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The Dollars and ¨Sense¨ of Traveling With an Unlocked Cell Phone

Written By: jeff

Posted On: May 12th, 2011

travel advice, career break travel, travel cell phone, cell phone abroad, cell phone international travel, what are unlocked cell phones, what does an unlocked cell phone mean, sim card travel, what is a sim card, world sim, international roaming, t-mobile international roaming, at&t international roaming, att international roaming, verizon international roaming

Sometimes our need for convenience, for things to ¨just be easy¨ winds up screwing us.  Such is the case with international cell phone service. It starts with the belief that the only place to get a cell phone is at the service provider’s store. And, the only way to buy service is to pre-pay for a monthly plan.  This paradigm works well if you stay in the US. Pay-as-you-go plans tend to be quite expensive, especially when you are charged for both incoming calls, outgoing calls, every text made and received, and even when you check your voicemail. But, when you’re ready to travel overseas, you have to think about your cell phone service differently. First of all, you won’t need it much. Second, you will want it mostly for emergencies. Third, you may want/need to make a few calls to coordinate logistics. Finally, you may want to have a way to be reached by family and friends back home. When you embark on your career break trip, you don’t need to be reachable 24×7 by work, family and friends. And, you will only need you a cell phone sporadically. Guess what: you don’t need the cell phone companies from your home country. And guess what else, the cell phone companies know that. But, they don’t want to let you go without a fight. International cell phone rates are nice and high; smell that easy money?

The Bottom Line: Comparing costs

For reference, let’s look at the roaming costs of the top carriers in a few countries. This is the fee just to use your phone outside your home coverage area. It does not include your normal per-minute charge or the long-distance fee you will also be charged. I checked these prices on the websites of all the carriers on April 20 and 21, 2011. I’m including the companies taglines again because remember, they just want to help you, right?

Int’l Roaming Fee By Country (USD)AT&TVerizonT-Mobile
Taglines (lest we forget)More Countries. More Devices. More options.Go International! Bring Your Verizon Wireless Phone With YouStay in-touch When You Travel For Less
South Africa1.69No service available2.49
Spain0.99No service available1.29
New Zealand1.991.992.29
Chile1.99No service available3.49
Argentina1.99No service available2.29
Colombia1.99No service available2.29


Going Local Is the Cheaper Option

OK, so let’s compare the costs of our favorite US carriers with the local providers in the same countries. I do not have the costs of the SIM cards. For most carriers, they did not have this information online. But, I do not remember the costs being significant, ie $10USD or less.

In order to keep this analysis simple, I haven’t included all the terms and conditions and I’ve tried to select plans that show the rates no matter what type of phone you call. Remember, the point is to show you the magnitude of the difference. When you go to buy your SIM card, you will be working through the minutiae at that point. These tariffs were all listed on the providers’ websites on April 21, 2011.

CountryMajor Local CarriersCost Per Minute for Domestic Calls (local currency and USD)
South Africa



Cell C

MTN: R1.75/minute on the ¨All Day Call Rate¨ plan = about .19 USD/minute
Vodafone: R1.40/minute on the ¨AllDay Per Minute¨ plan = about .16 USD/minute
Cell C: R1.50/minute on the ¨EasyChat¨ plan = about .17 USD/minute




Movistar: €.228/minute on the ¨All Day Call Rate¨ plan = about .33 USD/minute
Vodafone: €.08/minute on the ¨XS 8¨ plan = about .12 USD/minute
Orange: €.14/minute on the ¨Pinguino¨ plan = about .20 USD/minute
New Zealand


Telecom Mobile

2 degrees

Vodafone: NZ$.49/minute on the ¨Simply Prepay Value¨ plan = about .29 USD/minute
Telecom Mobile: NZ$.69/minute on the ¨Pay As You Go¨ plan = about .42 USD/minute
2 degrees: NZ$.44/minute on the ¨2 degrees Prepay¨ plan = about .26 USD/minute




Movistar: CLP264/minute on the ¨Tarifa Club Movistar¨ plan = about .56 USD/minute
Entel: CLP200/minute on the ¨ComunicaDOS¨ plan = about .43 USD/minute
Claro: CLP240/minute on the ¨Genial¨ plan = about .51 USD/minute




Movistar: Honestly, it looks cheap. But, I couldn’t make heads or tails of their explanation of the rates.
Personal: ARP2.65/minute on the ¨Plan Personal Plus¨ plan = about .65 USD/minute
Nextel: Pricing is not available on a per minute basis




Comcel: COP441/minute on the ¨Vitamina L¨ plan = about .25 USD/minute
Movistar: COP599/minute on the ¨Plan Prepago Todo Destino¨ plan = about .34 USD/minute
Tigo: COP229/minute on the ¨Simple 3¨ plan = about .14 USD/minute

Conclusion: Go Local, NOT Global

Now, you’re probably looking at the per-minute rates and thinking, wow, some of those are high. And, you are right. Most providers offer discounted rates if you are calling a cell phone number on their network. But, I prefer to be conservative on the costs and show you the rate to call anyone on any phone.

Remember what we are comparing this against: per-minute charge in your home country + long-distance fee + roaming fee. Dollar for dollar, you are still way better off going local not global. So, even in some of the cases where the per minute charge can be about .50, that would be your only charge. In the case of a provider from the US, their roaming fee PER MINUTE alone is way higher than that.

Of course, if you’d rather pay more….

Leave your questions and comments below and I’ll try to get them all answered!

PS Services I Used

While traveling around, here are the services I used in the countries mentioned above. This is in no way an endorsement of the services, just so you know what I chose.

Spain: Movistar

South Africa: Vodafone

New Zealand: Vodafone

Chile: Movistar

Argentina: Personal and Movistar

Colombia: Comcel and Movistar

Coming Next

Don’t want to travel with a cell phone? Check out our final post in the series to see what options you have for staying in touch.

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4 Responses to “The Dollars and ¨Sense¨ of Traveling With an Unlocked Cell Phone”

  1. Jillian says:

    We got a US cell phone unlocked “flashared” in Guatemala. It saved us so much money having a local number. We rarely used to it to sms or call back to the US- we used skype instead, but having a local number made it easy to call around for lodging or to call a good cabbie we met. Now we have a neat little collection of SIM cards from around the world- some of them are actually quite cool!

  2. Sherry Ott says:

    Great info – I love how you’ve laid it all out. But my favorite thing is the inclusion of the tag lines!

  3. Sarah says:

    But will an unlocked cellphone take any sim card from any country? i thought that the shape of the sim card would eliminate some phones even if it was unlocked?

  4. jeff says:

    Sarah, I haven’t found a SIM card yet that wouldn’t work in the phones I’ve used (Latin America, South Africa, Oz and NZ, Europe, US, Canada). I’ve traveled with both a basic flip phone and an iPhone. I’m confident that if you get an unlocked GSM phone, you won’t have a problem in 99% of the countries you visit. Maybe there’s a country with odd shaped SIM cards. But, I haven’t found it yet.

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