Cellphones on the road

Trip update. Last Sunday, we left Selkirk Shores State Park, and rode to Westcott Beach State Park and Sacket’s Harbor. We enjoyed a concert in the park in Sacket’s Harbor, toured the sites of the Battle of Sacket’s Harbor and celebrated my birthday with fresh lake-caught fish and chips. The rest of this week has seen us making our way to Watertown, Clayton, and Alexandria Bay. We crossed the border into Canada from Ogdensburg, and spent our first night in Canada in Mossburg. The next day we rode Highway 31 to Ottawa. Today, we are riding to Montréal, Québec.

Because I am supposed to be on holiday, I will cut back the amount that I report in the trip update, because many of you are following my travels on Facebook. I am taking pictures, but may not be able to upload them each week. Don’t worry; they will be there eventually.

Whether you live in the United States as I do, or any other country, the cell phone has become a ubiquitous tool, and an essential part of any business operation. Those of us who travel extensively become familiar very quickly with concepts like roaming, international dialing plans, and preferred rates for certain countries and area codes. The competition among the carriers is fearsome, and the offers change frequently. I have tried to explain the basic principles here, but if you read this in, say, a year from now, check everything, because what you can get for your money will be different.

Probably one of the most difficult things to sort out, especially if you have a CDMA cell phone from an American carrier, is what to do when you leave the country.

When travelling internationally, one needs to be aware of two things. First, cell phones may be locked or unlocked. A locked phone will only work with the SIM card of the telephone carrier (US Cellular, AT&T, Wind, Telus, etc.). An unlocked phone will work with any SIM card. Switching carriers is as easy (physically) as pulling out one SIM card and inserting another. The SIM cards are sold by the telephone carriers, and they enable the telephone to operate normally in the countries where the carrier is active.

When travelling abroad with an unlocked phone, one would need to contact a carrier in the new country (e.g., Rogers or Telus here in Canada), and sign up for a phone and data plan. A typical package would get you 200-500 minutes (unlimited nights and weekends) of voice, 200 MB of data and unlimited texting for USD55 or so. For a small additional fee, one can have waived long-distance rates to certain countries, or a very cheap rate to countries you would need to call frequently.

Second, a locked phone may also be blocked by the manufacturer at the request of the phone carrier that sold you the phone. For example, Samsung sells its Galaxy S4 with the US Cellular logo on it, and blocks the phone from unlocking. Only US Cellular can unlock the phone. So if one does not have it unlocked before leaving the carrier’s territory, one may be stuck with no data service in the foreign country and expensive voice rates (e.g. USD3.00/day and 99 cents/minute).

Of course, buying a phone in the foreign country is an option, but generally it is not cost effective. You would have to live abroad for a long time to make it worth it, compared with the cost of buying a foreign plan for your own phone.

Some carriers offer international plans for occasional travel, but sometimes even the carrier’s personnel are not aware of them, or know how to set them up.

If you are planning to travel abroad, I would be sure to contact your carrier and make sure that:

  1. You own your phone outright (not encumbered by some contract terms, as when you got the phone “for free”);
  2. Your phone is unlocked, so you can swap out the SIM card when you go abroad;
  3. You are prepared to continue paying for your service in the home country while you are away. Otherwise, your phone number may be given away, and your SIM card from the home carrier won’t work when you get back;
  4. You have a plan for notifying your clients, friends, family, etc. that you will have a different phone number while travelling.

I hope you find this helpful. There are as many ways to get it wrong as there are phone carriers, and the rules are constantly shifting as each carrier keeps trying to maintain its customer base (willingly or not). You may have had different experiences; please share them.

Next week, another sea story. While I am camping and bike-touring in Eastern Canada, I may miss a post on a given Saturday. If that happens, I will post as soon as I get back to the internet.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.