Using your cell phone internationally can lead to exorbitant bills if you're not careful. Here are a few steps you can take to make sure you stay connected to friends and family while traveling--without paying more than you have to.
UNLOCK YOUR GSM PHONE
Not all cell phones will work in every country, so your best bet is to carry a phone that will operate on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network. Ideally you want a quad-band phone, which can operate on any of the four GSM bands and will work almost anywhere. Tri-band phones will also work in certain countries.
If you've got a GSM phone already, call your wireless company and ask to have it unlocked. Once your phone is unlocked you'll be able to access other mobile carrier networks around the world. Not all phone companies will unlock all types of phones and oftentimes your account needs to be in good standing, has been open for more than 90 days, or your phone has to be completely paid for and off-contract.
If you've tried to unlock your phone in the past but were told by your carrier that you couldn't, you should try again. That's because a new Consumer Code for Wireless Service was adopted in 2014; even more flexibility and freedoms will become available to consumers when the final steps of the code are implemented in February of 2015. You can learn more about unlocking a phone or tablet from the Federal Communications Commission.
Finally, you'll need to buy and install a local SIM (subscriber identification module) memory chip that will work in the country you're visiting. This little circuit stores information like your identity, local cell phone number, address book information, and other bits of data. When you put a local SIM chip in your phone, it's like getting a brand new phone that will work on the local mobile carrier's network. The chip does need to be activated so you can either go to a mobile store in the country you're visiting and have everything taken care of on the spot, or try to order one in advance and activate it online.
BUY OR RENT A CELL PHONE FOR YOUR INTERNATIONAL TRIPS
If you don't want to go through the hassle of unlocking your phone and installing a local SIM, you can simply buy or rent a cell phone that will work abroad. Cellular Abroad sells and rents unlocked GSM phones and SIM cards that will work in dozens of countries around the world. The company also rents the National Geographic Talk Abroad Travel Phone, which works in 200 different countries. It's the ideal solution for travelers visiting more than one country during the same trip. Most U.S.-based mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon also have rental programs. Give them a call to find out what options are available to you.
OPT FOR AN INTERNATIONAL PHONE PLAN
Your phone company will also offer international phone plans, but these are quite often the most expensive options out there, with high international roaming fees and data charges. For example, AT&T's roaming plan for European countries starts at $30 per month and includes a certain number of minutes (30-, 80-, and 200-minute packages are available). Any call beyond the packaged number of minutes will cost $1.00 per minute. Plans can often be added and cancelled at will so you can use them for the length of your trip and then opt out again. Call your carrier for information on the available options.
WAYS TO REDUCE CELL PHONE CHARGES OVERSEAS
If you can live with limited service during your trip, bring along your phone but be sure to turn off data usage and the "fetch new data" option. Those are two important ways to reduce your cell phone bill during an international trip. Also look for complimentary Wi-Fi spots and use free messaging services like Skype (be sure your phone is subscribed to a free Wi-Fi hotspot first), Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, and WeChat. You can also buy a pre-paid phone card, which usually costs less per minute than your mobile carrier's international roaming rates.
Finally, be sure to bring along a universal phone charger and plug adapters that are compatible with the electrical systems in the countries you'll be visiting.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a writer based in New York City. She covers cruise and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and other websites and magazines. She also teaches travelers how to leverage their frequent flyer miles at FrequentFlyerToolkits.com.