International Cell Phone Guide

International cell phone services (a.k.a. world phones) don't have to be confusing...

How to quickly choose the right service for you, just by understanding the 5 main areas of difference...

Service provider 1. Rental or purchase option 2. Local or global SIM card 3. Pre-pay or post-pay billing 4. Call-back or direct-dial service 5. SIM only or SIM and handset Go to website
Cellhire logo Rental Both Post-pay Direct-dial Both GO >>
International cell phones Both Global Post-pay Direct-dial Both GO >>
Telestial logo Both Both Pre-pay Call-back Both GO >>
Cellular Abroad logo Both Global Pre-pay Call-back Both GO >>
One SIM Card logo Both Global Pre-pay Call-back Both GO >>
Bright Roam logo Purchase Global Pre-pay Call-back Both GO >>
Call in Europe logo Purchase Both Post-pay Direct-dial Both GO >>
EuroBuzz logo Purchase Global Post-pay Call-back Both GO >>
Travelcell logo Rental Global Post-pay Call-back SIM and handset GO >>
Planet Omni logo Both Global Pre-pay Call-back Both GO >>
All Cell Rentals logo Rental Global Post-pay Call-back SIM and handset GO >>
Phone Rental USA logo Rental Both Post-pay Direct-dial Both GO >>

*If you're an international cell phone service provider and would like to be included, or you wish to correct any information above, please contact us


Here's a quick explanation...

...about international cell phones and the 5 areas of differences which affect them


International cell phones are great for peace-of-mind while you're traveling, but even more so, they're vital to solving unforseen problems that can occur...

...but it can be very confusing knowing which of the many international cell phone (a.k.a. world phone) options available is going to work right for you.

But really there are only 5 important features between all the services on offer...

These are:

The quickest way to get an idea of which international cell phone features you need to be looking for is to take this quick flowchart below.

International cell phone guide flowchart

But first, let's quickly define what international cell phones actually are so you have all the background knowledge...

* What are international cell phones?

Instead of thinking of international cell phones as something strange and different, it perhaps make more sense to think of your own US cell phone as being the one that is strange and different.

This is because when cell phones were developed, the US (and a small handful of other countries) used a technology called CDMA, while the rest of the world all used a technology called GSM*.

*GSM technology is beginning to get adopted in the US by a couple of carriers, so you may already have a GSM cell phone in some form. This is covered in more detail further below.

This meant that cell phones using GSM will work in many other countries, but American CDMA cell phones won't. So to Americans, this makes a GSM cell phone an international cell phone.

Before the rest of the world get too smug, there are still some things about international cell phones it helps to know:

The different GSM frequencies

There are 4 different frequencies (850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz) that are used around the world, and you can get international cell phones that work on any combination to one or all four of these frequencies.

You just need to check that the international cell phone you get works on the frequencies supported in the countries you plan to visit.

The handset and the SIM card

International cell phones have two main parts. The handset and the SIM card. The SIM card is a small, electronic chip that sits inside the handset and works as the 'brain' providing the connection to the carrier.

Because the SIM card is removable, you can switch it for the SIM card of other carriers should you wish (choosing between switching SIM cards or just using one single SIM card is one of the major differences between international cell phone services, as you will see further down).

Locked or unlocked handsets

Although the SIM card is physically removable and replacable, some carriers 'lock' their handsets so they only work with the SIM card they provide.

They usually do this when you've signed up for an ongoing service, so they've been happy to subsidize the cost of the handset. They then lock the handset to stop you just signing up to get the cheaper handset, and then switch to a different SIM from a different carrier.

If you're planning to get your handset and SIM card from different sources, remember you'll need to make sure the handset you get is 'unlocked'. But if you're getting them both from the same provider, you don't really need to worry about it.

So, before you worry about all this, find out if your US cell phone is really an international cell phone...

* Will your US cell phone work overseas?

Before you start looking into international cell phones, first you need to know if your own US cell phone works. This could potentially solve all your problems in one go.

