How to Use Your Cell Phone Almost Anywhere

By Damon Brown
August 9, 2006
Michael Kraus
By planning ahead, you can use your cell phone almost anywhere--and never worry about getting ripped off at $5 per minute

There's no shortage of theories on the best way to make phone calls while overseas. Some folks are devotees of calling cards. Others love technologies such as Skype, which allow calls to be made via the Internet. But for convenience, nothing compares to your own cell phone.

Not all cell phones are compatible with the technology used overseas, however, so the first step is figuring out if your phone will work in your destination. The GSM network, used by T-Mobile and Cingular, is the standard for most of the world. If you have a Verizon Wireless phone, which operates on the CDMA network, chances are you won't be able to make calls in Europe, Australia, or Africa. The frequencies, or bands, also have to match. Some cell-phone models are dual-band, which is fine for the two GSM frequencies most common in the U.S., 850 and 1900 MHz. Others are tri- or quad-band, so they work at home and abroad, where the most common frequencies are 900 and 1800 MHz. Go to to look up the networks and frequencies used at your destination. Then ask your provider or look in your manufacturer's handbook for the corresponding info.

Once you know your phone will function, the next step is figuring out which cost-saving strategy makes the most sense for you.

International plans

If this is the first time you'll be using your phone overseas, before leaving home tell your wireless provider to activate the international roaming option. But be aware that outside the U.S., calling home, checking voice mail, or dialing across town in your destination can cost $10 before you know it. In general, rates are higher in areas with poor infrastructure. Using T-Mobile, calls from most of Western Europe are $1-$1.50 per minute, but dialing from Uganda or Russia will cost you $5 per minute.

If you plan on traveling abroad often, ask your provider about international rate plans. Cingular's program costs an extra $6 per month, but it discounts international calls by 40¢ per minute on average.

Local SIM cards

A SIM card is the postage stamp-size chip that stores account info in all GSM phones. After replacing your SIM card with one intended for the country you're visiting, you instantly have a local number. Making reservations at a nearby hotel becomes a local call, often costing less than 25¢ a minute. As a bonus, incoming calls to your new number are usually free, though anyone dialing you from the U.S. will pay for long distance.

The downside of swapping SIM cards is that no one calling your old number will get through; you probably won't have access to stored phone numbers, either. But if you need to make or accept lots of calls in the place you're visiting, the trade-offs are probably worth it.

You can buy a new SIM card through and dozens of sellers at It's usually cheaper, however, to pick up a SIM card in your destination. Cards, which start at $20 to $50 depending on where you're traveling, come with a certain number of minutes included.

Your handset must be unlocked to switch SIM cards; if necessary, contact your wireless company to find out how to unlock it. And keep your old SIM card in a safe place. You'll want it when you get home.

The callback service

Using a new SIM card lets you make cheap local calls in your destination, but dialing back to the U.S. still incurs hefty charges. Here's the trick for avoiding them. Register your new number and a credit card with a service called GlobalPhone ( Then, when you want to call internationally, first dial a country-specific "trigger" number. Let the phone ring once and hang up. A few moments later, your phone will ring, and you'll be prompted to punch in the number you're trying to reach--at a much cheaper rate than dialing directly. You're basically accepting an incoming call--and remember, that's usually free with a SIM card meant for the country you're visiting. GlobalPhone takes advantage of bulk international rates, and the result is that most calls between Europe and the U.S. wind up costing less than 40¢ a minute. Registration is free, and you're only charged for the calls you make.

