On Call: Traveling abroad with your cell phone

This week, On Call dishes advice on using your phone in Europe. Also, we tell you why similar phones can have different call quality.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
4 min read

Q: We're meeting friends from Israel in Santorini, Greece for a holiday. Since they'll be staying on another part of the island, we're bringing an unlocked cell phone so we can keep in contact. How can we get an Israeli prepaid SIM card so it won't cost us the $4.99 per minute that our carrier charges to call an Israeli number?
- Linda

A: Forget an Israeli SIM; I recommend that you and your friends each purchase a Greek SIM card. While you'll be calling an Israeli number, you'll be calling it from Greece. As such, you would pay roaming and possibly long distance fees just to place a call. Also, it's very possible that a prepaid Israeli SIM card won't even work outside of Israel.

Lovely, lovely Santorini. Kent German/CNET

A Greek SIM will also make it easier for you to call around Santorini (lucky you!). For example, you can make dinner reservations, book sightseeing tours, and confirm your onward travel. Callers from the United States will need to call your Greek number to reach you, and you'll pay more to call home, but a Greek SIM is the best option for phoning your friends and making local calls. And if any U.S. friends or relatives do need to reach you, they can always text.

If you still want an Israeli SIM card, then you should be able to order one online. If that doesn't work, just have your friends pick one up for you before they leave Israel. For more information on traveling internationally with your cell phone, see CNET's Quick guide to world phones.

Q: How can reception differ between cell phones with the same specifications?
- Joe

A: Though the Motorola Slvr L7, Motorola Razr V3, Nokia 6650, and Sony Ericsson K850i are all quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900), reception differences are quite possible. Carriers will play a big role, of course, but for the sake of this explanation, I'm going to assume that you've used all phones on the same carrier.

The four handsets may share an internal antenna, but they still have different designs both inside and outside. Antenna and receiver strengths can vary widely, even if both models support identical cellular bands. Those changes usually account for reception differences.

Q: I'm going to France for two weeks and want to take my iPhone. Will I be able to use it there? What should I know?
- Lynn

A: You'll be able to use your iPhone fully in France. You can make calls, send text messages, and use the date features, but you'll need to think about using your iPhone differently. Unlike in the United States where you have an unlimited data plan, you'll be paying for every megabyte of data that you use in France. International data is very expensive, so unless you want a big sticker shock when you open your first post-vacation bill, you'll have to resist the urge to check e-mail frequently, update your Facebook status, and surf the Web.

Take the iPhone abroad. Corinne Schulze/CNET

The best way to avoid data charges is to use your phone's Wi-Fi. But if you don't think that Wi-Fi coverage will be enough, you can sign up for an international data plan. The prices are per month, but AT&T will prorate the fee as needed. The cheapest plan will give you 20MB of data for $24.99 per month, while the most expensive option entitles you to 200MB for $199.99 per month. I know that it's difficult to conceptualize exactly what a megabyte is, but I think that the 20MB plan should more than suit your needs. I used it earlier this year when I took CNET's iPhone on a two-week trip to Spain and the United Kingdom. Even while working at the GSMA World Congress, I barely used half that amount.

You might also consider an international calling plan. For a $5.99 per month fee (this can be prorated, too) you get discounted-calling rates for many countries, including France. Check AT&T's international services page for more information. Just keep in mind that you have to call AT&T to sign up for these plans. Unfortunately, that part was rather painful, seeing as customer service passed me to three different operators and put me on hold each time.

Lastly, you'll want to prepare your iPhone for traveling by turning off data roaming (Settings>General>Network>Data Roaming) and turning off the option to fetch new data automatically (Settings>Fetch New Data). Those steps essentially turn off your iPhone's date features until you're ready to use them. You might also want to reset your usage tracker to zero (Settings>General>Usage>Reset). That will help you keep track of how much data you're using.