As mentioned above, most US cell phones use CDMA technology which limits which other countries it will work in, but a small percentage do use GSM, which means you might be able to use it as an international cell phone.

As a basic guide, here’s which US carriers might be able to give you international service:
US cell phone carriers

So, if it looks like a straight-up 'no', then it's time to start looking at your other options.

But if the answer is a 'yes' or 'maybe', you still need to consider these following things...

What to ask your carrier about their international service... And if your US cell phone does work, can you put up with these disadvantages... Is using in your US cell phone best for you?
what's best for you?

Obviously you need to be using a US carrier who can offer an international service. But even if this is the case, you still need to contact them to check out all the extra charges or upgrades needed, and decide if the negatives are worth putting up with.

It could still be easier and more cost-effective for you to have a second cell phone, just for international travel (and as you'll see, this is not so expensive or extravagant as it first sounds).


How to choose between international cell phone options
International cell phone choice

If you’ve determined that you will not be able to use your US cell phone, or you’ve decided you’d rather not use it, you will need to pick an international cell phone service.

It can seem very hard to work out what the differences between them are, and which is best for your, but in reality, there are just five main areas where international cell phone services differ...


1. Rental vs Purchase

The first difference is whether you want to rent or purchase the service.

Here are the main differences between rental and purchase:

Rental vs Purchase
Only pay for service for period of time you need it. vs It costs about the same as two weeks’ rental charges to buy the same service, but then you’ve paid for it for all future trips too.
Get a new number every trip you take, which you must update your contacts with every time. vs Get one number for life, so once you've handed out your number, contacts always know how to reach you no matter where you travel to.
Get well maintained equipment every time. vs Be responsible for maintaining or updating your own equipment
How to decide which is best for you
what's best for you?

The number one thing to consider is how often you plan to travel in the future. If you plan to travel every year or even every few years, then buying your service will be far more cost-effective and convenient for you.

However, if you really only plan to travel extremely infrequently or not at all in the future, then rental still makes more sense for you.


2. Local SIM Card vs Global SIM Card

International cell phones can come both as global SIM card services or local SIM card services.

A global service is where a single SIM card will give you service in every country, and a local service is where you need a different SIM card specifically for each country you plan to visit.

Here are the main differences between local and global SIM cards:

Local SIM cards vs Global SIM cards
Need to buy a separate SIM cards for every country you plan to visit, which can become costly. vs Buy just one SIM card and be covered for all your future trips.
Get cheaper local call rates. vs Call rates generally more expensive than the local SIM option.
Get a different local-format number for each country you visit, which you must update your contacts with in each new country. vs Get just one number which you can be reached on wherever you are, meaning your contacts don’t even need to know which country you’re in to reach you.
Locked to a single carrier in each country, so reliant on their signal strength to make calls. vs Automatically log on to the strongest carrier signal in the area, ensuring the best coverage available where you are.
How to decide which is best for you
what's best for you?

Because of the cheaper rates and local number you get with local SIM cards, this makes them best if you plan to visit the same country frequently.

However, if you plan to travel to different countries in the future, then although you may pay higher call rates, the much cheaper purchase price and much higher convenience can make a global SIM card a far better option.


3. Pre-pay vs Post-pay

With international cell phone services there are two ways you can be charged for the calls you make.

One is called pre-pay where you buy and load your service with talk time in advance. Once you’ve used all your talk time you must buy more, or your service will cut out.

The other is post-pay, where you receive a statement and pay for your calls after you make them, very much like traditional cell phone or landline contract.

Here are the main differences between pre-pay and post-pay:

Pre-pay vs Post-pay
Control how much you spend overall by limiting how much talk time you buy. vs Pay for as many calls as you actually need to make, not for how many you think you want to make.
Risk getting cut off once your talk time expires. vs Because you’re continually connected and don’t need to buy talk time in advance, your calls will last as long as you need them to.
Can be hard to find somewhere to top up talk time if you run out. vs No need to buy talk time, so no danger of getting stranded without any service.
Risk overspending on talk time that you never end up using. vs You only pay for the calls you actually make, so you never end up paying for talk time you never use.
Service will expire if you don’t use it, or top up, within a period of time, typically nine months. If you travel again you will need to buy a totally new local SIM card. vs Service never expires, even if you don’t use it for long periods of time, so it will still be ready when you need it.
How to decide which is best for you
what's best for you?

