If you’re planning to study abroad, you’ll likely need a cell phone (or some other reliable way to communicate with loved ones back home).
So, once you’ve bought your plane tickets, booked your accommodation and had your academic documents translated, you’ll need to research your cell phone options.
It’s rarely as simple as packing your existing phone into your backpack. Save yourself a lot of frustration (and expense) by thoroughly researching your options prior to departure.
There are many factors that you need to consider:
- The length of your study abroad program
- Whether your existing phone can operate in your destination country (see below)
- Whether you plan on using your phone for day-to-day use, or only in an emergency
- Your budget
Understanding International Cell Phone Standards: GSM vs CDMA (and Others)
Cell phone standards vary by country. Outside of North America, much of the world uses a common cell phone standard called Global Service for Mobile (GSM).
The US did not standardize – consequently, competing wireless standards exist on various wireless domestic US carriers. US cell phones are most likely to be the CDMA type, but there are several other competing standards, including AMPS, TDMA or iDEN.
A GSM phone generally won’t work in North America, and a CDMA phone generally won’t work outside of North America.
Network Frequencies Abroad
In much of the world outside of North America, cell phone networks operate on a common frequency – a cell phone that works in Manchester, England will work equally well in Melbourne, Australia.
However, cell phone networks in North America operate on a range of different frequencies – this is something you need to make arrangements for.
The best solution for you depends on both your home country and your destination.
Option 1: Taking Your Current Phone Abroad
Some carriers now provide multi-band world phones that can be widely used internationally – however, “roaming” usage can be extremely expensive.
This may be a viable solution for short stints abroad – but is not advisable for study abroad programs that are longer than a few weeks. If you choose this option, you should consider disabling data usage, as this can save you a lot of money.
If you plan on relying mainly on phone cards or Skype, you may consider taking your existing phone as an “emergency only” option.
Option 2: Buying a Local Phone
For many people studying abroad, the best option will be to purchase a cell phone that conforms to your destination country’s standards (whether GSM or CDMA), and to buy a cheap model (remember T9?) with a local prepaid plan.
- Unlike many cell phones in North America, GSM world cell phones don’t come tied to the network service provider.
- Those studying abroad in GSM countries can activate their mobile phones by inserting SIM cards – these thumbnail-sized devices can be interchanged between different handsets. You can save contact numbers to your SIM card, rather than to your phone.
- Coordinate with other students in your study program – providers often offer special rates for calls between phones that both use their network.
- If you purchase a prepaid SIM card for your destination country, you’ll have a local phone number.
For many students, a prepaid cell phone will be the best option for their time abroad: they can avoid worrying about unforeseen bills or additional charges.
Option 3: Skype, Apps, Facebook Chat, Gchat, Phone Cards
Skype has changed the way many people keep in touch internationally. If Wi-Fi is ubiquitous in your destination country, this may be a great way to save money on your international calls.
Many students abroad choose to exclusively use Skype for calling internationally, and purchase a cheap local prepaid phone for in-country calls.
Added bonus: You can actually talk face-to-face with your family and friends (or your cat!).
Also, if you do have a smartphone with wireless access while you’re abroad (or even a tablet), free messaging apps like GroupMe, WhatsApp and LINE can save you a ton on data costs. You’ll be able to send messages and even make phone calls with just a wireless connection — which you’ll probably have in at least some areas of your school abroad.
Instant messaging tools such as Facebook Chat and Gchat can be a hassle-free way to communicate with your friends and family in the US. These can be perfect for casual updates about what’s going on back home. Of course, you’ll likely have internet access, so you can use all of your favorite social networks exactly as you would in your home country.
International calling cards are another option for students abroad: You’ll often get a much better per-minute rate using a phone card to dial home, compared to using either a domestic prepaid phone, or an international ‘roaming’ phone.
Using a cell phone while studying abroad provides a welcome security blanket – it’s nice to know that you can always contact your friends and family back home – just don’t forget to account for the time difference!