Unlocked and loaded: International roaming adventures with a GSM smart phone and pay-as-you-go SIM

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By Francis Moran

Let me tell you about my amazing adventures last week with an unlocked GSM smart phone loaded with a pay-as-you-go SIM.

As anyone who has travelled with a cell phone, Blackberry or smart phone can testify, using a mobile device outside your home market can be a financially harrowing experience. Typical charges I’ve incurred for using my Treo in the U.S. or abroad have been $1/minute for a local call and $3/minute for a call back home. Even if I carefully manage my calls, there’s still data usage that can be charged at as high as $10/megabit.

Or I could do what countless numbers of travellers are now doing — get my phone unlocked and use a country-specific SIM, the subscriber information module that tells the network everything it needs to know to route calls and data to and from the device.

Unlocking your phone means reprogramming it so it can operate on networks other than the one to which you are chained. (Believe me, I am using the term “chained” advisedly here!) In my case, I had the job done by a very professional crew at a kiosk in the Prudential Center in Boston, where I also picked up loads of advice about the best SIMs to use. Your carrier might agree to unlock your phone but will require you to send it to them and pay them hundreds of dollars for the privilege. The guys at Warlox Wireless did it for $50 in less than 20 minutes.

Next, I had to acquire a SIM that would work where I was going — in this case, the U.K. — and that would offer me low rates on local usage, long distance calls back home and data, since I get my emails to my phone and use it for web browsing. A bit of research pointed me to BritishSIMS.com, where, for $20, I bought a SIM on the T-Mobile network. It arrived by post a few days later.

The only hiccup in my fine planning was that the SIM was a pay-as-you-go model and, since it was for the U.K., I lacked the U.K. address necessary to use T-Mobile’s web interface to register my SIM and buy an allowance for the SIM; that had to wait until I got to Britain. First order of business upon clearing Her Majesty’s Customs in Glasgow a week ago Sunday was to get my usual excellent cup of coffee from the Nero’s counter just outside arrivals; second order of business was to top up my SIM at the WH Smith’s across the arrivals hall. That was as easy as handing over my credit card and the credit-card-like E-Top Up Card that came with the SIM and, £20 later, I was unlocked and loaded.

Next, I had to call T-Mobile’s customer service to get a data plan and long-distance bundle added to the basic SIM service. I can’t pretend that was fun. Like any telephone company customer service experience, it was about as pleasant as anaesthesia-free dental surgery. Fortunately, I knew exactly what I was looking for and so was able to tell the pleasant-but-thoroughly-unhelpful young man what he needed to do. When he was finished, I had limitless data use for £1/day and 50 minutes worth of calls back to Canada or the U.S. for £2, or 4p/minute. Wow!

I used my phone all week just as I would have back home — incoming and outgoing calls, some of them lengthy long-distance chats; extensive emailing, the occasional web search (especially useful for Google mapping my way around London, Edinburgh and Glasgow and checking flight schedules) and lots of texting.

Bottom line: Unlike my last week-long visit, when my phone saw much less use and cost me in excess of $150 in roaming charges, I left the U.K. with more than half my £20 allowance intact and available for my next trip over.


One Comment »
  • International SIM Card

    December 10, 2010 12:52 am

    International roaming is main concern for any international visitors. People don’t like to spend money on unused things like roaming. Really, this also makes me down when I found that I am paying many digits without using them.
    Finally, we should say thanks to many networks that care about our money and us. Really, I got my pocket back to be full. You can also have options like international SIM Card, local SIM card or cell phone rental.

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