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Using a mobile phone abroad

Purchasing an international mobile phone may seem to be a good choice for traveling abroad. But before you buy, be sure to read the fine print and compare, compare, compare.

Your typical cell phone here in the U.S. won’t work outside North America because the rest of the world uses a different system, called GSM. Even the domestic systems that do use GSM, like Cingular and T-Mobile, use different frequency bands than those outside the States. Why? That’s like explaining why we use the U.S. customary measuring system rather than metric. It’s just the way it’s always been done.

If you already have a three- or four-band GSM cell phone, you can ask your phone company to enable it for international use. However, keep in mind that outgoing calls can cost as much as $3 per minute, and incoming calls will also cost you. Check with your carrier for current overseas rates.

If you don’t have a GSM phone, you can either rent one or buy a cheap phone for use on your trip. Compare rates from your U.S. cell phone retailer or a mobile-rental specialist. If you can, stick to a prepaid plan so that you don’t come home to the surprise of a huge bill.

A mobile phone may be a convenient way to keep in touch, but the cost can quickly spiral out of control. Don’t forget about calling cards, and consider talking to your family or friends from an Internet cafe by downloading Skype, an online service that allows you to call a landline or mobile phone from a computer for a fraction of the cost on a cell phone.

For a more detailed look at international mobile phones, check out Ed Perkins’ column on wireless phone service in Europe.

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