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I started out with nothing and I have most of it left.
Militant agnostic - I donīt know, and neither do you!

You can roam the world and not return home to a cell-phone bill that rips itself from its envelope and frightens your dog. All it takes is stealth... and a phone that doesn't start with i.

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The contents of this page are copyright © 1995 — 2016 Alchemy Mindworks. Some portions are copyright © 1995 — 2016 Steven William Rimmer. The copyright holders specifically prohibit reproduction, transmission, duplication or storage of this page or any portion thereof in any electronic or physical medium, under any circumstances. Reproducing all or part of this page against our express wishes may result in severe civil and criminal penalties. The lawyers made us say that.

Please contact us for reproduction rates if you'd like to reproduce all or part of this page on paper. If you like this page and wish to share it, you are welcome to link to it, with our thanks.

Of course Iīm out of my mind. Itīs dark and scary in there.

Legal notice: If you read beyond this paragraph, you do so with the understanding and agreement on your part that all the information and advice in this article are provided entirely at your risk. You undertake to ascertain the validity and legality of these issues in the jurisdictions in which they pertain to you. You absolve and hold harmless the author of this page, Alchemy Mindworks and its related corporate entities, as well as the stockholders, shareholders, employees and suppliers thereof for any loss, damage or expense arising from your use of the information provided herein, including but not exclusive to attorney's fees and costs, however they may occur. The lawyers made us say that.

I should also note that the mobile phone networks to be mentioned herein are ones I've had something to do with, and the lack of appearance of their various competitors doesn't constitute a negative comment upon the absentees. I chose my current UK mobile phone provider because theirs was the first shop I came upon.

History recalls that Martin Cooper, an executive with Motorola, made the first cellular telephone call on April 3, 1973. He called Joel Engel, the head of Bell Labs research — possibly to gloat. Martin Cooper's development of the cellular telephone was inspired by watching Captain Kirk talking to the Enterprise through a hand-held communicator on Star Trek.

Martin Cooper also made the last really simple cellular telephone call... also on April 3, 1973. Cell phones have been getting increasingly complex and impenetrable ever since.

Contemporary cell phones are truly breathtaking works of technology, but if you plan to take one traveling — especially traveling to another country — you'll probably have cause to curse Martin Cooper and everyone who looks like him at least once during the journey. In fairness, however, it's not really his fault.

The people who make contemporary cell phones clever and intuitive and more powerful than all the computers on earth in 1973 put together are, sadly, not the same conniving weasely misshapen trolls who sell them and run the networks that communicate with them. These latter parties are the cause of most of the confusion and almost all the shocking phone bills that cell phone users have come to associate with these ubiquitous devices.

It's probably worth pointing out that this article will deal primarily with taking a cell phone from North America to somewhere else on earth — which will serve to explain the use of the term "cell phone" rather than "mobile phone" thus far. This having been said, the issues to be discussed herein are largely applicable everywhere, and readers in other parts of the world should be able to apply them equally well.

Save the whales! Trade them for valuable prizes.

The act of uprooting your cell phone from the community in which it was purchased and wandering about with it will usually be referred to in the extremely tiny print of the agreement you signed upon acquiring it as "roaming." This being one of the few words in such agreements having fewer than five syllables, you should be able to spot it reasonably easily.

In order to understand cell phone roaming — and in doing so to avoid both roaming to places where your cell phone is useful only as a low-end digital camera, and to places where a minute of air time costs as much as a decent automobile — you'll need to get the issue of cell phone networks firmly by the throat. This isn't a trivial undertaking, because cell phone networks have been devised to be exceedingly slippery.

There are a number of formal structures by which cell phone networks manage the data that moves the voices of people talking primarily about their new phones between handsets. These structures are call "network protocols," and you don't want to know how they work. The only thing you need to know about them is that they don't play at all well with each other.

In North America, most cell phone networks use a protocol called CDMA, with a few exceptions using an alternate protocol called GSM. These acronyms stand for "code division multiple access" and "global system for mobile" respectively. Your head's probably already starting to hurt.

You doubtless need not be told that CDMA phones won't communicate on a GSM network, GSM phones won't communicate on a CDMA network and CDMA and GSM phones won't communicate on CDMA and GSM networks owned by carriers other than the one who sold you your phone without the payment of some sort of fee.