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For 50 years, Arkansas native Nadine Anglin has been wintering in the California desert. Unlike the snowbirds who flock to Palm Springs, Anglin, 85, prefers an abandoned World War II naval base called Slab City, 170 miles southeast of Los Angeles. There's no electricity, no bathrooms, no formal law enforcement--and no rent. Anglin is part of a community of people who call themselves boondockers--people who park their RVs together in remote spots (the boondocks), thereby forming temporary settlements. "When I go back to Arkansas, it always seems so dull," she says. Slab City, a 640-acre stretch of state-owned desert near the Salton Sea, is the most popular location in the country for boondockers to congregate. In the height of winter, the community is about 3,000 members strong. While official RV parks offer electrical hookups, cable TV feeds, and waste disposal facilities--for as much as $200 a week--the only amenities at Slab City are a weekly church service, a bulletin board on the main road with info on barbecues and other events, and a stage for open-mike nights. The closest working plumbing is in Niland, Calif. (pop. 1,200), a few miles west. "You have to love the outdoors," says Anglin, who's fond of dune buggying through the desert, "and you have to be able to handle problems like your RV's battery going dead." She counts on three other things for survival: solar panels to cut down on the cost of gas-powered generators; a CB radio to communicate with neighbors (Anglin's CB name is Colorback); and a big tank for "black water," the name given to the RV occupants' waste. You also have to love the nomadic life. Many boondockers spend the season moving from one settlement to another. "I get tired of sitting at a campground, looking at the same people day after day," says Bernard Schnieders, 73, who makes regular stops at Slab City. "I like the freedom." The three main websites for boondockers are,, and The latter is maintained by Slab City "resident" Dutch Schaafsma. When asked how he'd advise potential boondockers, he says to inspect your neighbors closely before you set up camp. "If you don't like 'em," he says, "you can always move to another spot." The main entrance to Slab City is off Highway 111, four miles east of Niland,

This Just In!

Anish Kapoor's latest sculpture, Sky Mirror, will be on exhibit at Rockefeller Center in New York City from September 19 to October 27. The three-story-high concave mirror will reflect the top of 30 Rock on one side and Fifth Avenue on the other. On select weekend days, L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall offers 45-minute tours of its community garden (, $15). An Atlanta CityPass goes on sale this month. It includes admission to the CNN studios, the World of Coca-Cola, and the Georgia Aquarium (, $59). Miami Restaurant Month runs until September 30. Midweek, three-course lunches cost $20.06; dinners are $30.06 ( Tickets for next year's Carnaval Parade in Rio (February 17-20) are on sale now through travel agents. Find one at A new Paris footbridge connecting the National Library and the Parc de Bercy was inaugurated on July 13. Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, the city's 37th bridge, is the first to be named after a woman. Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport is scheduled to open later this month. Thailand hopes the international airport, with the capacity for 76 flights an hour and 45 million passengers a year, will be a hub for visitors to southeast Asia. Colonial Williamsburg has launched an interactive program called "Revolutionary City." Actors portray townspeople struggling with the pivotal events that led to America's independence. Outdoor performances take place daily throughout the fall (, $34). The once-supersecret government nuclear-fallout shelter under The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., is open for tours again after two years of renovations (, $30). Skype, the Internet calling service, is dropping its usual fees and allowing customers to make free calls to traditional landlines and cell phones through the end of the year. Low-cost airline Ryanair announced it will soon be flying to Morocco, with as many as 20 routes from Europe. The new Clipper Swiss Army Knife comes with a real, full-size nail clipper and a file, so there's no need to pack a separate set or make do with those miniscissors (, $33). Following Hilton's lead, Marriott is installing kiosks that allow guests to check in for flights and print boarding passes at more than 100 of its hotels. Passengers flying American Airlines can pay $10-$20 to drop off bags and check in for flights up to 24 hours in advance aboard Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity cruise ships, as well as at certain U.S. hotels and convention centers. has launched sister websites with databases for finding spas in Europe and Japan. A new guidebook, There Is Room at the Inn, lists 117 wheelchair-accessible B&Bs and inns throughout the U.S. (, $22). Avis is giving out a Family Safety Travel Guide and a $10 coupon for a child's bicycle helmet at major U.S. airport locations through the end of September. Travel-insurance company Access America began selling a special $19 add-on to policies; with it, you'll be covered if your job requires you to cancel or interrupt a vacation.

