To rent a phone or to buy one, that's one question you may have if you're planning on leaving the country. You might also be wondering if you can use your own phone while abroad, or what calling cards actually do. Staying in touch with friends and family while abroad can be tricky if you don't have the right tools for communication. Sometimes finding these communication tools can be tough too, since knowing what to use can get complicated.
Here are a few options for staying in touch with the people you care about while you're out of the country:
International SIM Card
SIM (Subscriber Information Module) cards come with every phone. This is what stores all of your contacts, calendars and other personal information. If you have an unlocked GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone, you can purchase an international SIM card for your phone and use it while studying abroad. Without an international SIM card, most phones in the U.S. won't work because the band widths they use aren't compatible with those abroad. If your phone does work abroad, roaming charges can end up costing a fortune.
Advantages: With many international SIM card, you are able to receive phone calls and text messages free of charge. With most SIM cards, you'll also be given a local phone number for the country you're traveling to, so you pay the local rate for local phone calls. These cards are prepaid and available for purchase in most countries, which means you can pay as you go rather than sign a contract.
Disadvantages: One major disadvantage to international SIM cards for U.S. citizens is that finding a compatible phone can be challenging. While many cell phones include GSM, not many are unlocked. A locked GSM phone means you are locked into using your provider's service, meaning you cannot use an international SIM card. If you do not have an unlocked GSM phone, you can either buy or rent one.
Rental Cell Phone
Renting a GSM cell phone is one option for you if you're going abroad and do not own an unlocked GSM cell phone. You can choose from a variety of companies through which to rent a cell phone. Most of them have similar rates, but it doesn't hurt to shop around for the best deal.
Advantages: You can choose between renting a GSM phone for one specific country or renting a global phone that works in hundreds of countries. This is a good option for you world wanderers. Just like international SIM cards, most rented GSM cell phones receive free incoming calls and texts. You'll also be given a local phone number, so local calls and text messages are charged at a local rate.
Disadvantages: Rental cell phones can become pricey if you're traveling for a long period of time. Remember that on top of paying a rental fee, you are also charged for each phone call you make and each text message you send. If you plan to become a world traveler or are studying or working abroad for a long period of time, it might be smarter to buy an unlocked GSM cell phone. Many companies that rent cell phones also sell affordable unlocked GSM phones. Compare rental rates to the price of buying a phone to make sure you're getting a good deal.
Prepaid Calling Card
A prepaid calling card is a card you can purchase before traveling to save money on international or long distance calls. Instead of being charged the international rate, you will be charged the rate offered by your calling card carrier. When you purchase a calling card, you'll be given an access number and a PIN number to enter into your phone before making the call.
Advantages: You can use a prepaid calling card with any phone, whether it's a cell phone, land line or pay phone. With a prepaid calling card, you choose the number of minutes you want to buy and pay ahead of time; you won't have to deal with a cell phone bill later. Many prepaid calling cards give you the option of refilling or renewing your card online, so if you run out of minutes you can easily buy more.
Disadvantages: A prepaid calling card pays for the phone call, but finding a phone to use is up to you. It would be smart to purchase or rent a cell phone in addition to buying a prepaid calling card. Even if you don't make many calls with the cell phone, at least you'll have a phone on you in case you need to make an emergency call.
If you're taking a laptop with you while you study abroad, video chatting is a great option. Most laptops have built-in webcams, and resources such as Skype and Google+ allow you to talk with friends and family free of charge.
Advantages: Video chatting is free and allows you to actually see the people you are talking to. If you want to call someone who doesn't have a webcam, you can still chat from computer to computer without being charged. Websites such as Skype and Google+ have an instant messaging tool as well, allowing for a variety of communication.
Disadvantages: You need to be connected to the internet in order to video chat with friends and family. If you don't have internet access in your dorm or with your host family, it's usually easy to find a cafe or shop with free Wi-Fi nearby. Some countries may not have a strong enough internet connection for video chat, and some countries may not have internet access at all. Do some research on your study or volunteer abroad destination before relaying on Skype. It would also be wise to rent or buy an unlocked GSM cell phone for emergency situations or for making local calls.
How do you communicate with friends and family while traveling? Share your thoughts in the comments below!