Forgive and forget, but keep a list of names.

In most parts of North America, cell phone carriers have mutual back-scratching arrangements with other carriers who use the same network technology to allow for roaming. For example, my cell phone carrier is Telus Mobility, in Canada. I can take my Telus phone — actually a CDMA device — to the United States, where it will probably connect to a Verizon CDMA network and allow me to keep talking. In this case, talk won't be cheap — Telus wants 95 cents per minute for roaming, plus an additional 50 cents per minute for long distance.

Among many other places, I could also take my Telus CDMA phone to India, where it would connect to the Reliance Mobile CDMA network therein.

My Telus CDMA phone wouldn't be of much use in Great Britain, however, where all the networks are GSM.

As a rough guideline, CDMA networks are more common in North America, and GSM networks are more common just about everywhere else. This would suggest that cell phone users who anticipate traveling outside North America would do well to sign up with a GSM carrier, such as AT&T/Cingular or T-Mobile in the United States or Rogers Wireless in Canada. In practice, this involves two potential catches — these GSM networks don't always offer the broadest North American coverage, and they embody some truly impressive roaming fees if you use them for what they're really good at.

If you won't be wandering outside the range of the available North American GSM networks when you're at home — said networks, in fairness, are growing more widely available even as you read this — and you're prepared to return from your travels to find a cell phone bill with an awful lot of digits after the dollar sign, GSM international roaming is a cool toy. People will be able to phone your local North American cell number and talk to you on another continent. They'll be impressed.

Alternately, should the thought of a phone bill that rivals the annual salary of an elected official disturb you — or if you'd just like to go on vacation and not have every friend, colleague and telemarketer with your phone number play a ring tone of The Yellow Rose of Texas in your ear at two in the morning local time — you might want to consider a different sort of roaming.

Repent or be damned - if you have previously repented, please disregard this message.

Mobile phone networks in Europe are somewhat different from those in North America. Mobile phone carriers in the old world are breathtakingly competitive, which has driven the cost of using mobile phones across the pond down to practically nothing. The phones are extremely affordable too. Everyone with a working pair of lips and at least one ear seems to have one.

During a recent visit to Britain, I noticed a number of Vodafone vending machines selling mobile phones, all ready to start talking as soon as they popped out of the machine.

Donīt rub the lamp unless youīre ready for the genie.

While most European mobile carriers offer monthly billing plans comparable to those used in North America, wherein you can buy a fixed number of minutes per month for a fixed price, they're infrequently used. The majority of mobile phones in Europe are "pay-as-you-go," wherein users add money to their mobile phone accounts as they need it. Because pay-as-you-go phones are so common, the network to pay for them is as well. Each mobile phone account comes with a plastic swipe card — there's one shown to the right. Take the card and your plastic or some cash into any shop that handles mobile phone updates — which is pretty much anything with a cash register — and your account can be updated in about a minute. You won't even need the phone in question.

Unlike cell phones with a contract, the mobile phone carriers that offer pay-as-you-go phones don't care where you live, or even what planet you do it on. As such, you can buy a phone in Europe and use it locally without anyone caring that you're clearly not from around there.

Because pay-as-you-go phones don't come with a contract, the mobile phone carrier in question won't be providing you with a free phone, and as such won't insist that you buy a prearranged number of minutes each month, or promise to use their network for the next few years.

Unlike a North American cell phone that's roaming in Europe, a local European mobile phone is unspeakably cheap. In Great Britain, as of this writing, pay-as-you-go mobile calls within the country cost as little as ten pence a minute, or about twenty cents. Overseas calls can cost as little as six pence per minute. Incoming calls are free on most networks.

Phones in Britain start at about ten pounds, and can be found in shops like ASDA — what Walmart calls itself there — and Argos. Admittedly, most of the phones available for ten pounds are pink.

Reality is where the pizza delivery guy comes from.

As I write this, my father-in-law has just come over from Britain for a visit. He has a T-Mobile GSM Motorola KRZR phone that he paid 50 pounds for at Argos, or about a hundred dollars. It's identical to my Telus CDMA KRZR, which cost about four hundred dollars. I find this mildly irksome.

