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How to Avoid Big Phone Bills Abroad

Apple iPhone 3G.

Photo: Courtesy of Apple

“What’s the best way to make a call when traveling outside of the United States?” is one of the most common questions I’m asked. The answer is not so simple, as I discovered recently when my daughter Caitlin left to study at the University of Seville. There is a bewildering array of options, from using your own cell phone or handheld device in a smarter way to making the Internet work to your advantage. Here are seven of the best choices. Read on to find the one that’s right for you.

Roam like a local by changing SIM cards.

Avoid roaming charges and higher rates by using an international SIM card in your unlocked GSM tri- or quad-band phone or device. Buy a card online at sites like cellularabroad.com (from $39 with up to 100 minutes). Cards include starter minutes that can be topped up. Be sure your phone has the right GSM frequency for your destination (e.g., 900–1,800 MHz for Europe and most of Asia).

Pros: Per-minute rates are usually less than a dollar; incoming calls are often free.

Cons: You can’t keep your regular mobile number—you get a temporary international one with your SIM card.

Sign up for your carrier’s international roaming plan.

All major U.S. providers have agreements with foreign carriers to let you use your phone in their service areas. Some companies offer plans with discounted roaming rates abroad for a monthly fee, such as AT&T’s World Traveler ($5.99 a month).

Pros: This is the most convenient way to use your own device while traveling—your number doesn’t change and there’s no need to swap SIM cards.

Cons: Even with the plans, roaming rates can still be high; local calls are billed at international prices.

Make your laptop your phone.

Skype—which lets you make voice and video calls from your computer over the Internet—is great if you’re traveling with your laptop. You can connect with other Skype users for free or call mobile and landline phones for a small fee.

Pros: No service plan is required; software and computer-to-computer calls are free.

Cons: You have to be near your computer and it must be turned on; free calls are possible only with other Skype users.

“Roam” online.

If you have an Internet-accessible device, like an iPhone, iPod Touch, or Nokia smart phone, you can create an account with Truphone (truphone.com). Download the free Wi-Fi software and make international calls for as little as 2 cents a minute. Alternatively, a few companies sell dedicated Wi-Fi phones for $100–$200.

Pros: Wi-Fi calls are inexpensive or free; you don’t have to change anything about your phone or your plan.

Cons: To avoid additional charges, you must be in a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Buy prepaid calling cards.

Before you leave home, shop online for an international calling card with discounted rates for your destination, typically less than 10 cents a minute. Or wait until you arrive and get a prepaid card at a grocery store, gas station, or newsstand.

Pros: They’re easy to use, and you pay up front.

Cons: Per-call fees, activation charges, rounding up of minutes, and peak-time surcharges can add up fast. Also, if you’re calling from a hotel phone, expect a high charge to your room for the call, even to a toll-free number. And finally, let’s face it: there are fewer pay phones on the streets these days.

Make a credit card call.

You can call the United States from any phone in 150 countries by using a local AT&T USADirect number before dialing your party. The fee is a flat rate of 99 cents a minute plus a service charge of 89 cents per call, all billed to a credit card.

Pros: No special phone or service plan is required.

Cons: You can’t make calls within a foreign destination, or from one foreign country to another, at this rate.

Talk via satellite.

A satellite phone doesn’t depend on cell towers, so it’s more reliable—in the mountains, on a cruise ship, even at the South Pole. These phones cost $600–$1,500, so renting ($7–$20 a day plus airtime) may be more practical than buying.

Pros: The signal is consistent; no roaming fees apply. These are recommended for travel to very remote places.

Cons: They work only outdoors, and are clunky, heavy, and expensive to use ($1–$2 per minute of airtime).

I’m leaving soon on a business trip to Munich and Moscow, so I’ve signed up for an international roaming plan for my BlackBerry. And in the end, my daughter and I decided to use Skype. It’s the best option—for now.

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