First, I will make a disclaimer that I am going to paint in some broad strokes in this article. I’m sure there’s hundreds of articles out there on international cell phone usage, so I am going to boil it down to perhaps an overly simplified view. But hey, I’m all about keeping it simple.
Option 1: Unlocked GSM-Network Phone. Critical Point #1, a GSM phone is one that uses a SIM card, and usually runs on AT&T or T-Mobile. Phones that run on Sprint or Verizon are NOT GSM phones. Critical Point #2, the phone must be “unlocked”, which means it is not locked to a specific phone carrier. The vast majority of phones in the U.S. ARE locked, so if you haven’t specifically bought an unlocked phone or unlocked it yourself, then chances are it will be locked to your network. (A good tip-off that your phone is locked is that it has a carrier logo on it such as AT&T, Cricket, T-Mobile, etc.)
With Option 1, if you meet the above criteria, you can then purchase a local SIM card when you get to the country you are visiting. They usually run $10-$20 for a SIM card that includes a baseline of minutes. In most countries these are available in mobile phone shops, convenient stores, or gas stations. If you are antsy you can usually buy them at the airport, but you will pay a premium price.
Option 2: For those of you on Verizon, bring your Verizon phone with you. Call ahead and purchase an international roaming package for your destination. You can pay a flat rate per minute for voice and text, (up to $3.00 / minute voice and $.50 for a text) or purchase their $4.99 global plan for a discounted minute rate. For emergency-use only, these rates are relatively reasonable. As long as your phone is “global capable”, coverage is available in most populated regions of the world. (They have a few phones that DO NOT run on the global GSM networks, so those will not be able to get any connection.) Keep in mind, data speed will be very slow compared to what you are used to, so only expect to use the phone for voice, SMS, and occasional data if absolutely necessary. I have heard good success stories with using Verizon for this– don’t forget to call ahead and make arrangements before you travel.
We all know that Option #2 is lacking a certain je ne sais qua, and to me seems like cheating. If you fancy yourself a world globe trotter, then I recommend Option 1. It’s more fun to have a collection of SIMs from all over the world.