If you buy a local pay-as-you-go phone, you'll need to call or e-mail anyone back home that you want to keep in touch with and give them your local phone number... and the international dialing codes for the country you're in, of course.

Unlike most North American cell phone carriers, money in a European mobile phone account doesn't expire and disappear after a month as a rule, and you need not add money to one every thirty days to keep it alive. The details of mobile phone accounts vary somewhat between carriers, and it's worth reading the small print.

Life sucks... and it leaves some really mean hickies.

One of the issues that's not usually covered in the small print of pay-as-you-go phone agreements is the amount of time your account can be idle — while your phone is sitting in a drawer in Texas between vacations — before your account, its phone number and any funds associated with them all vanish in a puff of smoke. In the case of the UK mobile phone I have, it's about six months. Orange, the mobile phone network I use in Britain, says that they'll "quarantine" inactive numbers for an additional six months, during which time they can be reactivated.

If your overseas mobile account lapses, it's easy to get a new account and a new number. You'll lose a few pounds or euros — whatever funds were associated with your old number — and you'll have to distribute a new phone number to your friends back home, which is mildly inconvenient.

It's relatively easy to sneak around this issue if you keep in mind that the earlier discussion of roaming works both ways. European GSM phones can roam to the new world. If you bring your GSM phone back with you, it should connect to a North American GSM network in your area and be able to receive calls placed to your European phone number.

As long as you answer a call on your European mobile phone or receive a text message thereof more frequently than once every six months, your account should stay active. Just phone yourself, tell yourself you're having a wonderful time and hang up. The call will probably cost you about a dollar, but you need only place two or three of them per year.

There's one fairly important consideration in using this approach to keeping your overseas account active. Not all the world's GSM networks use the same radio frequencies. There are four distinct frequency bands available to GSM phones. To make sure your phone will work on any GSM network it encounters, make sure you buy a "quad band" phone. These things usually cost a bit more than base-model mobile phones, but they can go anywhere.

The Motorola Razr phones and their progeny are my favorite quad-band phones at the moment.

I should point out that when you roam — even through you're actually roaming home in this case — you won't need an account on the network that picks up your roaming phone. In my case, my Orange UK mobile phone, for which I do have an account in Britain, connects to the Rogers Wireless network in Canada, for which I don't have an account. Rogers thinks I'm a visiting British tourist and bills any activity on my phone back to Orange, which debits some money from my Orange account, and presumably pays Rogers Wireless. Everyone gets paid, and no one really cares where I live.

If you plan to keep a European GSM phone alive in North America, it's a good idea to either stock up its account with a substantial amount of money before you catch your flight home, or set up your account with a credit card having a reasonably long expiry date so you can top up your GSM phone over the web. If the money in your phone runs out before you bring it back for a visit, you won't be able to phone yourself on it.

Honk if you do everything youīre told.

Should you buy a cell phone in Europe — to work with a GSM network — you'll unquestionably get involved with a plastic smart card called a SIM, or a "subscriber identification module." A SIM tells a GSM phone who you are, and as such, what your mobile phone number is. It links your phone with your account information in the computers that your mobile phone carrier uses to keep track of their subscribers.

If you transfer your SIM from one mobile phone to another, the recipient phone will adopt your number and account information, and become your phone.

At least, this is almost completely true. If you transfer the SIM card from one Orange mobile phone to another Orange mobile phone, for example, all will be well. If you transfer the SIM card from an Orange mobile phone to the phone of another carrier, such as T-Mobile, the recipient phone will complain and fail to connect to its network.

The same thing is true for most GSM phones from North America, although as there are very few North American carriers that run GSM networks, this issue is unlikely to arise over here.

So many stupid people, so few comets.

Most mobile GSM phones sold by specific carriers are said to be "locked" — they'll only work with SIM cards provided by the carriers who sell them. As the term might imply, there's nothing preventing GSM phones from migrating between carriers save for this lock, and the lock can be picked.

An unlocked GSM phone can accept a SIM card from any carrier.

As a rule, mobile phone carriers dislike the idea of unlocked cell phones because a locked phone makes it prohibitively expensive for the customers of one carrier to jump ship and pop in a SIM card from another carrier. Changing carriers means buying a new phone.

