Communication Issues

What’s the best way to phone home, or anywhere, from Outer Space A?  Ever changing mobile plans, technology, and system compatibility issues can make this simple question very complicated to answer! However, Lady Cat 6 is about to attempt to provide some insight – you’re welcome!

Before getting started with possibilities to compare, one option I would NOT consider is renting a special phone to use overseas. If you are thinking about doing this, be sure to check with your own carrier, and price the options listed below before making any commitment. Phone rental is almost never a good bargain.

All right…let’s begin…

When traveling abroad, you have four basic options: Use your own phone with your US carrier, use your own (unlocked) phone with a local SIM chip, purchase a cheap (unlocked) phone and local SIM chip, or use one of the Wi-Fi options such as Facetime or Skype, from either your phone or other mobile device.

If considering using your own phone, you first need to determine whether it is compatible with the system of the areas you will be visiting. Most of the world uses the GSM system; some US carriers (especially for older, “dumb” phones) – Verizon, Sprint, and US Cellular – and some Asian/African countries use CDMA. If your phone is not compatible with the system, it will not work on the cellular network. You can find more information about network/phone types here: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2407896,00.asp  

We ran into problems while visiting Japan last year because our phone was incompatible with the CDMA system there. We ended up just making Wi-Fi calls from our room or coffee shop or wherever. It was a little clunky, but it worked.

Once you determine compatibility, you will need to decide whether to use your US carrier or purchase a local SIM chip when you arrive.  Price can be an issue if using your home carrier. Some have “special” overseas supplemental plans, but these can be quite expensive. We happen to have T-Mobile as our US carrier, and when we travel, unlimited text and data are free, and calls are 20 cents per minute in about 150 countries – no other additional charges. None of our calls are very long, so we just keep on using our phone with our US carrier. Check with your carrier for their plans – and be very careful about data! Those costs can add up quick! Normally we use our phone for calling, email and navigation, and save data-intensive functions for our tablet with our hotel or other Wi-Fi.

Before T-Mobile’s plan, we used to purchase local, pre-paid SIM chips when we traveled. We did not have a smart phone at the time, so it was pretty simple to just buy the chip (about 10 euro, with 5 euro of time included) and recharge with funds as we went along. The only glitch in that system was that, since we were not (and still are not!) European Union (EU) residents, it was impossible to recharge the chip when outside the country we purchased in. We had to be careful to load it up before we left the country to ensure we had sufficient funds to make our phone calls. The other option would be to just buy a new chip wherever we were when we ran out of time/money.

Pre-paid chips usually expire after 6 months if not used or recharged. We had friends who visited Italy (where our chip was purchased) on the opposite season from us (Fall, VS Spring), so for years we took turns recharging each other’s phone chips. We managed to keep the same Italian mobile number for years!

Please note that, especially if you have an older phone, you may need to get your phone “unlocked” by your US carrier in order for another SIM chip to work. This usually involves contacting your carrier and getting a code that you enter into your phone to open it up to other SIMs. The unlocking procedure can – by design, I believe – be quite intimidating!

If you don’t want to mess with your US phone, you can purchase a cheap dumb phone, or even a smart phone, from almost any phone store (or online before you depart). At a phone store, it will usually come with a pre-paid SIM chip. If you choose this option, you just need to recharge your SIM chip as funds run low, as noted above.

Finally, with the prevalence of Wi-Fi today, it is possible to ditch the phone entirely and just use applications like Skype, Facetime, or Google to make calls. This option is probably the least expensive for outgoing calls – essentially free – but if someone needed to contact you, it could be problematic.

Everyone’s needs are different when orbiting outer space a, so it’s important to find the best phone fit for you. We like sticking with our US carrier because the rates are reasonable, there are no extra costs except the per-minute charge for calls, and we don’t have to do anything special – just use our phones like always. We also like this option because family and friends don’t have to keep track of any other phone numbers in case they need to reach us. We have some elderly relatives, so sticking with our carrier and number really simplifies contact should it be necessary.

 What works for you might be different. Explore the options and determine what’s best, and then you will be able to phone home from wherever in the space a universe you happen to find yourself!

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