that we’ll discuss
The foreign provider will charge the cell phone provider that you use in the USA.
- Prior to leaving on your trip – contact your normal cell phone provider and request international roaming for your cell phone. Discuss with them the process and costs of calling and texting for the countries you will be visiting.
- When your phone is turned on in the foreign country, you will notice, probably at the top of your phone, the name of the local foreign provider. This company will process any phone calls or text messages and will charge your normal cell phone provider who in turn will mark up the cost of the call/text and charge you on your normal phone bill.
- This will be the most expensive of these three options. It’s convenient and a good option if you don’t make many calls.
- Be careful with this option because you are paying after the fact. You don’t see your bill until you get home. You don’t want any surprises.
You can purchase a SIM card directly from the foreign provider once you arrive in that country.
- This is a very easy option. Most countries will have several cell phone providers to choose from. They will have stores in major cities, airports, train and bus stations that are similar to the Verizon Wireless store in the USA. Go in and tell them you would like to purchase a SIM card. They will install the new SIM card and get you all set up. Sometimes, you can purchase a SIM card from a newsstand, retail shop or something similar; however, you will have to install and activate it, which is not our preferred solution.
- This will be a prepaid plan. There will be various options that provide phone calls, text messages and/or data (internet use). This will be the cheapest of the three options since you are paying the foreign cell phone provider directly.
- An additional requirement to use this method is that your cell phone must be an unlocked phone meaning that you can remove your normal SIM card and replace it temporarily with the one you just purchased.
You can purchase a SIM card from one of many online retailers who sell SIM cards that work in many countries around the world.
- Normally, this is purchased prior to departing on your trip. When received through the mail, you will need to install and activate it.
- This is not as cheap an option as purchasing the local SIM card upon arrival in the country because you are paying through a company who is paying the foreign cell phone provider.
- An additional requirement is that your cell phone must be an unlocked phone.
For the SIM card options, there will be a small cost for the SIM card itself and the remainder of your upfront payment will be a credit that allows you to make calls and send texts. Once the credit gets low or runs out, you will be able to re-load additional funds onto the SIM card through the cell phone company’s retail store or online.
Using the internet and a process called VoIP (voice over internet protocol)
Phone calls are made using a process called VoIP (voice over internet protocol). Simply, VoIP is a process that turns analog audio signals (like a phone uses) into digital data that can be transmitted over the internet (source How Stuff Works). Calling, using VoIP, has improved considerably over the years. Initially, the process started by allowing computer to computer calls. With technology expanding, and the introduction of mobile apps, calls can now be made from and to mobile devices.For this method, you will need an internet connection and one of many apps that allow for calling and/or texting. There are two primary ways to access the internet.
- Using the mobile device’s Wi-Fi setting to connect to the internet. Most hotels or guesthouses (and many restaurants and cafes) provide an internet connection and many times there is no cost to access it. After connecting to the internet, open the app and make a call or send a text using your contacts list or use the keypad to dial the number. This will most likely be your cheapest option. For the most part, both parties will need to install the app that you are using.
- Using a cellular data connection to connect to the internet. This is not a smart way to make a phone call. You will need to have a cellular data plan for this method. If you have a cellular data plan at home, it will not cover you in a foreign country. You will need a separate data plan through your current cell phone carrier (which can be expensive!!!) or on your SIM card (preferably the one through the foreign country’s local network).
Some of the more popular apps to use are the following:
- FaceTime (this should come already installed on your iPhone; both parties will need this app). Audio and video calls are free with this method.
- Skype or Viber – both parties will need the app installed to make audio or video calls. Similar to FaceTime, these calls are free.
Using your tablet
For the most part, tablets sold in the USA cannot process phone calls like a cell phone because they do not have a radio receiver. Those sold in Europe, or elsewhere, might be able to. However, tablets can make phone calls or send/receive text messages using VoIP as described previously for cell phones.
There are two types of tablets.
- Tablets that can access the internet using a cellular connection and through Wi-Fi.
- Tablets that can access the internet using Wi-Fi. The majority of tablets sold in the USA are Wi-Fi only type tablets.
Tablets can make phone calls or send/receive text messages just like cell phones do as noted in the “using the internet and a process called VoIP” section noted earlier. With an internet connection and one of several apps, you can make phone calls and send/receive text messages like you can with your cell phone.
Using your laptop (My Travel Op’s preferred solution)
Laptops can make phone calls or send/receive text messages using VoIP similar to a cell phone or a tablet.
By using your Gmail account and downloading the Google voice and video chat plug-in, you can make phone calls to any phone number (mobile or landline) in the USA for free. If you have Google Voice (“GV”), your GV phone number shows up on the receiver’s digital display. If you do not have a GV number, a generic phone number will show up.
My Travel Op uses this method when making phone calls from foreign countries to people or companies who do not have one of the apps (e.g. FaceTime, Viber, etc.) on their device. One time in Lisbon, we had to contact LAN Airlines regarding a couple of South American flights we were trying to purchase. We were able to finalize the flight purchases after being on the phone for almost an hour. Most companies like LAN do not have apps installed to make free calls. Using our Gmail account, we were able to make the phone call for free. There was no charge to either party. Keep in mind when you make a call using Wi-Fi, the quality of the call is only as good as the Wi-Fi connection.