Since the demise of Iridium, there's been little hope for a truly international cell phone. And although experts talk of setting a global service standard, most U.S. phones still run on one of four networks (iDEN, TDMA, CDMA, or GSM 1900MHz), while another, GSM 900MHz, dominates the market abroad. But now a new generation of cell phones is finally bridging the gap—providing comprehensive service almost anywhere on the planet.
By far the most advanced product on the market is a recent entry from Nextel, which for the first time has married its own iDEN network to GSM 900MHz in one phone, the Motorola i2000 ($349; 800/639-8359). With its "plus" dialing feature, there's no need to remember a laundry list of international access codes—simply hold down the plus button and dial direct. Other cell phone manufacturers have also gone global by combining the two versions of GSM. Style devotees can upgrade to the sleek brushed-aluminum Nokia 8890, which comes with voice dialing and text messaging ($500; 888/665-4228). The equally compact Ericsson T28 World makes up in function what it lacks in form—a world clock and alarm are standard features ($299; 800/374-2776). To make calls on either of these phones, you'll need to go with one of the dual-GSM-band service providers, such as VoiceStream Wireless or Pacific Bell.
So which phone/service combo should you choose?In this country, there's not much difference, since Nextel's iDEN and GSM 1900MHz have comparable coverage. (One notable exception: Chicago, which GSM providers haven't yet incorporated into their network.) The real variable is performance abroad. Nextel has roaming agreements in 133 countries—including Britain, Germany, France, China, and Australia—and it charges an affordable flat fee for long distance (as low as 99 cents a minute in most of Western Europe). VoiceStream and Pacific Bell, on the other hand, don't operate in as many countries (65 and 40, respectively), and they allow their overseas partners to set widely varying rates. In Britain, for example, VoiceStream's partners charge an estimated $2.29 per minute, Pacific Bell's $2.95. Given that, stash Nextel's Motorola next to your passport and prepare for takeoff.