Frugal Ways to Stay in Touch on the Road

When I left "home" for a life of travel and adventure, I needed a way for family and friends to stay in touch (and despite the internet age we live in, I have some family members who refuse to venture into cyberspace). I had a smokin' deal on my cellular service and was hesitant to give up my local cell phone number, but I also knew that roaming and long distance charges on the road would prohibit my ability to use that number while traveling.

After speaking to many people and spending way too much time online researching, I discovered the perfect way to stay in touch on the cheap while on the road.

1) Buy (or ensure you already own) a GSM Quad Band Phone.

Around the world cell phone network frequencies vary, and some phones have the ability to read these signals while others don't.

GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications. (You will rarely see it referred to as anything other than GSM though).

The frequency bands available are 850 and 1900 Mhz (used mainly in the Americas), and 900 / 1800 Mhz (for Europe & Asia).

Beware: Lots of phones claim to be quad band, but in fact are only tri band, omitting the GSM 900 band. Make sure all four bands are available and open on your phone for it to work everywhere.

2) Unlock your GSM phone (or buy it unlocked already).

Having an unlocked phone allows you to put any SIM card into it which in turn allows your one physical phone to be a portal to numerous telephone numbers and networks.

If you already own your phone and it was sold to you by your cell phone provider, it is probably not unlocked. Depending on the phone you have, there are inexpensive kits available on the net (usually under $10) you can order to unlock your phone. Other phones simply need you to enter a "secret" set of numbers on your phone to unlock it.

Since I'm not the most technologically savvy person, I chose to buy my phone unlocked already, from an independent cell phone seller. Ebay is a great resource for such things, as are places like Tiger Direct and Amazon.

3) Make sure your phone takes SIM Cards!

sim cardThere are some providers in North America I know of who don't employ the use of SIM cards. (SIM stands for Security Information Management, by the way). It is a small plastic card usually stored under the battery which stores the information for your phone number. Consequently these phones will be ultimately useless for global travel with no place for the SIM cards to be inserted.





4) Hit the road and get a local SIM card.

Once you're on the road and settled in a country or geographic region for any period of time such that you want the ease and accessibility of a local number, you'll want a local SIM card. Depending on the country you are in, SIM cards can be purchased in different places. Visiting a cellular store is usually the best bet, but in some places you can get SIM cards in convenience stores and the airport.

You'll likely want to go with a pay-as-you-go service, and shouldn't have to pay much if anything for the SIM card itself.

5) Purchase a Long Distance Phone Card for calls home.

Since you have a local number now, you may want to get a long distance phone card to ensure any calls home are cheap. Again these can be bought in any number of places, and are quite prevalent all over the world. Be wary of the ones with expensive connection fees, and try to read the fine print before dropping a wad of cash on a card that may not be right for the types of calls you'll be making.

And now you're ready to go!

With this Five-Step system, you'll have the following advantages:

  • You will have a local phone number wherever you are, which will make it easy for local new friends and businesses to contact you during your stay.
  • Your family and friends back home can call you to keep in touch, and you will only pay local charges (your family of course will pay long distance, but hopefully they have a good plan with their land line).
  • You can make long distance calls home for a deep discount by using a local number and long distance phone card, instead of paying costly roaming charges with your original phone number.
  • You can use the same cell phone for multiple phone numbers by simply switching out the SIM cards.
  • You can maintain your original home cell number and pick up messages from the friends and family members you forgot (or didn't want) to give you new number to.

Additional photo credit: Nora Dunn
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Guest's picture

I am currently in England for study program, but I am able to talk to my fiancee back home as often as I like because of a combination of things.

She has vonage, so she can call my landline for free.

I got a local simcard to put in my phone from the states and load up on prepaid minutes (they expire in 30 days, but they are 1/5th the price of unexpireable minutes).

I have skype and sprung the $3/month for skype pro, give me a local number to call which then lets me speeddial my contacts or enter any international phone number and be charged the SkypeOut Rate.