The Sweet Little Guesthouses of Vieques

For all its gorgeous white-sand beaches, the Puerto Rican island of Vieques hasn't caught up to its Caribbean neighbors when it comes to lodging. Next year, Starwood will open a W Hotel there, and that's sure to jump-start the competition. All the more reason to visit these stylish, unpretentious guesthouses right now. La Finca Caribe It makes sense that J. Crew chose La Finca as the location for a 1999 catalog shoot. Flowing linen fabrics and natural-looking models fit right in on the hippieish yet manicured property. Hammocks hang from rubber trees, there's a communal hibachi, and banana, star fruit, and mango trees frame the small pool. Three rustic houses are spread across two hilly acres. Most of the staff are the temporarily relocated, full-time-barefoot friends of owners Anne Isaak, a restaurant owner in New York, and Corky Merwin, a creative director who lives in Seattle. Hospitality is warm, but laid-back; don't expect matching towels. Visitors pass their days swimming, playing Scrabble, grilling fish, even showering side by side in the outdoor stalls. La Finca is an especially good value for groups. For $525 to $700 a week (depending on the season), two or three people can share the casita; for $700 to $1,000, a family can hole up in the cabana, which sleeps up to four (both have private kitchens, bathrooms, and decks); and groups of up to 20 can rent the entire six-room main house for $2,600 to $3,500. 787/741-0495,, from $60. Casa La Lanchita This three-story guesthouse is just north of the island's main town, Isabelle Segunda. Its location, on a cliff overlooking a coral reef, gives its eight air-conditioned suites panoramic views of the Atlantic. Each has a living room/kitchen--which, for even the most reluctant chef, is a draw. Food is still Vieques's low point: The nicest restaurants serve mediocre $30 entrees. Casa La Lanchita's kitchens are fully equipped, and the closest market is easy to reach on foot. The guesthouse is also within walking distance of shops, bars, and an Internet café--a relief in a place where almost everything requires a drive. Marikay and Doug McHoul, who live in an attached apartment, have owned the place for 20 years, and are famous for going above and beyond the call of duty. Doug tends to be generous with the late-night beers, and has been known to lend a hand with flat tires. 800/774-4717,, from $90. Hacienda Tamarindo After too many Vermont winters, Burr Vail and his wife, Linda, moved to Vieques in 1995 and converted a former restaurant and dance hall into Hacienda Tamarindo. It's named for the 250-year-old tree that the lobby's atrium was built around. Linda, a former interior designer, is responsible for the antique wooden signs and vintage movie posters. Burr knows the island inside and out. His hour-long morning lectures are essential for intelligent vacationing. Among his pearls of wisdom: Green Beach has too many sand flies in the afternoons; Secret Beach is marked by a spray-painted metal trash can. Along with the resident talking parrot, Shaboo, and Barkley the sheepdog, Burr usually joins guests at the big breakfast: eggs, bacon, hash browns, fruit, toast, juice, and coffee. Housekeeper Rosa packs beach-bound guests a lunch, more than making up for the lack of kitchenettes. 787/741-0420,, from $135. Hector's by the Sea A private dirt road, often blocked by a wandering horse, leads to the cliff-side property. The three guesthouses are a hot commodity among travelers seeking extreme privacy, good advice, and a low-key vibe (there's no daily maid service, TV, or phone). Hector Matos has a Brando-esque demeanor that can be intimidating at first. But it's just an act. He and his wife, Mary, treat visitors like family, suggesting where to eat, swim, and shop; making any necessary arrangements; and listening to recaps over evening cocktails (try the Hector-ini). The rooms are understated but tasteful, and the small kitchenettes have folk art tables and pretty plates. When they bought the place 10 years ago, it was little more than a grazing ground for local cattle. By 2000 they'd built their own home, as well as the first of the casitas; two years later three rustic cottages dotted the property. Each casita--as well as the pool and Jacuzzi--looks out over the Caribbean. 787/741-1178,, from $100.