If you’re really on a tight budget, then pre-pay services make sure that you don’t run over that budget. However, they can be limiting or frustrating if you run out of talk time, especially if you’ve got important calls to make.

If you want the peace-of-mind that your phone will be ready and working whenever you need it, which is especially important when overseas, then a post-pay service gives you a constantly connected service.


4. Call-Back vs Direct-Dial

International cell phones come with two different methods of dialing.

Direct-dial is where you call the number you want and you are connected directly, like the phone services you’re used to. Call-back is where you dial a third-party Internet connection which then calls you back to connect you with the number you want to dial.

Here’s the main differences between call-back and direct-dial services:

Call-back vs Direct-dial
More hassle to place calls as you must dial an access number, then enter the number you want, then hang up and wait to be called back. vs Just dial the number you want in the normal international format and get connected.
Uses a relatively new and unproven third-party connection to route your call over the Internet, means the quality can be worse. vs Is a normal service where you’re connected directly to the number you want, so no risky third-party connections
By using a third-party internet connection to route calls, the quality is compromised but it enables cheaper rates for calls. vs Direct-dial services are more expensive for calls compared to call-back services, but they are much more reliable.
How to decide which is best for you
what's best for you?

If your number one concern is your budget, and you’re happy to take a risk that your service might not always work smoothly, then you should try call-back services.

However, if you want the peace-of-mind that your service has the best chance of working when you need it, then a direct dial service is the best one to choose.


5. SIM Only vs SIM and Handset

With most international cell phone services you will get a choice to either get the SIM card with a handset, or to just get the SIM card on it’s own.

Here’s the main differences between SIM only and SIM and handset options:

SIM only vs SIM and handset
Can use your own GSM handset, if you have one. vs Is a cheaper way to get the right frequency handset with your SIM card, if you don’t already own one.
Can choose to buy your own ‘unlocked’ handset, if you don’t like the ones on offer or they don’t have certain features you want. vs You will generally get a small choice of handset options, which will be fine for making calls, but may be quite basic on features.
How to decide which is best for you
what's best for you?

If you already have a GSM handset with the frequencies needed for where you’re traveling, then it makes sense to just buy the SIM card alone.

Or, if you don’t like the choice of handsets on offer with the SIM, you can choose the SIM only option and then go buy an unlocked handset from wherever you like.

However, if you need a phone handset, and you’re happy with the ones on offer, then a SIM and handsets package makes the most sense.


Conclusions on your international cell phone options

So, despite it looking like you have hundreds of different options, the truth is that everyone of them will be a combination of these five features, even if it’s not immediately obvious in the sales literature.

You just need to decide which features are more important for you. As a general rule you will pay more for both quality and convenience, so remember to consider exactly how many calls you will be making — it can be worth paying more for a few calls, just to have the ease and quality, so your calls go through OK.

Here's one last overview in a nutshell:
  • Rent — if you will travel very, very infrequently or never again
  • Purchase — if you plan to travel a few times in the future
  • Local SIM card — if you travel to one specific country often, or cheaper calls is your number one priority over ease-of-use and convenience
  • Global SIM card — if you travel to a few countries and you want better ease-of-use and convenience
  • Pre-pay — if you want complete control over your budget, but willing to risk getting cut off if your talk time runs out
  • Post-pay — if it's more important that you can place any call, anytime you need to
  • Call-back — if cheaper calls are your number one priority over quality and ease of use
  • Direct-dial — if you want to have a better quality service so important calls will go through
  • SIM only — if you have your own compatible handset, or you want certain features
  • SIM and handset — if you're happy to get a more basic phone

Now, simply go back up to the comparison table and see which company matches all (or most) of your criterior...