The connection charge is 0.04, and it's 0.021/min which is pretty cheap. I highly recommend it.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I haven't heard of the skype addition to a cell plan before, but it sounds worth looking into. A colleague of mine in Saudi recommended Jaxtr for free international cell to international cell calling.

Regarding the quad band sim swap technique, we've done this and I agree with you. It's an excellent way to get things rolling. Also, it's nice to have a local number if you expect the hotel and drivers and tour guide people to be able to afford to return your calls. So problem solving with your driver to find your hotel becomes way easier. If your hotel attendent speaks your language but your driver doesn't, you can hand the phone over and let them work it out in their common language. Love that.

Guest's picture

If you're travelling through multiple countries, especially in Europe, see if you can get a sim from Liechtenstein or the Isle of Man. They don't charge for receiving calls, and they are reasonably cheap (although not the cheapest) for making calls. Sim4Travel is one of the companies that I've heard recommended.

Guest's picture

All GSM phones use SIM cards so #3 is already covered in #1. Only Verizon in the US uses CDMA.

Guest's picture

SIM = Subscriber Identity Module

Guest's picture

Very useful information.

I remember the old days of traveling abroad and placing a collect call to my family through an operator and asking for myself as a way of letting everyone know that I arrived safely at my destination.

Guest's picture

2 You Missed -

1) Once you're in another country with your local SIM card be sure to ask about VOIP dialing prefixes. These are popular and use the cell system to connect you to a VOIP service with great international rates. Example; recently in China I was paying 7 cents a minute back to the US.

2) It's safer to have a cheap, second unlocked GSM phone for traveling (Craigslist) rather than using your primary US phone. Any SIM or network issues will not corrupt data on your "real" phone.

3) Have your family call into you with Skype-Out, again they save huge over a Telco long distance plan.

Guest's picture

7 cents for a voip connection from China to US isn't really cheap. I only pay 1.8 cents per minute from my voip account for calling US from China.

Nora Dunn's picture

Awesome suggestions guys, thanks!

I'm still relatively new to the tech-savvy world of communications, so the tips are well-received.

Keep 'em coming!  

Guest's picture

I'm an American living abroad. When I took a camel safari out into the dunes of Rajasthan (India) and the camel guide's cell phone rang out in the middle of nowhere, that's when it hit me! what a crummy system we have in the US. *Why* "lock" cell phones in the first place? Why do you have to have "roaming" charges? I'll tell you why--to increase profit margins of big business. Something's wrong folks.

Guest's picture

I'm curious about the Skype plan. International roaming is great, it's cheaper for them to call or text me, but then on my end it's the other way around. I need to find a better plan

Guest's picture
Sergio Dieguez

I must say that I have never seen anyone trying to PUSH so many products at any one time. Obviously you have no knowledge about any of them. You do not care wheather you sell a book, a SIM Card
Kotex, Condoms or anything else for what you get paid a COMMISSION all pile up on a WEbbbb siteeee. Next time promote TAMPAX I hear that they paid better.By the way I am a Prof at a well regarded U.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn


Your fancy Prof-talk and blatant misspelling of the word "wheather" seems to have confused me.

Maybe you see affiliate links for inapplicable products where they don't exist. If I inadvertently tried to sell you a tampon, then for this, I truly apologize.

Guest's picture

All this adresses the away-from-home situation, but for the folks who stay home (USA), the best thing to do is buy a NET10, which is inexpensive, can be purchased at any local Wal-Mart, Target, and other discount stores and comes with minutes alreay included. With NET10 you can call more than 100 countries, to cell or land line, and only pay at the rate of a local US call which is .10 a minute. Not a bad deal if you have relatives traveling abroad!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Venus - Thanks for the tip! I'll have to check it out for friends & family back home.

Guest's picture

I am from Canada.I am getting ready to do some worldwide vagabonding around the world for next several years.Today I just bought LG Optimus L3 phone.I am by no means expert when it comes to this.Which VOIP provider for overseas you recommend if any?