Not all cell phone carriers are married to the issue of locking phones quite as passionately as they used to be. Some North American carriers who manage GSM networks will unlock the phones they sell if they're asked to, sometimes upon payment of a fee or after several months of use. It's worth inquiring with your carrier or reading the fine print.

Keep in mind that if you buy a cell phone outright, it's yours — you should be free to use it any way you please, subject only to local laws. You probably should consult the agreement under which you acquired your phone to ensure that it doesn't include language to the effect that the phone remains the property of the carrier — and you should certainly never enter into a contract with a carrier that includes clauses like this in its agreement.

As much as mobile phone carriers on both sides of the pond frown on the use of unlocked phones, using them is not illegal or even slightly nasty. If I transfer my Orange SIM card to another phone, Orange will still debit my Orange account and get paid just as if I'd been using the phone I originally bought from them. If I decide to switch to T-Mobile, or use my GSM phone in Canada with Rogers Wireless or in the United States with Cingular, I'll have to set up an account with the carrier in question and pay them.

Using an unlocked cell phone will allow you to choose the carrier you want to deal with — it's not a way to avoid paying for cell phone service, and as such, it doesn't constitute cheating or defrauding anyone.

Most GSM phones can be unlocked, either by updating their internal software or just by entering a magic code through their key pads. A few minutes with Google will turn up innumerable resources to address this, for free or for a small charge.

I find it easier to just buy pre-unlocked phones. My favorite supplier for these is Tiger Direct, which offers a range of unlocked GSM phones at competitive prices. They're typically last year's cool phones, so they're not prohibitively expensive, and they're already unlocked and ready to go. They usually come with the regalia of a specific carrier printed on them — the Motorola GSM Razr phone I use at present has an AT&T logo on its case and a Cingular splash screen — but as they're unlocked, they'll work with whatever network you obtain a SIM card from.

Most European mobile phone suppliers will be happy to give you a SIM card at a nominal cost or for free. Orange, for example, wants one pound for theirs, but if you know the secret page at their web site, they'll snail-mail up to four of them to any UK address for free as of this writing. You'll need a friend or relation in Britain to make this work — the URL for the secret web page in question is at the end of this article.

T-Mobile in the UK has a similar page, also to be found at the end of this article.

If you sign up with a North American cell phone carrier that uses a GSM network, and you buy an unlocked quad-band phone, you could actually use the same phone on two or more GSM networks by changing SIM cards. For example, if you sign up with Cingular in the United States and travel to Britain, you could have a local account with Orange in the UK by removing Cingular's SIM card and installing an Orange SIM card during the flight over. It's worth noting, however, that SIM cards are relatively fragile entities, and they probably won't put up with an infinite number of extractions and re-insertions.

Further to this, the metal clip that holds a SIM card in some cell phones is usually made of diaphanously thin steel. These things tend to bow slightly after a while, and in so doing fail to keep the SIM cards they're supposed to be holding tightly connected. If your phone uses this mechanism and transplanted SIM card isn't recognized, or if it becomes erratic, open your phone, remove the SIM card and reshape the metal clip and try the card again.

The wheel stops for no hampster.

There are a number of additional things to keep in mind about traveling with a cell phone. Actually, the following list barely dips its toes in this turgid and serpent-infested swamp of an issue, but it's a beginning. You'll no doubt encounter a few more on your travels. If it wasn't frought with unexpected surprises, you couldn't call it an adventure.

As an aside, one of the less obvious issues involved in taking your cell phone to another continent may be how to keep it charged. While this situation varies between phones, most of the new ones can be charged through a USB port. This means that you can charge them with a USB cable connected to your laptop, assuming that your laptop will be accompanying you. You can also just buy an inexpensive USB charger when you get where you're going. Finally, most plug-in chargers will work on anywhere from 110 to 240 volts, and as such can be plugged in anywhere with nothing more than an adapter to take care of the different electric plugs involved. Do check this one out carefully, however — plugging a 110-volt-only charger into 240 volts will cause it to produce copious quantities of blue smoke, and it will probably smoke your phone as well. The range of operating voltages for a charger should be printed on it.

