Last week I went over what the SIM Card is, and why you may need to unlock your phone in order to change SIM Cards. I just have to quickly cover one more thing before we can finally get into our discussion of what to do with your phone while traveling, and that's the concept of GSM bands.
A GSM band is, put simply, the frequency at which your mobile phone operates. Most of the world's cellular networks operate on the 900 and 1800 bands, but in North America there's a stronger tendency to use 850 and 1900. So what does it all mean? Basically think of it like a radio, except that your phone is locked into a specific station. If you buy a really simple phone in Canada it could be set to only operate in the 850/1900 band, which means that it simply won't work if you take it to some place like Europe. The good news here is that a lot of phone manufacturers these days realize that people like to travel with their phones and it's becoming more and more common to see phones that will operate in all four frequency bands. You'll often find these marketed as Quad-band, or World Phones. It's something to keep in mind if you think you'll be taking your phone with you while traveling.
Okay, time to take that all into consideration. As I stated last week, there's not always a clear cut "best" solution to the problem of traveling with a cell phone, so I'm going to break it down into your options so we can look at what needs to be considered.
OPTION 1: Get a SIM in your destination country
The most compelling reason to do this would be that if you wanted your phone for making local calls. If the reason you're brining your cell along is to get in touch with friends in the country your visiting, making reservations, etc., then it may be advisable to get a SIM in your destination country so that all your calls will be local. This may be especially useful if you're planning on staying for awhile. If you're going to be abroad for a year you may be able to sign up for a plan with a local cell phone provider and get good rates. The only sub-option to this is whether or not you take your own phone with you. Taking your own phone and putting a local SIM card in it will give you the familiarity of your own handset and will save you from having to buy or rent a handset when you get there. Obviously this will only work if your phone operates in the appropriate GSM band, and is unlocked. If you're staying for a very long time and signing up for a contract anyway it might just be easier to get a phone with your destination cell phone provider.
It should be noted in this particular discussion that even if you're planning on using your phone to call home, it may still be viable to get a SIM card at your destination depending on the long-distance rates they are offering. It would be a worthwhile exercise to look up the long-distance plans of cell phone providers in the country you're planning on visiting.
OPTION 2: Rent a phone in your destination country, use your own SIM
This option is really only necessary if you want to have your own SIM (which we will discuss further in Option 3) but your handset doesn't operate in the GSM band of the country you're visiting. This is actually the option that I used while I was in Japan, probably needlessly. That was another one of these situations where I rented a handset because "I read somewhere that you need to get a phone there, and then take the chip from your phone... or something." I'm quite certain that the phone I had at the time would have worked fine, but I didn't understand all of this GSM/SIM nonsense at the time. Keep in mind though that this is an option in a lot of places, so if you want to have your own SIM but you don't have a World Phone you may be able to rent one. I actually got mine in the airport in Japan, and I think it cost me around $50 per week.
OPTION 3: Just take your own phone
The final option in our list may actually end up being the best in a lot of situations, and I actually think that a lot of people disregard this option because they weren't really aware that it was an option to begin with. Assuming that you've got a phone that's working in the correct GSM band you should be able to just fire it up in your destination country and get on the local carrier. It's going to take awhile for your phone to pick up the carrier because it's going to be looking for your local carrier first, but it will get the connection in a couple minutes. The only thing that would stop this from working is if your local carrier doesn't have any roaming agreements with the carriers in your destination country. You should be able to look this up fairly easily on your carrier's website, or give them a call.
So, the big problem with taking your own phone? Roaming charges. This will be the main deciding factor in whether it's cheaper to bring your own phone, or get a SIM while you're away. You'll have to compare the cost of a cell plan in your destination to that of the roaming charges, taking into consideration your expected usage pattern. That's why this isn't really a cut-and-dry discussion.
Something to keep in mind though, is that more and more we're seeing service providers in Canada and the US trying to make roaming more affordable. If you go get a SIM card in another country, whether because it's cheaper or you think you have to, your normal cell carrier isn't getting any money from you. Of course, they hate that. So they want to make roaming an attractive option. There have always been roaming plans out there for people who travel frequently between Canada and the US, where you'll pay a higher monthly rate but the roaming fees will be significantly lower. Recently many North American service providers have been making those plans available on a temporary basis. The idea here is that if you're going to be abroad for a week or two you would call your cell provider, let them know when you're going to be away, and they'd put you on a roaming plan just for the time that you'll be out of the country. You'll pay a fee for this, but the roaming costs will be significantly reduced. My carrier, Rogers, has recently started advertising this, and I saw some Verizon customers in the US discussing this option on message boards. I'm not sure how widespread this option is becoming, but it's certainly worth exploring.
Well, there you have it. I wish I could just say "do this" and clear up any issues you may have regarding cell phone usage while abroad, but it's not really that straightforward. If you think that you'll want to have a cell phone with you while you travel I strongly recommend starting your research in advance, finding out what kind of options are available to you in your destination country. Armed with that knowledge, phone your cell phone provider and see what kind of options they'll provide. Know your phone, and know your destination, and you should be able to come up with a solution.
Or just carry a laptop, stay in a hotel with WiFi, and use Skype. Yeah, just do that.