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Staying In Touch on the Road: Part 3


This is part 3 of a report on communication for travelers. In the first two parts, we discussed the kinds of service available, and how to choose the one you want.


Pile of PhonesObviously, using your own smartphone is the best way to go—if you can. That means your phone has to be able to connect to the networks that exist where you are going.



There are two basic technologies used by cellphone systems, and they don’t play well together. One is CDMA, which is used by Verizon and Sprint in the U.S., and GSM, used in most of the world, including Europe, and by AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. If you have a Verizon or Sprint phone, though, check to see if it’s “global-ready,” which means it’s also equipped with a SIM for GSM. If you’re interested in more geeky detail, here’s a link:,2817,2407896,00.asp


OK…now that you’re back from reading (or skipping) that article, let’s look at your phone and see if you are good to go. If you have a GSM phone, it needs to work with the 900Mhz and 1800Mhz GSM bands used by European carriers. Most U.S. GSM phones can handle those as well as the U.S. 850Mhz and 1900Mhz. If the phone says “quad-band,” you’re good. If you’re not sure, though, check with your carrier or phone manufacturer.


If you have a “global-ready” phone, you’re good, even if your carrier uses CDMA, because it also has a quad-band GSM SIM card as well.



Most U.S. phones that you get from carriers are locked by “loyalty” software designed to keep you from switching the phone to a different carrier. From their point of view, they subsidized the phone to keep the cost low, and they want the chance to make money on your use of it. From your point of view, it’s your phone now, and you want the best rates.


Surprisingly, despite the high international rates they charge, they are generally willing to give you an “unlock code” so you can use the phone overseas on another network. Verizon will do it if you’ve been a customer in good standing for 60 days; AT&T says 90 days, but does not offer the unlock for iPhones that are still under contract (officially, but some long-standing customers have gotten unlock codes.)



If your carrier won’t unlock your current phone, or your phone is not compatible with European GSM, you can still buy a compatible unlocked phone. If you travel often, it’s not a terrible investment, and not a huge one. There are many suitable phones, new and used, on e-bay and other sites, and European phone stores usually have at least a few models under 40€--although the less expensive ones won’t be as “smart” as you may be used to. Another option: If you’re on your second smartphone you can probably use that—all carriers will unlock phones that are no longer under contract.




Not very—and usually you don’t have to. The sales staff at the kiosk or store will almost always do it for you. Usually, that’s all that’s needed to start making calls. The slightly trickier part is getting connected to data. It’s a good idea to ask the salesperson to do this, and to not leave the store until you see you can get e-mail or get on the web.


If you do it yourself, here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • If your phone is a CDMA/GSM phone, you’ll need to go to the Mobile Data/Mobile Network settings on the phone and select GSM or GSM/UMTS.
  • Under GSM Options, you’ll find Access Point Names. This is the key to the data; open it and use the menu to Add APN or Add New. Use the name you get from the carrier. You won’t have to worry about the many other settings on the tab—the defaults there are what you want.


There may be several different data plans available for you. If the store doesn’t set it up for you, you usually select by texting the name of the plan or some code to a text address specified by the company. You’ll find the information on the flyers in the store or on the website.



Yes, there are lions and tigers and bears lurking in the digital woods. Your new phone number may attract them. Example: my wife’s new Italian number got a text that she didn’t understand. She replied to it with a question. Turns out that subscribed her to a youth-oriented music site that promptly claimed 5€ from her balance. When we realized that money was disappearing fast and went back to TIM to ask why, they not only showed us the problem, but put us on a no-subscribe list. You might ask about that.


So: the big rule is, don’t respond to texts you don’t understand, and don’t ignore them either (they could be your warning about topping up!). Use Google’s Translate app on your phone. In the menu, there’s “SMS Translation.” Choose that, and Translate will open your text list and allow you to choose any text. Once chosen, it will show you the translation.


In the last part of this report, which will appear Nov. 10, we’ll cover some tricks for calling home cheaply from anywhere, and instructions for international calling to and from your phone! Use links below for the first parts of this report.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 4


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  • Pile of Phones

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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