One of the biggest issues for expats is staying connected with friends and family in both their home and new countries. I just came back from a month-long visit to the US, and I have some good news for cell phone users. Whether your preferred phone is smart or dumb, it’s become super easy to use the same device as you go from country to country — without paying extortionate roaming charges!
The trick is to start with an unlocked phone. (Apple users, you’ll need to jailbreak your phone if you want to use it this way.)
If you’re locked into a contract, you may be stuck for a while, but once your contract is up your carrier should provide you the code to unlock the phone. Or, you can simply buy a new one that’s unlocked from the get-go. To find a phone that will work well in most countries, look for a quad band phone with GSM.
You can find plenty at Amazon or Ebay. If an Android smart phone is your style, check out the new Nexus 5 from Google.
Now that you’ve got an unlocked phone, you’re ready to roll.
In the US
Waltz yourself into a T-Mobile store or go to their website. T-Mobile is the easiest provider to work with. They’ll give you a prepaid plan, no contract required. All you need to do is buy a SIM card (about $10 as of this writing). If you already have a number, they’ll transfer it for you.
Pick the plan that works for you now, because you can easily change it online later. You’ll have more choices with a smart phone than with a dumb phone, as they seem to be moving away from providing any service that doesn’t include a data plan.
In your Destination Country
On arrival in your new country, go to the mobile phone store of your choice and tell them you want service for a phone you already own. They’ll sell you a SIM card and get you set up with a local number. In most countries you’ll be able to get a local, prepaid plan so you only pay for what you use.
I spend about $5/month for voice and text, and I also have a $15/month unlimited data plan here in Panama. If I talk or text more, I just add minutes.
Why Not Use Roaming? Isn’t that Easier?
Most providers in your home country will let you make and receive calls when you’re abroad. The prices, though, can quickly chew through your entire budget. (The one possible exception in the US is T-Mobile, which has just introduced a very reasonable international plan.)
However, if you’re roaming in Panama and you want to call a local Panama number, you’ll generally be billed the international rate (you’re calling from a US number after all), plus the roaming fees. And local people will have to pay for a US call if they want to talk to you. It’s not very practical if you’re living in the country.
Traveling Back and Forth
A few days before I leave Panama to go back to the US, I log into my T-Mobile account online and add money to my account. (It takes them a day or two to credit it.)
On arrival, I open up the back of my phone and swap SIM cards. I turn the phone back on, and — BINGO! — my US number is active and working again. When I return to Panama, I reverse the process.
One Word of Caution
Some time between October, 2012, when I was in New England for a couple weeks, and July, 2013 when I flew to Orlando, T-Mobile changed their policies about keeping accounts and phone numbers active. As of this writing, to keep your phone number with a T-Mobile prepaid plan, you must add money to the account at least once every 90 days.
When I arrived in July, my account had been deactivated and I had lost the cell number I’d been using for about 12 years. I had to buy a new SIM card and get a new number.
If you don’t care about keeping your number, don’t worry about it. If you want to keep it, though, make sure you log onto your account and put in a minimal amount to keep your number active.