  • If you're an infrequent traveler abroad, you might notice that overseas car rental companies will rent you a mobile phone. These things are nasty as a rule — you'll typically receive a very large, very old cell phone at a cost that far exceeds the purchase price of a low-end local GSM phone. If your rented phone disappears or is damaged, you'll be expected to pay for it, too. Don't go there.

  • There's a link to a GSM Phone Index page at the end of this article, should you be curious about which GSM networks will allow roaming with other GSM networks around the world. Most countries have at least one.

  • As of this writing, most jurisdictions in North America impose few restrictions upon your use of a cell phone while you're driving. Many European countries have very much more draconian laws in this regard. If you're caught with a phone in your ear whilst behind the wheel, you may be fined and the police will almost certainly take your phone. In the event that you get involved in a traffic accident that results in significant property damage, injury or death and you turn out to have been using your phone when the world came to an end — keep in mind that both your cell phone and your cell phone carrier's network will keep a record of the time and duration of your calls — you might not be coming home for several years. Make sure you read up on the local statutes regarding mobile phones and cars.

  • You can buy overseas SIMs from several sources, all ready with a phone number and some money in their accounts to get you started, so your GSM phone is good to go as soon as you step off the plane. Telestial has been supplying these things for some time — their web page is listed at the end of this article. They also sell GSM phones. Acquiring a SIM from Telestial will almost certainly cost you more than getting one from a local cell phone shop after you land, but it will save you some degree of bother at the commencement of your trip, especially if the staff of the local mobile phone emporia speak a language other than yours. I should note that I haven't used Telestial.

  • The discussion of unlocking cell phones only pertains to GSM phones. If you have a CDMA phone, it's stuck with the carrier who sold it to you until the end of time, and anyone who offers to change this for you is likely fibbing. Should you be uncertain whether your phone uses GSM or CDMA technology, remove the back and look at the battery compartment. If it's a GSM phone, there will be a removable SIM card therein.

  • Canadian cell phone users might want to keep an eye on what the Canadian federal government is up to — its proposed Bill C-61 update to the Canadian copyright legislation intimates that it could outlaw unlocked cell phones. As vaguely worded as it is badly thought out, it doesn't address the issue specifically. If you live north of the border, write your MP. Let us know if you find an MP who actually seems to be listening.

As an aside, while Telus Mobility appears in this article as an example of a North American CDMA cell phone carrier — and it is in fact the cell phone network I use in the colonies at the moment — I'd be reluctant to have this seen as an endorsement. Somewhat fixated upon the "bottom line" of late, various additional fees and service charges have crept into their once-competitive pricing, most recently a fifteen cent surcharge on incoming text messages — something that's free in most other parts of the world. If I were looking for a new cell phone carrier today, Telus probably wouldn't top my list of prospective choices.

Some of the mobile phone suppliers and related links mentioned in this article:

  • Orange UK Mobile Phones: http://www.orange.co.uk/
  • T-Mobile UK Mobile Phones: http://www.t-mobile.co.uk
  • Vodafone UK Mobile Phones: http://www.vodafone.co.uk
  • Rogers Wireless Canadian Mobile Phones: http://www.rogers.com
  • T-Mobile US Mobile Phones: http://www.t-mobile.com
  • Verizon Wireless US Mobile Phones: http://www.verizonwireless.com
  • AT&T / Cingular US Mobile Phones: http://www.wireless.att.com
  • Free Orange SIM Cards: http://shop.orange.co.uk/mobile-phones/freesim
  • Free T-Mobile SIM Cards: http://www.t-mobile.co.uk/shop/sim-card-only/
  • Tiger Direct: http://www.tigerdirect.com
  • Telestial: http://www.telestial.com
  • GSM Phone Index: http://www.gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/index.shtml


The contents of this page are copyright © 1995 — 2016 Alchemy Mindworks. Some portions are copyright © 1995 — 2016 Steven William Rimmer. The copyright holders specifically prohibit reproduction, transmission, duplication or storage of this page or any portion thereof in any electronic or physical medium, under any circumstances. Reproducing all or part of this page against our express wishes may result in severe civil and criminal penalties. The lawyers made us say that.

Please contact us for reproduction rates if you'd like to reproduce all or part of this page on paper. If you like this page and wish to share it, you are welcome to link to it, with our thanks.