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Using a cellphone overseas

A few years ago Kevin Poitras of Newmarket, Ont., travelled on business to China. When he returned, his cellphone bill was upwards of $900; another time, after a few days of emailing videos and pictures from the United States to Canada, the bill was over $1,400.

"I almost took the phone away from him," says Christina Dalziel, executive manager of Post Plastics, who arranges Poitras's travel plans and has since found a cheaper solution to calling home.

If you're taking your cell overseas, then read on for different options for calling home -- without remortgaging your house.

SIM cards
If you plan to bring your phone overseas, first call your carrier to find out if your cell is internationally compatible. Cell networks work on bands and each country's requirements differ: quad (4G) or tri-band (3G) is your best bet.

Next, ask the carrier to unlock the phone. Costs vary, but Bell and Telus charge $50. But beware: some companies require customers to be on their network for a minimum of 90 days.

When you arrive, newsstands and phone kiosks sell SIM cards; these are the tiny chips that store your phone number and account information.

In Europe (where a cellphone is called a mobile), SIM's can cost as little as $10 with minutes included. When those are used up, you can purchase more. When you change countries, change SIM cards; this will offer the best rate. Using this method, overseas calls are about $1 a minute.

For years Chris Van Meter, who works at Explore Minnesota Tourism, kept his his old cell phones.

"I then purchase a SIM card and prepaid programs locally, rather than pay the international rates," he says. Often a passport is needed to register your account.

And, if you have questions about using a SIM when you arrive, visit a phone company directly (airports or train stations are both good bets).

International phones
If you travel often, consider purchasing an international phone. For example, the BlackBerry World Edition comes unlocked and ready to go. However, ask for a map of the region you're visiting to see if it's covered. Next, call your phone company and ask about their international plans.

For example, Dalziel's boss can call Canada from China for $2.50 per minute; Europe to Canada is $1.50 per minute.

For U.S. travellers, Rogers offers a package costing $40 for 40 minutes of roaming, 100 sent text messages and unlimited incoming texts.

Buy online
You can also buy an international phone online; for example, according to WirelessTraveler.com, it costs about $100 for a SIM card, a U.S. and U.K. phone number and some talk minutes included.

"It can be a last minute decision," says Stephen Smith, vice-president of marketing and communications for Vision Travel Group based in Toronto. "[Or] You can put it in your drawer and take it out when you're going on a trip." Phones arrive in two business days.

If you're calling home it's typically $1 per minute (from Europe), depending on your location. Incoming calls, from about 60 countries, are also free.

For example, calling Canada from Croatia is $1.24 a minute, plus a one-time 40 cent connection fee for all outgoing calls.

Travellers can either purchase minutes or charge directly to credit cards.

Another bonus: these cell phones work in over 200 countries. For example, many domestic cellphones are Europe-friendly, but hop over to Australia and you're out of luck.

Renting a phone
While you can rent a phone before you leave, or rent one abroad, renting overseas is cheaper: phones range between $25 and $50 (in Europe) for the phone only.

If you rent before you leave, companies such as CelloMobile.com and GobalCellularRental.com ship phones equipped with SIM cards; rates begin around $70 and incoming calls are free in 80 countries.

The problem with these phones, however, is shipping, which costs between $15 and $35 for next day delivery -- each way.

Prepaid phone cards
Toronto-based travel writer Kate Pocock leaves her phone at home; instead, she buys a phone card in the country she's visiting. "I've often found it cheaper to buy a local phone card for $5 or $10 and use it from hotels, pay phones, etc., if I need to make a lot of calls. They are readily available at tobacco shops or convenience stores and hotel gift shops."

Phone companies also sell phone cards in Canada. The rates are the same if you're a customer or not; if not, Bell sets you up with an account and you can pay when you return home. It is not cheap, but is convenient; for example, calling from Croatia to Canada the first minute is $5.12 and $2.13 after. If calling from Italy, it's $4.33 for the first minute and $1.34 after.

Or, if all else fails, newsstands also sell phone calls or post offices often offer phone services.

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer based in London, Ont.

-- Posted: July 23, 2012
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