People back in the States often ask us how we communicate and if we carry a cell phone. When we say yes, many people ask us what plan we’re on or if we have a satellite phone. The truth of the matter is that the way cell phone plans, phones, and companies operate in the US is different than in the rest of the world….and in the rest of the world, thankfully, it is much easier to travel internationally with a cell phone.
We carry a basic cell phone that has a SIM card slot. In the US, this type of phone is used by AT&T and T-Mobile. There is a SIM card and that card basically IS your phone number and your plan. The phones in the US, sold to you by these companies, are ‘locked’ to run exclusively on the network from which you purchased your phone.
All phones however, begin their lives ‘unlocked’ and it is a very simply matter to take your AT&T phone and unlock it. We did this at the start of our trip with a guy on the street in Guatemala after we learned that the Spanish word for the process (they have LOTS of used US phones in Guatemala) is ‘Flashar.’ It was easy, he pushed a few buttons on his special machine, and it was done. Not going to Guatemala soon? Here is how you do it online:
Go to the search engine of your choice. Search for something like ‘unlock my cell-phone’ and follow the on-screen instructions. Depending on what site you find you should pay somewhere around $5-$10 for this one time service. It is easy, and takes about 24 hours for the whole thing to work itself out. We recently did this when we took a newer cell phone with us to Turkey.
Once in another country it is merely a matter of purchasing a SIM card and popping it in the slot. We traveled through Europe (and then the US as well) with a German SIM card. This card worked everywhere we went and was actually cheaper to use in the US than had we purchased a new card from T-Mobile in the US proper. The German card cost ten Euro but came with that much in calling credit. The only annoying thing was that no one could call us. We now have a Turkish number on a Turkish SIM card which cost a bit more than the German one but we managed to purchase 1,000 SMS messages for about $7.
We have had local phone numbers in these two countries as well as Egypt, Israel, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala & Honduras. We don’t use the phone much but when couchsurfing or trying to make any level of advanced plans it is a huge help. At its most basic level, when we find a taxi driver we like we can grab his number and use him again….something that has worked out in our favor on more than one occasion. When American’s travel overseas it is sometimes a nerve-wracking decision on how to call around and call home with the way our plans are structured, but if you just unlock your phone, or even an old one, things can become a lot easier.