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Phone Tips and Tricks when Relocating Abroad

by Sebastian Harrison of Cellular Abroad

If you are planning on moving abroad, if you are like most people, high on your list of priorities is likely to be getting some form of cellular service up and running as soon as possible once you hit the ground. Sure, these days, your current cell phone service will probably work in your new country of residence but after you get your first roaming bill, you probably will wish that it hadn’t.

Will my phone work overseas?

Many of today’s current models of phones do work internationally, particularly if your current provider uses GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). The vast majority of carriers worldwide, including all of Europe, use this system. Major exceptions are carriers in the United States and Canada as well as Japan and South Korea. Still, in the United States and Canada, some carriers, such as Rogers, AT&T as well as T-Mobile, do use GSM.

If you live anywhere in Europe and are planning on moving elsewhere in Europe, Africa or Asia (with the exceptions of Japan and Korea), your phone will work. If you are moving to the Americas, make sure your phone has the 1900 and 850 MHz bands. You may have to make sure with your carrier that there is a roaming agreement with a carrier in the new country where you will be living. There almost always is unless you are on a pay as you go system. Still, even if your phone will work, you will probably not want to use your current provider as it is not only expensive but you will want to have a local number. The best approach is to get a SIM card for the country where you will be going. Pay as you go SIM cards are easy to obtain and nowadays, the rates are about the same as with postpaid plans.

One very important aspect to remember is that you must get your phone “unlocked.” Many carriers, particularly in English speaking areas of the world such as the UK, Australia, NZ, Canada and the US, lock the handsets they sell to their own network. That means that if you try to put a different carrier’s SIM card in your phone, it will be rejected. There are plenty of online companies that can unlock your phone for you – usually by simply providing you, for a small fee, an unlock code. is one such company. Alternatively, many cell phone stores will provide that service.

If you are currently living in the US or Canada and are planning to move off the continent, the chances that your phone will work overseas are more slim. Rogers, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM while other carriers such as Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. The vast majority of overseas carriers (specifically with the exception of South Korean and Japanese carriers) use GSM. Now, here is the tricky part - not all GSM handsets work overseas yet some CDMA handsets do work overseas.

Most regions such as Europe, Asia and Africa use the 900 as well as the 1800 MHz GSM band. Some North American cell phones, particularly older and inexpensive models, only have the 1900 or 850/1900 MHz bands, which is also predominant in South America. Some CDMA handsets are actual dual mode phones and also have GSM capabilities for international use. In sum, for your phone to work in the vast majority of international destinations, it has to have both the 900 and 1800 GSM bands. If your phone does not have the appropriate bands, you may qualify for an upgrade through your carrier or you can purchase a new phone. If you have determined that your phone will work overseas, in almost all cases, AT&T and T-Mobile will unlock it. Just call them and ask them to provide you with the unlock code. Rogers on the other hand will not unlock it and you will have to resort to an online service source.

Where can I get a new SIM card?

Just like in Europe or North America, most countries offer an abundance of different carriers to choose from. While coverage may differ, the real difference is the rates as they vary considerably. The current trend in telecomms is that many new companies that cater specifically to the ethnic or travel market are popping up. This is great news as the rates have dropped considerably, especially for international calls. The quality and coverage of the service is not compromised as these carriers do not have their own towers – they simply lease pre-existing ones from the larger carriers. Lebara is one such company that has embraced this business model. They now have service in a handful of countries in Europe as well as in Australia. Therefore, it is important that you look at the rates that the carriers provide. For a list of all the carriers in the world, GSM World has a list at You can check out the coverage as well as the major carriers. Be advised that not all the carriers are listed, particularly the smaller ones catering to the ethnic and travel communities.

There are special online carriers specializing in pay as you go SIM cards. In the UK, is one and in the US, there is Alternatively, you can try Ebay or Amazon, or simply wait until you are at your destination to purchase a SIM card.

How much can I expect to pay for the service?

As previously mentioned, rates vary tremendously. When selecting a carrier, you may want to look at a few factors, depending on your needs. First, coverage of course is important. In most cases, there will be coverage and there will be coverage through multiple providers. Some carriers offer special rates – or even free calls - within their networks so if you are relocating with your family, this may be important. Other carriers, particularly those catering to the ethnic and travel communities, offer extremely low rates for making international calls – some as low as 3-4 pence per minute or about $0.05 in US Dollars. Lebara, Ortel and Lycatel are just a few of these carriers that specialize in low international rates.

While rates in most countries are free, this is not always the case. Most notably, in the US, Canada as well as China, you must pay for incoming calls.

What about my current phone number?

Most people don’t want to simply abandon their current cell phone number. Even those with plans of leaving without ever coming back may want to hold on to their current number – at least for a month or two while they are getting settled.

If you have a post-paid service, you will probably want to get rid of your plan. You can get a pay-as-you-go plan and still keep your number. In the US, will allow you to do this, as will Rogers in Canada. In Europe and elsewhere, virtually every carrier has a pay-as-you-go option. If however, you are still tied into your contract, you may want to call your carrier and ask if you can change your rate plan to a basic, inexpensive one. Make sure that they do not renew it or push back the termination date! If they insist on renewing, explain to them that you are moving out of the country. You may need to speak to a supervisor for this. Once you have this in place, you have two options. You can simply leave a message on your voicemail instructing people to call your new number, example, “This is Bob. I moved to Brazil. Here is my new phone number xxxxx. My current phone number will no longer be available in two months.”
If you decide to go this route, it is worthwhile purchasing your new SIM online before your actual departure as you will have your new phone number in advance and can easily give it out to friends and family.

The second option is that you bring the phone with the SIM card with you and roam, perhaps telling people to call you back on the new number. There are also dual SIM phones available, allowing you to retain your old SIM as well as your new one on one handset.

In summary, while it can be quite affordable to get cellular service for your new home country, you still need to consider which is the best solution for your unique needs. If your phone works and is unlocked, getting a new SIM card and a new provider is easy while ditching your old one may be more of a challenge. Of course, by the time you’re in Brazil, what your old carrier does may not be much of your concern!

Expat Health Insurance Partners


Cigna has worked in international health insurance for more than 30 years. Today, Cigna has over 71 million customer relationships around the world. Looking after them is an international workforce of 31,000 people, plus a network of over 1 million hospitals, physicians, clinics and health and wellness specialists worldwide, meaning you have easy access to treatment.

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